KM Principle: Naturally trust, communicate, learn and share knowledge

KM Principle: Naturally trust – communicate – learn – share knowledge, it’s a virtuous circle

By Ron Young

One of the most frequent questions people ask me at knowledge management conferences, seminars, and workshops, all over the world, is ‘How do you create a knowledge sharing culture?

It’s a key issue and we are told that over 70% of the knowledge management effort is cultural. That is not to say that KM strategies, processes, methods, tools etc are 30% value, but to say that they are, relatively speaking, much easier to develop and implement.

In response to the question of creating a knowledge sharing culture, I developed a model in 1995 that I still teach, as an effective solution to this key issue. Many people find it to be of great value, and it has certainly stood the test of time, so I consider it to be a timeless principle of effective knowledge management. I describe it here and I welcome any feedback that you may have. I will certainly include all improvements in this article, so please keep posted from time to time.

This article proposes:

1. Seek 'virtuous circles'.

2. You do not start with trust.

3. You do not start with improved communications.

4. You start with learning.

5. Knowledge sharing naturally follows learning.

6. How to put the virtuous circle together.

Seek Virtuous Circles

There are four primary components to this model and I would like you to consider it as a ‘virtuous circle’. That is to say, like a spiral staircase, it leads to higher levels. But unlike a spiral staircase, the improvement of any step in the model will improve all the others, simultaneously. A virtuous circle brings about improvements, as diametrically opposed to a ‘vicious circle’ that is a downward and worsening situation.

You do not start with Trust

The four steps in this virtuous circle are:

1. Trust

2. Communicate

3. Learn

4. Share

But, interestingly, I recommend that you do not start with Trust. Rather, you will see how trust ‘naturally’ builds. I recommend that you start with ‘Learn’ but let me explain, first of all, how the virtuous circle builds, and then why I initially focus on step 3.

As far as Trust is concerned, there is much literature on the importance of this in a knowledge driven organization. Much has been said about Trust. I first remember Stephen Covey teaching me that ‘Trust is the lifeblood of the organization. People work together so much more effectively when they trust one another.’ That is so right, and, in our own private and work relationships, we know this to be true and fundamental.

So how do we build Trust? Well one thing is certain, you are very unlikely to build trust by telling or teaching or even, paradoxically, coercing people to trust.

Trust has to be earned.

Interestingly, trust may be built over a long time, many years even, and trust can be lost in just seconds.

My best personal example of this is when I was part of a team of consultants and facilitators engaged by General Motors in 1993. At that time, GM were very concerned indeed that, due to past management practices, the overall culture within GM and, especially, between GM and its Dealerships and Distributorships worldwide, was very ‘fear based’. It was considered to be very coercive. Generally, Dealers feared that if they didn’t ‘shift enough metal this quarter’ their franchises were at risk.

GM developed their own model to explain this. They called it, at the time, the 6C’s. Three C’s of fear and three C’s of Trust. They knew that people, if continually pushed too hard in ‘Conflict’, would eventually lead to ‘Confrontation’ and if that was prolonged or unresolved, it would end up in a state of ‘Co-existing’. That is to say, people would just ‘keep their heads down’ and get on with their work. This is the typical behaviour of a predominantly large fear based culture.

In a fear based culture, people are generally:

Protective of ideas & knowledge

No Loyalty

Short Term & impatient

Disrespect & political

Individual & isolated


Non communicative - and 'one way from the top'


Feel no responsibility


Scarcity mentality

GM also developed the 3C's of a trust based culture. That is, 'Cooperation' leads to better 'Collaboration', which leads to 'Co-ownership' (responsible partnering together). They knew that if the culture could be transformed into a ‘trust based’ one that they then could expect people to be more inclined to:

Open and sharing ideas & knowledge

High Loyalty

Long Term & patient

Respect & supportive

Inter-connected by networks & teams


Open, frequent communications and 'two way‘ feedback


Feel responsible


Abundance mentality

As you would expect, the characteristics of a trust based culture are diametrically opposed to the characteristics of a fear based culture.

A trust based culture is a ‘win/win’ culture where people all work together for the benefit and common good of all.

A fear based culture is a ‘win/lose’ culture where people focus on getting the best deal as winners, regardless of others.

But GM was certainly not alone with this situation. At least GM became aware of the problem and constructively tried to do something about it.

The problem is simply that in large, dispersed, organizations people cannot possibly know everyone and everything. This will inevitably breed doubt, which is the first shade of fear. In small organizations, people tend to know everyone and everything of importance (not always) and this results in a far more trusting environment.

So, getting back to the importance of trust, and GM, what did they do about it?

It seemed a great idea, at the time, for GM to build several outdoor experiential learning sites. One was in South Spain, one in Indonesia, and one in the USA, to start with. Japan came later.

As a facilitator, my job was to welcome senior management teams, equally from GM and from car dealerships and distributorships, side by side, throughout the Region. My job was to work with them for several days, to teach some fundamental principles through experiential means and debriefs. Increased trust, better teamwork, increased enthusiasm and motivation, were key components of the training.

As a facilitator, I was also expected to complete the exercises myself.

I remember the ‘trust fall’. We had to stand on a six foot high wall and fall backwards, blindly, into our team members arms. Sounds simple, but it was incredibly hard for many of us. We could only do it if we trusted, and let go.

I remember the ‘trust poles’ that were 30 feet high. Harnessed and held by ropes from our team members, we had to climb the pole, stand on a small disc on the top, and jump off. We had to trust our team members completely.

I remember the 50 feet high ‘trust team wall’ which was designed for three people to be chained together and, again supported by ropes and harnesses from our team members, we had to ‘all together’ climb that high wall. No room for leaving any weak members behind. We had to help each other, or else we failed, as a team.

For every exercise, once completed, we had to go back to camp for a thorough debrief. This is where all the feelings and all the new learning’s surfaced. What could we learn from this and take back to the workplace?

I could go on with more descriptions of even more, very effective, experiential learning from team challenges, but I have described enough to make a fundamental point.

Back in the camp, at the evening pre-dinner drinks, the bar had an electric atmosphere that is difficult to put into words. We were all so glad to be alive, and proud of ourselves. We all agreed that we were now ‘blood brothers and sisters’ for life. It really seemed so at the time.

But one month later, away from the exotic locations and back in our normal office environment and routines, we realised that it was ‘back to work as normal’.

We ‘knew’ that trust was important but somehow it didn’t overpower the status quo. We learned that you couldn’t just teach a ‘trust’ course, however well intentioned, and expect sustainability. We knew that the answer was not simply ‘Trust one another! ‘. There was something more. That became clearer later.

You do not start with improved Communications

GM, like many large organizations at the time, could afford to deploy the latest communication tools and technologies. GM had an admirable global technology infrastructure for its time. I remember the enterprise deployment of Lotus Notes groupware, which was probably the most leading information communications technology at the time (I am still very fond of Lotus Notes). Many of us, who were early pioneers of knowledge management, saw Lotus Notes as our saviour, with replicated databases of ‘the whole’ on everyone’s desktop and laptop personal computer. We enthusiastically built nested discussion forums, networks and community spaces, collaborative virtual team workspaces, and key knowledge bases.

I even set up a company in Cambridge on the strength of these developments.

But we learned, over the painful years to follow, that giving people the best information communications tools at the time, discussion platforms, collaborative workspaces and knowledge bases, does not mean that they will use them! The mantra was ‘give them the best technology and tools to share information and knowledge’. Technology certainly provides the great potential to do things better, but we have to turn that potential into reality. And that is not as easy as it sounds.

At least, Lotus Notes can become the most expensive email system in the world, but going beyond that, in new extraordinary ways, was more of a failure than a success. Maybe it was because people were not taught how to properly use these tools, (many of them were left to discover how to use them for themselves) which is a key factor of course, but I strongly feel that the key reason was that people have to naturally want to share information and knowledge, to use these tools effectively, and that does not happen in a fear based culture.

You start with Learning

So, if you do not start the virtuous circle with trust or communications, why start with learning?

This is what I strongly believe. I am convinced that people have to ‘naturally’ want to do things. People cannot be coerced, however mildly, or however sophisticated the initiative to change may be.

I use the word ‘natural’ because I have discovered the following:

When there is sufficient trust present, people ‘naturally’ want to communicate more openly and more frequently and more two-way.

Following on from this, when people communicate information more frequently and openly – they cannot help themselves but to ‘naturally’ learn faster. Also, more open ‘two-way’ communications and better collaboration builds even greater trust.

A simple definition of learning for me, is to turn information into knowledge, whether it’s intellectual learning, or experiential learning, or a combination of both. The Japanese talk about ‘mind knowledge’ and ‘body knowledge’. This I like. Through all our external senses, of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting etc we are learning in the body (example: Don’t put your hand on that hot stove!). Through our inner sense of thinking, we are learning in the mind.

Knowledge sharing naturally follows’

But learning is far more important than just gaining new knowledge and skills. When we learn faster, we naturally increase our confidence, our self esteem, and our competence, at least.

Now my main point in this article is this. People who are both confident and competent ‘naturally’ enjoy and ‘naturally’ want to share their knowledge with others. They have nothing to fear, but they understand that they have everything to gain by sharing.

It seems to me that people are wired up to ‘have to share’ what they know as part of their continued learning. I am a teacher. But I do not just teach to teach others. I teach to learn too!

To many, the real reward from learning faster, and from becoming confident and competent, is to ‘enjoy the sharing’.

I do recall a Japanese manufacturing company that had a competence system that only had, originally, three levels of competence as follows:

1. Aware of the competence to be developed

2. Able to demonstrate the new competence on occasions, but inconsistently

3. Consistently competent

To my delight, they introduced a fourth level of competence:

4. Consistently competent and ‘able to teach others’

This one level of competence, introduced, created a ‘culture of teachers’. It created a culture of knowledge sharing. And what’s more, people are rewarded and recognised for their levels of competence and teaching others. So it pays to become a level 4 teacher, for both emotional and financial well being!

Let me give you one more example of the importance of the ‘Learn’ step, and then I will pull it all together, and explain the working of the Trust – Communicate – Learn – Share’ virtuous circle.

I was called into the office of the CEO of a major UK Utility company. It employed over 10,000 people. The CEO had a problem. He had attended a breakfast session for CEO’s that I gave in London about building trust in a knowledge driven organization.

He said, ‘Ron, how can I possibly think about building trust when I am now having to downsize our organization considerably? How will people trust the organization again when we have to do that? What do we do?

We analysed the incredibly difficult situation the organization faced in order to survive. We first considered the survivors. That is, those people left, that would not be leaving the company.

We concluded that there would be an initial period of despair and lack of trust. We concluded that some people would lose loyalty to the organization, after so many years of loyal service. We concluded that some people would be looking around for more secure employment. We concluded that the organization would probably move into a ‘fear based culture’ until trust could be earned again.

We also knew that, because of this, people would be very receptive to new learning and competence development. Why? Because this is a ‘heads you win – tails you win’ situation. That is to say, if, at worst, the organization continued a downward spiral, at least the individual would be more marketable and employable elsewhere. Nothing to lose, everything to gain.

In the best situation, if the organization invested in developing people’s confidence and competence, then the likelihood of growing again, successfully, would be much greater.

It’s a win / win situation. More importantly of all, it worked! The organization grew out of the crisis and into positive growth. It became, not only a successful learning organization, but it became more competent in applying its knowledge more wisely.

Putting the virtuous circle together

Getting back to the virtuous circle, I propose that one of the best starting points, that one of the best interventions, is at the ‘Learn’ step. This is because:

a) people will willingly welcome this investment in themselves, most of the time

b) as people become more confident and competent, they will naturally want to share more information and knowledge

c) this will lead to a major increase in trust

d) this will lead to a natural need to communicate better

e) This will lead to even more information exchange, faster learning, even more trust and more collaborative working

f) This will naturally lead to more enjoyment in learning and sharing…which will naturally lead to even more increased trust, more open communications, faster learning, sharing etc etc

It’s not just about teaching people the importance of trust. It’s not just about giving people the best information and communication technologies. It’s about developing new confidence and competence through learning, which will then increasingly spark and fuel the other steps in the process, simultaneously.

Can you develop a knowledge sharing culture? No.

Can you develop people to then develop a knowledge sharing culture themselves? Certainly yes.

This is the virtuous circle that will contribute significantly to naturally developing a knowledge sharing culture.

What do you think?

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