KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Give and take in the public sector

with 2 comments

“No good deed ever goes unpunished” – Ferengi Rules of Acquisition

A recent McKinsey report “Givers take all: The hidden dimension of corporate culture” looks at a couple of topics dear to my heart, improving corporate culture, and improving how people share knowledge and information with one another.

It concludes that by rewarding those who share their knowledge to help others, encouraging people to ask for help when they need it, but “screening out” those who take from others but who don’t provide reciprocal support businesses can greatly improve their effectiveness (and presumably profits).

Knowledge Management is of course all about asking and answering questions, so I don’t need convincing.  In fact there are a number of KM approaches that help foster this including communities of practice and peer-assists. Nick Milton did a great blog post exploring some of these knowledge management tools and approaches that support the kind of asking and answering that the McKinsey report talks of.

But putting this into practice in the public sector poses its own challenges because of the way we organize our work and how we hire, manage and reward our staff. Here are a few thoughts on the challenges:

1. In public sector organizations you can’t easily weed out the takers. It’s therefore especially important to hire the right people and train and develop them well to encourage a culture of askers and givers instead. We  need to think in particular how we can look for the right kind of characteristics in our selection and promotion processes.

2. In the UN (and elsewhere) we often have narrowly defined job roles and performance rewards that reflect individual job performance but don’t adequately take into account contributions to the work of others and the organization as a whole (thus disincentivizing sharing which ultimately brings down everyone’s performance). This is particularly the case with people who are posted in a country office with responsibility and rewards linked towards helping that country, but little explicit encouragement, and sometimes active discouragement towards helping people in other countries/offices. I think there needs to be a rebalance or more explicit recognition in job roles and performance assessments that recognizes helping others beyond your own organizational unit or programme as a legitimate part of the work.

3. Mechanisms are needed for asking and answering questions both in person and virtual. Communities of practice and internal social networking tools have a great deal of potential to help support asking and answering of questions – and also making that process visible and accessible to others. This is still work in progress and used unevenly in the public sector but it is changing for the positive. Where we are making less progress, perhaps surprisingly, is in encouraging more face to face asking and answering of questions. This probably needs use of more face to face knowledge sharing techniques such as peer-assists, but it probably also requires more attention to creating an atmosphere of trust and cooperation through regular work and social interaction whether through techniques such as scrum or “stand up” meetings, but also things like Nesta’s interesting experiment with randomized coffee meet-ups.

4. Creating an environment where people are encouraged ask questions. I’ve covered this topic before under “creating a demand for knowledge”. It’s important to align our incentives to encourage (or even coerce!) people to seek and make use of existing knowledge and  expertise in their work.

5. Creating a culture that recognizes and rewards the givers. Giving recognition and visibility for those who help others can be helpful but is often not done in the public sector. This can be done through acknowledgements in documents, highlighting useful contributions, and frequent contributors in a community, and remembering to thank a staff member for help along with a copy to their supervisor. Visibility through public blogging and public expertise profiling (such as through UNDP’s speaker’s corner), can also help recognize those who make important contributions to the work of others.

6. But it’s also important to protect givers from exploitation. A particular feature of public sector offices is that if people know you are helpful you will be overloaded with requests, but without any obvious rewards from responding. Instead you might have guilt if you don’t help, a greater workload and potentially complaints when you are not able meet the new demand – hence the quote at the top of this article. In the private sector your help to others might be billable, or your reputation as a helper might get you the better and more interesting projects, or you might be able to add small financial rewards for givers, whereas in the public sector it can lead you to be given more of the difficult jobs that others don’t want to tackle. I think this might be an important reason why the public sector gets an unfair reputation since the reward for helping can seem to be yet more work, which over time actively discourages people from being too helpful. I like many of the suggestions to deal with this given in the McKinsey article – but they seem more easily suited to private sector organizations, and we also need to find ways to better spread the load of giving that would work in the public sector. And of course leadership is critical here when there are more constraints on what can be done – and leadership example is critical in both rewarding asking and answering behaviour, but also in avoiding giving all the dirty, difficult jobs to the givers while allowing the takers to take the easy path.


Written by Ian Thorpe

May 22, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Ian

    Interesting post.I was only talking today to some folks about the incredible value of nurturing the “collective mind” for idea generation and project development .One of the challenges in resource spare times is that oftentimes organisations want a “stamp” of ownership thus the Not Invented Here so therefore not a good thing mindset along with the “don’t share or work together ” and yet ….it is the very thing that we should be doing -working across individual and corporate walls

    Perhaps a new innovation fund for “collective mind ” work would nurture this …..

    Corinne Woods

    May 22, 2013 at 8:40 pm

  2. Hi Ian, this was an excellent post! I was just talking yesterday to a colleague about giving as a community culture. She and I are both part of a community that really does thrive when people give and share freely. We were talking about an instance that I gave something to the community where it evoked a negative response from one individual, this was a cost to me – interestingly enough, I received 16 emails that very same day thanking me and praising me for the same instance. I work in the public sector and I understand that not every action is going to be well appreciated by everyone but getting those thanks really does make it better. In terms of being swamped with requests for me to help people, I generally can help fairly quickly and for the instances that take a bit more time, my boss is very supportive of this community building behavior. Thanks for the post 🙂


    May 23, 2013 at 1:26 pm

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