On November 15, 1532, 168 exhausted and terrified Spanish conquistadors arrive in Peru. Waiting for them are 80,000 Inca troops. Yet, within 24 hours, more than 7,000 Inca warriors lie slaughtered; the Emperor himself is captured and put in chains.

How could that be? The answer is acting on knowledge from an expedition that happened 12 years earlier against the Aztec empire. Hernan Cortes had faced similarly overwhelming odds against the massive army of the Aztec empire — whom he managed to defeat. He later published a series of popular handbooks which explained the tactics he had used to defeat the Aztec army. The Spaniards that arrived in Peru had read the handbooks and discussed the tactics. The Incas hadn’t — they simply didn’t have a written form of language. They were doomed to repeat the same mistakes since they had no way to share knowledge.

For the lack of an ability to share knowledge, an empire was lost.

Fast forward to the 21st century, when people have everything they need to share knowledge. Yet, half of all knowledge management programs fail in the first year, and three-quarters fail in the first three years? Most knowledge management initiatives don’t stick because we rely on technology alone, rather than changing behaviors. Knowledge sharing sticks when it becomes an integral part of how we do our jobs.

Enter the science of psychology. Dr. BJ Fogg, Stanford University, created a compelling formula for changing behavior. It divides behavioral changes into three areas: motivation, ability, and trigger. In the context of knowledge sharing, motivation is all about the team understanding the benefits of the practices and receiving the right incentives (performance measures, recognition, rewards). Ability is whether the team can find, enhance and author knowledge when they need to (without unreasonable effort). The trigger is all about making sure that the team uses knowledge when the need arises – that knowledge sharing is part of how team members do their work every day.

For the most part, knowledge management practitioners have focused on only one of these three areas.

  • Motivation – communities of practice, interest groups, etc.
  • Ability – tool and processes
  • Trigger – process-oriented knowledge practices

The result is that few organizations understand that they have to have all three to effectively change behavior. Organizations try to address only one, with very mixed results.

Some focus on motivation.

  • Building short-term reward systems that work for a while
  • Creating buzz through elaborate launch events
  • Putting resources into one-time training

Others focus on ability: Investing thousands or millions of dollars in a tool. Still others focus on the trigger: creating elaborate workflows that don’t make sense when they are put in front of the team

Results of these efforts are often inconsistent. Changing behavior requires effort in all three areas, together. You need to understand what triggers the need for knowledge, how it is captured, who improves it, and how it becomes part of what we do every day. Practices help reinforce the trigger. Software gives your team the tools they need to effectively share knowledge. Rewards, performance measures and gamification can help the team understand why sharing knowledge is important.

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