HBR: Is Your Company Encouraging Employees to Share What They Know?

HBR: Is Your Company Encouraging Employees to Share What They Know?


Many of the things we need to know to be successful – to innovate, collaborate, solve problems, and identify new opportunities – aren’t learned simply through schooling, training, or personal experience. Especially for today’s knowledge-based work, much of what we need to know we learn from others’ experiences, through what’s called vicarious learning.

Organizations know this learning is important, which is why they invest significant resources in handbooks, protocols, formal mentoring programs, and knowledge management systems to share employees’ experiences. Yet analyst estimates suggest that the companies in the Fortune 500 still lose a combined $31.5 billion per year from employees failing to share knowledge effectively. By trying to recreate the wheel, repeating others’ mistakes, or wasting time searching for specialized information or expertise, employees incur productivity costs and opportunity costs for the organization. Because while formal systems might help communicate established best practices (the what), they often don’t explain how an individual should apply them to their own work. As a manager for Bain & Co. summarized in Nancy Dixon’s book Common Knowledge, this approach to knowledge management offers only “a picture of a cake without giving out the recipe.”

As a result, employees rely on informal learning practices, such as shadowing or observing senior colleagues to “watch and learn” what they need to know. For instance, in a study of mobile phone manufacturing lines in China, Harvard Business School’s Ethan Bernstein discovered that line workers often showed “tips and tricks” that others could copy in order to assemble phones more effectively than could be done using the official methods. (They were especially more likely to share these informal lessons when they weren’t worried about over-scrutiny from managers.)

While this informal (and intuitive) approach can be effective, it is no longer reasonable to expect employees to simply “watch and learn” in many workplaces. Organizations across a variety of industries are moving away from work that is easily observed and replicated to work that is more nuanced, specialized, and adaptive. More and more of today’s work is knowledge-based and done by people who are geographically dispersed. And success in this work requires being able to adapt knowledge to complex, changing environments. Yet our approach to vicarious learning has not kept pace; our ways of learning from others often assume that work is still watchable and that unobtrusively imitating others is enough.

Coactive vicarious learning

My research has explored an alternative to this “watch and learn” approach. Rather than one person shouldering the burden of absorbing knowledge by passively observing others, I posit that people can more effectively learn through collaborative, two-way interactions with others at work. Through coactive vicarious learning, the person learning and the person sharing knowledge work together to construct an understanding of an experience, which better equips the learner to apply it in their own work.

Instead of simply relying on visible results, interactive conversation and questioning allows the learner to understand the underlying reasons behind someone else’s actions, making it easier to adapt what’s learned to a new situation or task. For example, one study found that pharmaceutical development teams were better able to translate and learn from another team’s past experience when they invited members of the other team — the “sharers” of knowledge — to actively participate in their discussion and problem-solving (vs. a “learner” team simply identifying the “sharer” team’s knowledge and then trying to replicate it on their own).

Coactive vicarious learning breaks down the one-way nature of observational learning, so both parties — not just the observer — can benefit. The learner’s questions and reactions can lead the sharer to rethink an assumption or understand an experience in a new way. It can even prompt a role reversal, where the learner contributes unique experience or knowledge that might help the sharer learn. In studies of MBA consulting project teams, I’ve found that when individuals engage in this more reciprocal vicarious learning, sharing past experiences and expertise with each other in turn (vs. only an expert sharing with a novice), they consistently receive higher client ratings on their performance.

Putting it into practice

While many teams probably engage in some degree of interactive learning already, there are several key steps leaders can take to help institutionalize coactive vicarious learning at work, so that people don’t fall back solely on formal learning methods.

Leaders tend to place a disproportionate emphasis on tools like training materials or knowledge portals partly because they are easier to manage and control. It is less clear how to manage amorphous, interactive learning processes; you can’t simply force coworkers to interact and share experiences. However, more often than not, leaders simply need to remove obstacles that discourage people from seeking or sharing knowledge and learning vicariously. They can create a structure that allows these interactions to take place organically by focusing on three steps:


Read the full article on Harvard Business Review.