In the mid-1990s, I lived and worked in Berlin, Germany, less than 10 years after the wall came down. It was an amazing time to be in one of the most interesting cities in the world. I had to adapt to a lot of different social norms, which required some behavior rework!

One behavior that I remember best was to cross streets only designated crosswalks. I had lived most of my life in or near a university. In the United States, students dart across streets (even busy ones) at any angle and location. In Berlin, I tried this approach and was stopped short by an elderly woman crying out – “don’t cross, children are watching!” It seemed that every time I tried to cross a street anywhere but the crosswalk, I would hear someone chastise me (I don’t think it was the same woman, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t imagining it). After a few bouts of public humiliation, I stopped trying to cross anywhere but the crosswalk.

This kind of social pressure is a very effective trigger to change behavior. In effect, a trigger is a prompt for behavior. Even if you already are motivated to share your knowledge and you have the ability to share it, you still need a prompt to do so. A behavioral trigger is a like a cue in acting. A performer waits on another actor to finish a line or complete an action (or for a motion from the director) to start her performance. Without a trigger, everyone on stage keeps silent, waiting for their cue.

Dr. BJ Fogg says that you have to have three things to make an effective trigger. The first is a combination of all three behavior changers – motivation, ability and trigger. The second is that the trigger has to be noticeable (it can’t be too subtle). The third is that the trigger needs to happen when the action is required.

What does it mean to have an effective trigger for knowledge sharing? There are two types of triggers that will help your team incorporate knowledge sharing into what they do every day.

External – In most cases, the need for knowledge comes from outside you. You get a new project that is totally unlike what you have done before. You get a question from a customer or colleague that you haven’t answered in a while (or never answered). This new project or question is your cue. Now, you need to know what to do.

  • Effective training that shows you how and why to share knowledge starts to build that trigger. You understand what you need to do to find, enhance or share knowledge. You also know what prompts that search and sharing.
  • Well-documented workflows that show when you should search, when you should enhance someone else’s knowledge and when you should contribute your own.
  • Consistent communication about sharing knowledge will reinforce when and how to share knowledge.

All three of these help you understand what to do when you come across a trigger. Ideally, a trigger built into your knowledge tool would suggest that you try searching the knowledge repository if you haven’t already done so.

Internal – One of the best triggers for sharing knowledge doesn’t have to do with the initial need for knowledge. It is a prompt from a colleague inside the team, specifically from long-tenured, very knowledgeable team members. Team members with a lot of institutional memory and knowledge tend to be interrupted frequently. Putting their knowledge in an easily findable place promises to reduce these interruptions (because requests for their knowledge can go to the repository). It often takes the team a while to get used to not asking their internal experts for help, so these experts need a cue for their colleagues. Just a simple “did you look in the knowledge repository” is usually enough to change the team’s behaviors after just a few encounters.

Establishing a trigger is very important. Make sure that each time the team encounters it, they all respond with the same actions – finding, reusing and sharing their knowledge.

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