New fixes for old problems: Sharing in the knowledge economy, and knowledge in the sharing economy

“Have you seen the news this morning?”


“This happened last night.”

“Oh right! Yes I saw that before I went to bed, it was all over Facebook.”

– A conversation between a twenty-something L&D Scriptwriter called Beth Clark and her mother.
In the digital age, information travels fast. Even the most recent news headlines quickly fade into redundancy as our streams fill up with yet more stories from all over the globe. Radio and television, once the leaders in breaking news now often play catch up to the news generated and delivered almost instantly online.

What’s even more interesting about situations such as the one above? Although this story ‘broke’ across Facebook, the site itself did not post the information. Facebook’s contribution to its own site’s content is actually minimal. It is a platform, a channel. Someone outside Facebook wrote the story, but they used Facebook as their megaphone to tell everyone else.

While it is widely considered the biggest online (or simply, global) media-provider, the amount of media Facebook actually creates pales in comparison to the contribution its users make to its online aggregated content. This crowd-sourced model of production is no longer a novelty – indeed, it’s become the basis of what is sometimes controversially called ‘the sharing economy’. Airbnb provides accommodation worldwide but owns no real estate. Uber, the multinational transportation provider does not own any vehicles. How about the most visited website in 2016: A search engine, where again, actual content produced by the company is minimal – though the value they add to the world by aggregating other people’s content is phenomenal.

These services, which have exploded in the last ten years, all have one thing in common, user contributions. Without them the services would struggle to offer any service at all. Without other websites Google’s usefulness is minimal, Airbnb couldn’t offer any accommodation, and you’d be waiting a very long time for your lift if Uber didn’t have any drivers.

Without other websites Google’s usefulness is minimal. But without Google, how would we know what websites were even out there?

Another aspect these thriving companies utilise is the digital transformation of, well pretty much everything. I don’t need to tell you how we’ve entered the digital age… where we need an internet connection to share music, find an address and make a reservation. Not to mention needing electricity to power our books and toothbrushes. These common household objects are only going to get smarter and more connected before long.

This sharing economy is changing the way we conduct ourselves. If I want to find a new restaurant, the first place I go is Facebook or Tripadvisor. These platforms let me ask “Where should I go?” with the additional justification of “and why should I go there?” and receiving this information from real people creates its own value. But how can smart companies, who already utilise the new digital approach to engage and develop their employees, also reflect the benefits of user contribution and use their own expertise to guide new staff and help them innovate the next generation of shared services?

An article in the McKinsey Quarterly earlier this year highlighted corporate learning’s ability to be “generated, shared, and continually updated by users themselves”. The article also commemorates Danone, the widely-recognised food multinational, among others, who have committed to developing a “digital, user-friendly space to share best practices, to highlight the latest internal and external knowledge, and to foster a culture of collaborative learning and networking”. This is more than just an upgrade to the corporate academy: it’s an approach which offers all employees, irrespective of department, grade or length of service, the opportunity to actively add content to form a suit of real-time resources which accurately reflect their business.

It also allows colleagues to ask questions (and more importantly receive answers!) in an open forum, where the experts can step forward and answer them, regardless of proximity or familiarity. Would you feel comfortable picking up the phone to ask your boss’s counterpart in the other office half way around the world, how to do something? Probably not. But if you ask it on your organisation’s social network or platform and they just happen to be the one that says “Hey, this is how I do it…” then why not? This structural horizontalism allows those who want to ask questions to do so and gives subject matter experts an opportunity to shine and share their expertise with colleagues elsewhere who really need it.

The sharing economy, and the way it changes how we model the movement of intangible resources like learning, skills or information is also transforming the way we work and learn through digital connectivity. It changes the scope of what an organisation, and by extension the organisation’s employees, can do. This creates new efficiencies, allows new revenue streams to open up and creates better ways of working: smarter and more economically effective. It means key information can take an active role in developing organisational capability; and ensures the right content is available to those who need it wherever and whenever they need it.

With this ability, are days of formalised face-to-face training (many of which end in silence as the trainer asks “Any questions?” to a room full of people, all of whom are half-asleep and stopped listening two hours before) really where we want to be? Sending employees hundreds of miles away for ‘vital’ corporate training days? And how many times have you come out of one of those sessions, only to start working and come up with a question, with limited opportunities to check or chase down the information you just recently learned? Having accessible resources and a network of colleagues that expands beyond your own office space can be invaluable. Employees can pull the information they need from the network or even add to it themselves, a gratifying and mutually beneficial feat of self-promotion – “I know this one!”

The digital approach to sharing is changing the way knowledge, and skills, move through organisations. Technological advances already mean that so many companies have their own intranets, and social learning platforms to administrate their own learning goals, and forward-thinking organisations are keen to harness the interactivity and engagement levels that digital learning can provide.

Just as Facebook, Airbnb and Uber are using new approaches to provide their services; the way people share and generate their own knowledge is changing. Providing flexibility and connectivity to learning and development; engaging the learner and bridging geographical divides, makes digital the ideal learning and development option.

Now I’m off to try a new hair tutorial I saw on YouTube, after I tell my mum about my cousin’s new boyfriend… now that its ‘Facebook official’ of course.

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