For service leaders, knowledge sharing is a top — and urgent — priority. One reason? Older technicians are nearing retirement, and executives need to capture every morsel of those seasoned technicians’ know-how before it’s too late. Another reason is that companies increasingly recognize how powerful the collective knowledge of their workforce could be, if only every employee could access it.

Investing in new technology alone isn’t enough, though. Company culture is the primary driver of knowledge management success. And service leaders set the culture, says John Ragsdale, vice president of technology research at the Technology Services Industry Association. We spoke with Ragsdale about how service leaders can develop a culture of knowledge sharing, and some common mistakes they make along the way. 

Why does knowledge sharing matter for field service organizations?

Ragsdale: Companies continue to invest in this year after year because they perceive enormous value. In our 2014 knowledge management survey, 40 percent of respondents said that great knowledge sharing would improve their team’s productivity by 20 to 30 percent, while a third said they would see a 40 or even 50 percent boost. People really perceive knowledge management as a missing link in their operations.

The survey asked how respondents would rate their company’s culture regarding knowledge sharing on a 10-point scale, from one being share any knowledge and others will take credit to 10 being leaders set the example and reward knowledge sharing. A high “5” was the average, but field service had the highest culture score of any group we surveyed.

I spoke with a lot of companies about this finding that said sharing is a part of the culture of field service organizations. Technicians walk into a location to fix something and may see a piece of equipment they didn’t know existed. Collaboration is key. It’s natural for field service people to ask their peers for help, whether through Chatter, email or a phone call.

What’s the link between company culture and successful knowledge sharing?

A lot of service leaders I spoke with at Technology Services World 2014 wanted to talk about culture, specifically how culture is a top-down initiative. If the company doesn’t have a sharing culture, or if there isn’t executive support for the movement, how can managers change the culture of their departments?

Others were curious about the differences between older and younger workers. It’s never safe to make generalizations, but the older workers (baby boomers, like me) tend to hoard knowledge. We’ve spent our entire careers being rewarded for knowing something no one else did. Younger workers, meanwhile, grew up in a very collaborative age, and they don’t think they should have to learn anything someone else knows. They want to share all their knowledge and post it out there for the world to see.

We’re seeing a culture shift occurring within companies and even departments. It’s great for knowledge management because the new folks are much more willing to share. They don’t want to hoard their knowledge. They want to post it out there for everyone to see.

How do companies encourage more sharing?

When I talk to companies that are on their third, fourth or fifth knowledge implementation, culture is very often at stake. If executives don’t value knowledge sharing, they won’t give the service leaders the necessary budget or staff to build or maintain the knowledge base. If the executive team isn’t setting a good example, managers will have to work harder than ever to overcome that challenge.

“We’ve spent our entire careers being rewarded for knowing something no one else did.” — John Ragsdale

I’ve spoken with companies who admit to rewarding people for hoarding their knowledge, but they’re trying to change that culture. One step is to hire people who want to share knowledge and to stress its importance during orientation — and to reinforce that. If the only way people will get a raise or a promotion is to become an incredible knowledge sharer, they’ll likely do it — even if executives don’t send a warm, fuzzy message about sharing knowledge.

Any big surprises about how companies handle knowledge management?

In the survey, I asked respondents about mobility. Interesting, we found that 50 percent of companies haven’t made updates to their knowledge management system to support mobile. That stat is very telling because you know how horrible it is to consume an old-fashioned webpage on a smartphone. There are helpful knowledge management features, such as index trees and dynamic FAQ lists. But these features often don’t work on a mobile device. I was surprised that so few companies have created an app or rewritten a site in HTML5 to optimize for mobile browsing.

We’ve put a lot of emphasis on field service tools and technology, but we haven’t gone back and looked at the knowledge base and other content repositories that technicians access in the field. Some of those are barely accessible on a mobile device. The industry clearly needs more investment in the actual infrastructure to make knowledge more accessible.