Based on positive reviews from two of my colleagues (David and Mike), I read Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. I would recommend this book to anyone; it's clearly written, thought-provoking, enjoyable to read, and its concepts stayed with me and changed my perspective about my daily choices. The section of the book that particularly struck me with relevance to my work was Chapter 4, The Cost of Social Norms. This chapter gave me a new way to frame the struggle that I see constantly within my clients' organizations – social norms versus market norms.
Social norms are "behavioural expectations and cues within a society or group. They have been defined as 'the rules that a group uses for appropriate and inappropriate values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.'" (source: Wikipedia) and Ariely uses these terms to describe them:
Market norms are the realm of payments and agreed-upon exchanges. Ariely characterized them with these words:
What I see just about 100% of the time, in the small- to mid-size organizations with which I work, is that when a Knowledge Management initiative is kicked off, it is not adopted by the majority of the organization because there is no consideration given to market norms, and there is an implicit reliance on social norms to move the project forward. Let me explain:
A KM initiative typically comes as an edict from a high level, and/or a KM-software solution is advocated by an evangelist in the IT department. Hundreds of internal and consulting hours are spent getting the system up and running, and finally it is released with (varying degrees of) fanfare and celebration. Six months to a year after the release, there is a handful of dedicated, passionate users of the system (often the ones who were involved in getting it up and running in the first place). The rest of the employees are about as willing to use the new system as a cat is to be walked on a leash.
The small handful is committed to KM and to the new system because they believe in it, they've proven it can make their work lives better, they grasp the future vision, and they know it's the right thing to do. They enjoy building it up, and they embrace the additional work (which amounts to a second full-time job for some) because of social norms.
The rest of the workforce sees nothing in it for them, and from a market perspective, rightly so – at the outset, it adds work rather than lightening the load. They need to invest time learning the system and the standards, which takes away from the immediate demands they're being paid to satisfy, and on which their review is based. And perhaps most coldly market-based of all, if they share their work product and spread their knowledge around, they risk decreasing their own value while giving their internal competition a leg up.
I have not worked with a firm which employs market norms to ensure that knowledge management initiatives are carried out, but in talking to people who have, I get the sense that a comparison of the two systems looks like this:
From what I've observed in more than 20 implementations of knowledge-management systems, tacit reliance on social norms (without actual encouragement and development of those norms) is not sustainable and does not lead to success.
The market-norms system, where policies are in place and contribution to the knowledge-management system is evaluated in the annual review process, has drawbacks – it can create an atmosphere where individuals are less willing to help others, and where they may try to game the system (Ariely's Chapters 11 and 12 posit that humans have a natural inclination to cheat a little bit). The quality of the contribution may be lower. But when you consider the difficulty of getting everyone in an organization to contribute to the KM system for the sheer love of it, the market-norms system seems like a less painful route to achieving the desired effect.
One of the things I appreciated most about Ariely's book was that he proposed solutions at the end of every chapter, ranging from how to overcome our individual irrationalities which can lead to bad decisions, to how to mitigate global-scale problems. I'd like to offer a few suggestions for either the social-norm-driven environment or the market-norm-driven environment.
For those firms relying on social norms to get the knowledge management work done, consider introducing some market forces. Let contributors charge their time to a dedicated billing code for KM. Remove other responsibilities and let knowledge management be a focus, or hire a support team whose sole job it is to assist the "do-ers". Make KM part of the review process. Put commitment to KM in their job description and/or publish a policy that everyone must sign.
And for those firms relying on market norms, why not introduce a little excitement and fun? Give gifts to the highest or best contributors, include a little verbal recognition at the all-hands meeting… or at that meeting, talk about the real, economic impact the KM initiative has had on the organization. In fact, you could put a dashboard right on the central page of the KM system to show contributions by contributor and/or by department, and trends over time; this would simultaneously provide visibility into the group effort, and potentially put the fire under low-performers to boost their contributions.
My main suggestion is: if you're in charge of KM at your organization, read Predictably Irrational (at least Chapter 4) and consider which norms currently are at work in your environment. Are they enough to ensure success?
My thanks to Joely Wiggin for the comparison graphic!