Can’t Buy Me Culture

According to Jordan Furlong, “Money Talks“. He describes the adoption of a wiki by a North Carolina law firm, which is rewarding contributions by its staff with the incentive of a $1000 prize for the best contribution. Jordan reasons thus:

Law firms ask a lot of their employees, mostly with regard to cramming a whole lot of work into comparatively few hours. The lawyers, in particular, are directly motivated by the compensation and advancement systems built into the billable hour regime, and they place billable activity in extreme priority to everything else, including marketing, business development, practice management, pro bono work and, most importantly, their own personal time. So if firms want their lawyers to do things other than bill time, they need to design a reward system that can compete on those grounds.    

I think this misunderstands of the impact of so-called “Web 2.0” tools on knowledge management.

As far as I can tell, the history of KM in law firms is littered with efforts to create or promote a knowledge sharing culture through incentives. Ultimately, people will only consistently use a system if it does something for them, and fits with their way of working. For example, most lawyers now expect to use e-mail for all the work that they do. The success of the BlackBerry was not driven by payment of prizes — it was its own incentive. I think if someone is cynical enough to require a cash payment to do something, they are probably able to calculate whether that incentive is actually (a) a true reflection of the value the firm places on that action and (b) sufficient to make them change their behaviour. Those who would have shared their knowledge anyway do not need an incentive, and those who are reward-driven are likely to decide that the incentive is not sufficient (or at least insufficient when other activities intervene).

A reward-driven KM system will always give an incomplete view of a firm’s knowledge because the answer to the question “what’s in it for me?” will be “not enough” for too many of your potentially good contributors. Tools like blogs, wikis and enterprise social bookmarking allow people to share what they are doing without realising that they are doing so, so long as these applications are being used (like e-mail is) to improve people’s daily activities.

Doug Cornelius understands this:

Knowledge management solutions will work better if they are focused on improving the normal workflow and better capturing that information. The user is more likely to use a new tool if it is easy to use and provides more functionality than what they currently use. As Dion Hincliffe pointed out, the new tool needs to be many times more useful than the current tool for people to use the new tool.

If the wiki is more useful than any current tool, then it will be used without an incentive. If it is not, then no incentive will make it so — even if it does come cheap, it is still a poor investment.