If you had to ask a relevant technical question to a colleague who you had never spoken to, how comfortable would you feel? What about presenting or discussing information with a group of people? What thoughts and feelings would go through your head? Professional communities and companies with strong knowledge sharing cultures can positively influence these kinds of interactions.
What kind of culture do you currently find yourself in?
This article is broken into two parts and focuses on why knowledge sharing in a technical collective is important, and how to facilitate it. Many of the examples come from a web development background, but everything has been generalized to show how it can be useful in many different contexts.
Part 1: Why Share Knowledge?
Knowledge sharing is a powerful tool that can help change the learning culture, and culture as a whole, within any collective of people. At REDspace, we use weekly Tech Shares, internal Slack channels, intermittent Lunch and Learns, small team level presentations, and one-on-one check-ins to present, discuss, and grow as individuals and as a company. This type of culture enables our entire team to stay at the forefront of technologies and trends in order to best serve our clients. Regular knowledge sharing has incredible benefits:
- Provides important and relevant information in a structured format
- Promotes self-Learning
- Exposes general expertise and unique skill sets
- Encourages question asking and open communication
Let’s dive into these benefits and examine the ways in which you can help build a knowledge sharing culture in whatever professional community you work in.
It’s About the Information
At its core, the point of knowledge sharing is to convey information. This is the focus of Tech Share, our weekly knowledge sharing session. We aim to provide a space where developers can present and discuss a wide range of topics. These cover everything from best practices to specific language frameworks. Topics we’ve focused on in the past include:
- Internal company procedures
- Industry trends
- Lessons learned
- Popular frameworks or tools
- Coding patterns and best practices
- Programming language specifics
To learn new things on your own you need motivation. Regular knowledge sharing provides a space where people can discuss their interests, generate new ideas, and troubleshoot possible learning paths. Building a knowledge sharing culture also helps those within it to foster a growth mindset. This is the concept that intelligence is not fixed, and by learning you can grow to achieve anything. In any fast paced professional field, having people who believe they can rise to meet any challenge is an important asset to have.
Exposing General Expertise and Unique Skill Sets
Speaking of self-learning, it’s invaluable to know who knows what in a company. People aren’t always open about their secondary skill sets. You might have someone who’s done X forever, so you assume that’s all they know. All the while, they’ve been actively learning and developing their skills in Y. Knowledge sharing provides a space for people to present and discuss topics which cover many different domains. This often reveals skills or interests that generally aren’t talked about, and also reaffirms who your experts are. This is particularly important in a larger company like REDspace. We have many diverse projects, with unique asks, so a wide knowledge base is critical. A community that shares knowledge regularly knows the strengths of those in it and, as a result, can better serve their customers.
Encouraging Question Asking and Open Discussion
Asking a question can be extremely intimidating. What can make it worse is not knowing who to ask or how they will respond. There’s nothing that hinders productivity more than being stuck on a problem without a support network. Knowledge sharing encourages question asking and open discussion by reinforcing it through regularly scheduled and structured events. That’s the primary focus. Actual project tasks have deadlines and pressure. The assumed expectation is often that the knowledge needed to complete the task should already be there, you just have to sit down and get it done. Like any new skill, question asking and discussion must be practiced often in order to feel comfortable. Regular knowledge sharing provides that opportunity and leads to the completion of projects as teams and not singular units.
Part 2: How do I do it?
Enough with the why it’s so important. Though no doubt the above points will be helpful to you if you ever end up trying to create or grow knowledge sharing practices in your own professional collective. Below are some actionable steps you can take to make this happen.
It Grows From the Top Down
Typically companies don’t let you take as much time out of your day as you want to learn about and discuss cool things. If your current workspace contributes little or no time to knowledge sharing and self-learning, the best way to get started is by seeking support from higher up. Role models are critical to building a knowledge sharing culture. If senior employees aren’t engaged in it, then why would the people they manage and mentor be? It could be as simple as asking for a small amount of time each month to meet with some fellow co-workers to present or discuss important topics or concepts in your field. What you do needs to provide value for it to appear viable, so ensure that you keep track of what was discussed and how it benefited the group. In general:
- Focus on the value the session provides to the group
- Choose relevant and interesting topics which benefit all participants
- Report back on how it went, what could change, and what the plan is for the future
- Connect information and concepts presented to current projects and company initiatives
The goal is that by engaging and gaining the buy in of senior employees, you maximize your chances of establishing a culture and sustaining it.
It might take some time for things to get going so start small and build where you can. If you’re having trouble getting buy-in or getting allotted work time, then try organizing something at lunch or after work. It can be quick and simple, but the goal should be the same. Make sure to document any session you participate in and focus on the benefits it had to the group as a whole. Some specific areas to focus on when considering the structure and the impact of a particular method:
- Does the format I’ve chosen give adequate time to present and discuss the identified topic?
- Is the topic relevant to the group as a whole?
- Will each person benefit in learning about or discussing the topic?
- How much did each member of the group contribute?
- Are there ways to further engage members of the group in future sessions?
- Did the presentation convey the required information and did everyone understand it?
You can rate each point using the following scale, as well as adding what could be done differently next time. You could also use your own rating system:
- 1 — Poorly
- 2 — Satisfactory
- 3 — Well
Knowledge Sharing Methods
Below are just a few methods we’ve used, as well as some others which could be useful in different contexts:
- Time: 5 Minutes
- Format: A small group of people, no more than five, get together with a very quick resource or tip they discovered. The goal is to demo how the tool helps them in under a minute. For instance, let’s say you have a team of employees who all use programming language X. An example of one presentation could be a website that has interactive and useful documentation for a particular aspect of this language.
- Suggestions: Keep things concise. The aim should be to demonstrate how it works and point people in the right direction if they’re interested in using it.
- Time: 30 Minutes
- Format: Two presenters each have 15 minutes to discuss relevant topics giving enough time for questions and discussion. The goal should be to answer a simple what, why, and how. This can be helped by specifically outlining the objectives of the presentation before you get started. An example could be ‘In this particular language we have a concept called Z, by the end of this presentation we will have outlined two tools which can help you do Z in half the time’.
- Suggestions: Document each presentation, either by recording a video, or by providing a useful summary and any slides or resources the presenter may have arranged. As mentioned above, always have a goal our outline to keep the session focused and on point. A good breakdown for keeping on time in a fifteen minute presentation is two minutes for setup and transition, three minutes for discussion, and ten minutes for the actual content. Any further discussion can happen after the presentation is complete through smaller conversations.
Lunch and Learn
- Time: 60 Minutes
- Format: This is a longer style of presentation aimed at giving a much broader overview of information. Typically with this format you have a lot more flexibility in the level of engagement you can elicit from your group. In this case we just have one presenter. Outlines and objectives are even more critical in this case, as with longer presentations questions and answers can compound as the group has more time to digest information about the topic being presented. To maintain engagement, it’s also important to add an aspect of interaction with these lengths of presentations. They should be more practical in their approach and give hands on skills. Present, then give a chance for others to attempt a portion of it, where feedback can be provided right in the session.
- Suggestions: Having clear goals and timelines for each part of the presentation will be critical to keeping everything flowing smoothly and ensuring all the information is covered.
Knowledge Sharing Forum
- Time: Variable
- Format: An internal method of communicating with other people in your community about interesting and relevant information. We use Slack, but it could be another instant messaging app, or even email. Whatever the medium, it should provide a quick, easy, and effective way to communicate and discuss the chosen topics.
- Suggestions: Regularly look back on topics or information posted in the forum, as this can often indicate broader topics which might work well as a longer presentations down the line. Keep an eye on the types of conversations had. Ensure that people are approaching discussion and all questions with empathy, and a willingness to help. If someone is ever downplaying questions or targeting individuals with particular skill sets, it could be useful to bring that up with the person in question
- Time: Variable
- Format: A well known knowledge sharing technique for software developers. Given a chosen topic or task, one person sits beside another at their computer; the person typing and working should be the one who is learning or completing the task, while the person beside them is providing instructions and insight.
- Suggestions: The instructor should never touch the learners keyboard. This immediately interrupts the process and the learner will tend to stop asking questions. This also reinforces the belief that the knowledge required for a task is inherent. If they are unable to complete something which the instructor has outlined, then they should instruct them on how to get there, or repeat information. Don’t give answers, give objectives through probing questions. Giving answers defeats the purpose of pair programming, and learning in general. If the goal is to complete task A by implementing tool B, then an initial objective might be, ‘We’re going to install tool B, where do you think we might find that?’, instead of `Go to this website and select these options to install tool B’. While it may sound patronizing at first ,the work will inevitably become more challenging and this process should remain unchanged. It’s important to teach the process, not just the solution.
Sharing in the Global Community
The community through which you share knowledge doesn’t just have to be those you work with. Much can be gained by practicing these same methods with people from other groups both online and offline. The Well Red blog is one of our ways of connecting with the external community. We’ll learn, explore, present, discuss, and question information relevant to our field with the hope of helping and inspiring others who share the same passion as us.
Whether you’re an entry level employee or the president of a company, there is always something you can do to help grow the knowledge sharing culture within your current professional collective. Start small, choose interesting and relevant topics, document the value, seek the buy-in of senior employees, and continue to attempt new things! Given a bit of time and effort, you’ll start to see the change from an open and active knowledge sharing culture.
Follow our knowledge and idea sharing culture with Tech Share — a Well Red series brought to you by REDspace’s experts. redspace.com