Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are hot topics in U.S. organizations right now. As leaders commit to building more equitable workplaces, they are realizing how structural bias can derail even the most well-meaning DEI vision. They’re also seeing connections between inclusion and employee retention, which is crucial given the Great Resignation and resulting war for talent.
At first glance, you might wonder what knowledge management (KM) has to do with DEI. But as employees spend more time working online, the processes and tools for exchanging knowledge in the digital workplace become an essential part of the employee experience. Policies that seem benign—like requiring photos on profiles or encouraging new hires to find their own mentors—may reinforce existing inequities and biases. But conversely, a KM program that intentionally solicits knowledge from diverse groups and promotes equitable access to information, collaboration opportunities, and expertise can do a lot to further DEI goals.
Fortunately, KM has a long history of breaking down siloes and creating environments where employees feel comfortable sharing ideas and information with colleagues they do not know well. But—like most of us—KM still has much to learn when it comes to truly level the playing field. Incorporating DEI into your KM strategy starts with:
- Reaching out to diverse stakeholders to solicit input on problems and potential solutions
- Explicitly building tenets of equity and inclusion into the KM strategy
- Partnering with other groups focused on similar objectives to ensure alignment
Below are four key considerations as KM teams integrate DEI into their work.
1. Align to the organization’s core values
One of the biggest challenges for DEI or KM is engaging the business. It’s easy for messages to become just one of many distractions competing for employees’ attention. According to participants in APQC’s recent roundtable on the intersection of KM and DEI, these initiatives are more likely to resonate if they link back to the organization’s overall vision and strategy.
At Teach for America, connecting KM and DEI has helped impart KM’s role in the organizational mission. In 2014, Teach for America began positioning KM as “an act of equity” that could help connect students and staff to the knowledge resources they need to be successful. The KM team has since formally partnered with the organization's Office of Equity and Belonging and released a statement on the intersections between KM and DEI to guide its future work. As part of its DEI commitment, KM tries to account for cultural dimensions (e.g., different storytelling methods) in knowledge, acknowledge and reciprocate diverse contributions, and offer knowledge in multiple modalities (e.g., slide decks, videos, articles) to maximize accessibility.
KM is not just a practice of moving knowledge around, it is an act of equity. It is the building of an inclusive culture.
—Teach for America KM DEI Statement of Intersection
2. Consider equity and inclusion from all angles
In the wake of recent social justice movements in the U.S., it’s natural for DEI efforts to gravitate toward a focus on race and ethnicity—which is extremely important. But KM teams should cast the net wide when thinking about the diversity they need to support. Many groups can be silenced or discounted, including employees with disabilities, in satellite locations, or whose native language differs from the official language of the organization. A truly inclusive KM program strives to ensure that everyone is involved in knowledge sharing and has the same access to information and expertise.
A great example of this wide-lens approach comes from Oxfam International when it designed its current digital workplace platform. Oxfam receives most of its funding from the Global North to serve impoverished countries in the Global South, and this can inadvertently lead to individuals in Western Europe and North America having a greater voice than those in Africa, Asia, and South America. To promote more equitable collaboration across borders, Oxfam adjusted its digital workplace user interface to de-emphasize employees’ countries of origin. The system makes information about staff members’ expertise areas more visually prominent than their locations or affiliate organizations (though this information is still available). It also offers instant translation for a wide variety of languages and a chatbot to explain common acronyms and jargon. This supports the organization’s ambition of more equal power relationships across geographies.
3. Look for ways to foster psychological safety
Even if employees have equal access to knowledge-sharing opportunities, they may not feel equally comfortable speaking up. This is particularly true when a collaborative exchange requires someone to be vulnerable or talk about something that didn’t go to plan.
Many KM programs encourage employees to share mistakes and lessons learned, but these activities may create unintended pitfalls. “One of our unfortunate a-ha moments came when we tried to promote the idea of owning and naming your failures,” said one roundtable participant. “As we started to talk to people through a DEI lens, we began to wonder: Who gets to safely share a failure and who doesn’t? We had set things up in a way that made people feel unsafe owning up to things that might be detrimental to them personally or professionally.”
To be more inclusive, KM programs must work to foster psychological safety for all collaborators. People should feel free to share radical ideas, unfinished work, and “learning moments” without fear of judgment or retaliation. This kind of culture shift is not easy, but leaders can help by role-modeling the behaviors they want to encourage. “It’s amazing how powerful it is when just one leader in one community demonstrates vulnerability by saying I don’t know or I need help,” said another roundtable participant. “We also had a leader admit that, even after 20 years as a leader in a very technical area, he still feels nervous posting. These are good reminders that the best thing we can do if we are in leadership roles is demonstrate that we don’t know everything.”
4. Reward employees for helping and empowering others
People sometimes underestimate the effect of measures and incentives in shaping organizational culture. If leaders want to promote inclusive conversations and equitable access to information and expertise, they must reinforce that in the expectations they set and the conversations they have with employees. “Sometimes our corporate incentives reward delivery, and people default to that mindset because it’s comfortable and within their control,” said one roundtable participant. “Part of my development as a leader has meant asking: How can I empower others and bring them along?”
KM can offer awards programs, gamification schemes, and simple thankyous to people who coach, mentor, and support their colleagues. But often, the most powerful tactic is to incorporate knowledge sharing into the overall performance management system. For example, Arup and Schlumberger have knowledge-sharing criteria that must be met before employees can move up their technical career ladders, and a large software company requires employees to show how they’ve “made others great” as part of their annual performance reviews.
The integration of KM and DEI is a relatively new endeavor, and the organizations leading the charge are the first to admit it’s a work in progress. The expectation is not to fix everything at once, but to understand how existing practices may exclude or disadvantage certain groups, build awareness of those impacts, and test potential solutions.
For more on this topic, see DEI Driven Knowledge Management at Teach for America and DEI Challenges and Opportunities for Knowledge Management.