The what, how, and why of KM rewards and recognition

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When knowledge managers describe the hardest parts of their jobs, they often point to building and sustaining KM participation. State-of-the-art technology and hyper-efficient processes are meaningless if employees don’t use them. Unfortunately, people have lots of reasons not to get involved. Some think they are “too busy” for KM. Others don’t understand what’s expected or what they have to offer. Still others are skeptical about KM’s value and see it as a distraction from their primary goals. It’s hard to break through employees’ cynicism and inertia to convince them to try KM—and even harder to make KM a habitual part of daily work.

Incentives that encourage people to contribute, share, and reuse knowledge can cut through these barriers. However, many organizations struggle to strike the right balance with KM rewards and recognition. When rewards don’t align with what matters to employees, they don’t work. And, when rewards are too compelling, they can prompt undesirable behaviors and unhealthy competition.

APQC suggests that KM teams design rewards and recognition strategies around three key elements:

1. The “what”
—What behaviors to promote and what measures will be used to track them.

2. The “how”—How rewards will be allotted, distributed, and administered.

3. The “why”—Why employees will care enough to change their behavior.

The ‘what’

While it’s fun to think about the prizes you could offer or the dinners you could host, those decisions must necessarily wait. You must begin by thinking through what you’re incentivizing. What actions and behaviors do you want to encourage? What do you want to discourage? What measures will determine who gets rewarded and who doesn’t?

These questions define the goals of your KM rewards and recognition program—and if they go unanswered, you may not get the results you want. Here are a few recommendations to help you formulate your approach.

Align incentives with your culture and desired outcomes.

It’s impossible to reward every individual for every KM action, so you need to target critical behaviors that are lacking. Then you can determine the best ways to drive behavior change in the context of your culture and target audience.

For example, professional services firm Deloitte recognized that its knowledge-sharing culture was strong in many ways: People understood KM’s value and didn’t hoard knowledge. However, a lot of sharing was reactive. The organization launched a culture initiative to encourage employees to share not just when asked, but proactively. The initiative had three main workstreams:

1. Inspire: Inspire employees to want to share through training, awareness campaigns, leadership messaging, personal thanks, and leaderboards for contributions.

2. Require: Integrate knowledge sharing KPIs into role expectations and compliance practices.

3. Reward: Make knowledge sharing frictionless and in the flow of daily work (e.g., by introducing systems for people to track their own knowledge sharing).

Deloitte’s initiative worked because it emphasized tangible business outcomes and built on an in-depth understanding of the culture. In the past, Deloitte explored the idea of establishing KM performance requirements—and indeed, this approach works well at some companies. But leaders realized that establishing expectations would better reflect the firm’s collegial, meritocratic, and non-hierarchical culture.

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