Revisiting Incentives For KM

I was reading an interesting article, The Cost of Cutting In Line in HBS Working Knowledge. After reading it, I get the feeling that there are complex dimensions to be grappled with while designing incentive schemes for KM programs.

Quoting from the article:
No one likes to waste time standing in line. So why don’t more people try to bribe their way to the front? Should companies allow some customers to move to the front of the line for a hefty fee? Is there a market for time?

Felix Oberholzer-Gee began to ponder this issue as he was, of course, waiting in line at the airport. Later, he decided to conduct a field experiment to explore the question. He and a team of experimenters equipped with small bills approached 500 people in lines and offered a cash payment of up to $10 to cut in. Would the bribe be accepted? How much would it take to jump the queue? And how would social norms and a sense of fairness play out along the line?”

Quoting from the article again :

Q: What were the motives of people who allowed your experimenters to cut in line? Why didn’t many of them accept payment? And if money wasn’t an issue, why did higher payments correlate with a willingness by line-holders to allow a stranger jump the queue?

A: The data clearly show that you are more likely to be able to jump the queue if you offer more money. So first I thought that this was not an example of a missing-markets problem at all. But I was wrong. You can “purchase” a position in the line, but the people who let you cut in will not accept your money. Their behavior is motivated by a norm that says you should help others when they are in need, but you must not exploit this situation. Monetary incentives “work” in this instance because people read them as a sign for the needs of others. How hurried are you, really? If you offer $20, you must be really hard pressed for time.

Doesn’t this remind us of the complexities of designing incentive schemes for KM programs?This is a nice example of a “proxy” economic incentive to signal a need and trigger a group norm. Let us try to extend this a bit further into KM terrain. The underlying question seems to be the same – Does time have a market? By allowing someone to cut in line, people stand to lose time – but in the process, they seem to be gratified for having helped the other person. So,when would people answer questions posted in discussion boards? What could act as a trigger to help surface a otherwise hidden group norm?

Taking the case of discussion boards further, what if we could allow the person who posts a question to add some kind of an indicator with the question to signal the that this is “urgent and important”,”not urgent but important” etc.,? I am sure there are social software systems that allow this in one form or the other. Does this have an impact on people who otherwise might not have answered the question? Perhaps there are other interesting ways of triggering the inherent helpful behaviour in people.

To summarize, I feel we need to :

  1. Think of leveraging and triggering inherent group norms like “help others when they are in need”. Perhaps, communities are the right units where these norms emerge.
  2. Design Social Software systems that have features that allow the user to signal the urgency and importance of a need to a larger community of users. There should be a seamless way to convey – “Why am I asking this question and how is it going to help me and my group?”. This in turn may help trigger helpful behaviour. Wikis and workspaces that emerged in the aftermath of Katrina and the July 7th, London bombings are solid examples. In these cases everyone saw the urgency and importance of the task at hand. There was “shared understanding” of what we were upto as a group. Wikis,IMHO are a nice way to build “sense and respond” kind of a systems. In the examples cited above,wikis conveyed the urgency of the situation (Very frequent updates that happend after the disasters) and at the same time allowed people who had the relevant information to quickly respond. As an individual you knew that the contribution you made will be helpful to people in trouble-in the process your sense of gratification was amplified. If individuals knew how their knowledge is going to be used and what difference it may make to other individuals/projects, they may be willing to contribute.
  3. Revisit the classical “Whats In It For Me?” question. There are two answers to this :
  • Category 1-Coffee Mugs, Knowledge Points, Tshirts and all the tangible stuff
  • Category 2-Sense of gratification,self-motivation,Purpose beyond self etc.,

Core groups of the most active communities inside and outside the enterprise and people on the periphery who ask questions,report bugs or simply lurk do not ask “Whats In It For Me?”-They discover it by being a part of the community. And what they discover happens to be in category 2. These are the guys who matter. “Bribing” employees to share knowledge might not be sustainable. The people who will be champions of knowledge sharing are those who do not see any incremental value from tangible incentives.


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