What the Open Source Community Can Teach Us About Knowledge Sharing

One of the greatest hurdles multinational companies struggle to overcome is the inability to effectively communicate information across the business's various branches. But even as employees become more isolated than ever before, open source culture can break through these knowledge silos.

Katrina Novakovic, Business Architect at Red Hat, outlines how large companies can become more streamlined and productive by adopting open source culture and Communities of Practice.

Sharing knowledge and expertise across a workforce can be one of the biggest challenges faced by companies, and ‘knowledge hoarding’ – whereby individuals and teams keep business critical knowledge from their associates (or colleagues) – is a familiar grievance for many. The reluctance to share information is not only detrimental to overall business productivity, it also limits growth opportunities for employees, presents a bottleneck for cross-departmental projects, and can reduce the quality of work produced for customers and partners.

This is an issue that has become ingrained in the cultures of many businesses. It’s a particular challenge for large, multinational corporations, with multiple departments and office sites that all operate on different working practices. However, taking the time to share industry knowledge more willingly will offer tangible benefits for every part of an organisation, from training employees, organising teams and carrying out company-wide (or interdepartmental) projects.

For any big corporation, the obvious question is ‘where do we start?’. Introducing new ways of working that incite cultural change is no easy task (and the bigger the company the more of a challenge it can be). A good starting point is to look at the open source community for guidance.

It’s a particular challenge for large, multinational corporations, with multiple departments and office sites that all operate on different working practices.

Driving collaboration with open source

Open source culture is built on democratic principles and champions the value of sharing. In an open source project, source code can be used, copied, edited, distributed and developed by anyone who chooses to contribute. Previous versions of the code – plus conversations between the developers working on it – can be viewed by all. Therefore, there are no gatekeepers of knowledge on an open source project.

Developers are encouraged to share their expertise with one another and work collaboratively to find the best solution for each project. This approach helps to quickly identify and correct any errors in the code, so that solutions are developed at a faster pace, which ultimately accelerates the time it takes to bring a new product to market.

This can have a profound impact on an organisation’s productivity. Take Microsoft, whose development and operations teams embraced open source principles by adopting a DevOps culture, which saw the two teams open up the sharing of technical knowledge and practices between them. This helped Microsoft’s team improve their productivity, improve their skills, and find new ways to solve business challenges.

Examples like Microsoft’s show that learning from the norms of the open source community can be used to enact cultural change, and organisations can learn a lot from this approach to tackle the issue of knowledge hoarding. Dedicated groups known as ‘Communities of Practice’ can help put these principles into practice.

Open source culture is built on democratic principles and champions the value of sharing.

What is a Community of Practice?

Communities of Practice (CoPs) are groups within an organisation that communicate regularly to share knowledge and best practices in specific subject areas, and develop materials to streamline and disseminate this information for the benefit of the wider community.

In the open source community, everyone works towards a shared purpose. For example, while code can be submitted by anyone, it must be beneficial to the wider community for it to be accepted. Likewise, CoPs connect employees based on their shared interests, purpose and goals. They create a dedicated space for teams to exchange and share industry knowledge that benefits the organisation, rather than sharing information for the sake of it.

The benefits of Communities of Practice

By embracing CoPs, large corporations create internal pools of knowledge that are continually being refined and standardised, and which any team member can tap into. This knowledge may apply to multiple areas of the business, and can be used to develop anything from training resources, materials for customer lead generation, to architecture diagrams and technical scripts.

Building upon existing resources and materials requires much less time than starting from scratch, and enables teams to see how (and by whom) projects have been executed successfully in the past. This opens up lines of communication and support with the relevant team members. The efficiencies that result are well-worth the effort of introducing CoPs to your organisation.

How to implement Communities of Practice

There are two recommended approaches you can take when implementing CoPs. The first is a top-down approach, which is led by executive buy-in and places a clear focus on the overarching strategy and goals for success. It requires considerations around resource and capacity, and careful time allocation before implementation gets off the ground.

The second approach is a bottom-up one, which is preferable for quicker results. Here you begin with one CoP made up of employees who are dedicated to knowledge sharing in one particular area. It makes sense to nominate a couple of CoP managers within the group who can help to define the objectives and outline a strategy. This group can provide the foundation for developing a bigger CoP across the organisation in due course.

While knowledge hoarding is a habit that befalls many large corporations, it doesn’t have to prevail. A proactive approach towards knowledge sharing can help shift this mindset. By introducing CoPs and pivoting your business model towards a more open and collaborative style of working, you can undo the rigid structural barriers and silos that hinder a company’s ability to innovate, and begin to see the benefits of enhanced productivity, efficiency and innovation across the workforce.

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