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Managing participant motivation in knowledge management projects

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One consequence of the increasing awareness of knowledge as an organisational asset is that many organisations have launched projects aimed at managing knowledge.  Unfortunately, a large number of these efforts focus entirely on technical solutions, neglecting the need for employee participation. The latter is important; as  stated in this paper, published a decade ago, “Knowledge transfer is about connection not collection, and that connection ultimately depends on choice made by individuals…”  This suggests that participant motivation is a key success factor for knowledge management initiatives. A recent paper entitled, Considering Participant Motivation in Knowledge Management Projects, by Allen Whittom and Marie-Christine Roy looks at theories of motivation from the context of knowledge management projects. This post is a summary and annotated review of the paper.

Many researchers claim that the failure rate of knowledge management projects is high, but there seems to be some confusion as to just how high the figure is (see this paper, for example). In the introduction to their paper, Whittom and Roy claim that the failure rate may be higher than 80% – but they offer no proof. Still, with many independent researchers quoting figures ranging from 50 to 80%, one can take it as established that it is a matter that merits investigation. Accordingly, many researchers have looked at causes of failure of knowledge management projects (see this paper or this one).  Some specifically identify lack of participant motivation as a cause of failure (see this paper). Whittom and Roy claim that despite the work done thus far, knowledge management research does not provide any suggestions as to how motivation is to be managed in such projects. Their aim, therefore, is to:

  1. Present concepts from theories of  motivation that are relevant to knowledge management projects.
  2. Propose ways in which project managers can foster participant motivation in a way that is consistent with business objectives.

These points are covered in the next two sections. The final section presents some concluding remarks.

 Theoretical Overview

 Motivation and Knowledge Transfer

The authors define motivation as the underlying reason(s) for a person’s actions. Motivation is usually classified as extrinsic or intrinsic depending on whether its source is external or internal to the individual. People who are extrinsically motivated are driven by rewards such as bonuses or promotions. Typically such individuals work for rewards. On the other hand intrinsically motivated individuals are self-driven, and need little supervision. Their enthusiasm, however, depends on whether or not their personal goals are congruent with the task at hand. This is important: their aims and objectives may not always be aligned with business goals. Further, intrinsically motivated individuals perform creative or complex tasks better than others, but this type of motivation varies greatly from one person to another and cannot be controlled by management. See my post on motivation in project management for a comprehensive discussion on extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

The authors then discuss the link between motivation and the willingness to share knowledge. Knowledge falls into two categories: tacit and explicit. Tacit knowledge is hard to codify and communicate (e.g. a skill, such as riding a bicycle) whereas explicit knowledge can be formalised and transmitted (e.g. how to open a bank account). Tacit knowledge is in “people’s heads” and is consequently harder to capture. More often than not, though, it turns out to be more valuable than explicit knowledge. In their paper entitled, Motivation, Knowledge Transfer and Organisational Forms,  Osterloh and Frey state that, “…Intrinsic motivation is crucial when tacit knowledge in and between teams must be transferred…” Following this work, Gartner researchers Morello and Caldwell proposed a model in which intrinsic motivation drives the creation and sharing of tacit knowledge which in turn drives the dissemination and use of tacit knowledge in the organisation (I couldn’t find a publicly available copy of their work – but there is an illustration of the model in  Figure 1 Whittom and Roy’s paper).

The message from motivation research is clear: intrinsic motivation is critical to the success of knowledge management projects.

Rewards and Recognition

Rewards and recognition are “levers of motivation”: they can be used to enhance and direct employee motivation towards achieving organisational goals. Reward systems are aimed at aligning individual efforts with organisational objectives. Recognition systems, on the other hand,  are designed to express public appreciation for high standards of achievement or competence. These may be set  according to criteria that diverge from preset objectives (as an example – a public thanks for a job well done can be made irrespective of whether the job is in line with company objectives)

Rewards can be extrinsic (not related to the task) or intrinsic (related to the task) and material or non-material.  Extrinsic rewards are typically material – i.e. they involve giving the recipient something tangible. Financial incentives are the most common form of extrinsic rewards because they are easily administered through the pay system.  Extrinsic rewards can also be non-financial (gift certificates or a meal at a nice restaurant, for example). For the same investment, non-financial rewards are found to have a more lasting effect than financial ones. This makes sense: people are more likely to remember a memorable meal than a few hundred dollar raise; the latter is sometimes forgotten as soon as it comes into effect. A downside of financial rewards is that they are easily forgotten and may actually decrease intrinsic motivation (see this paper by David Beswick). Another is that they may encourage sub-standard work, particularly in cases where benchmarks are based on volume rather than quality of output.

Extrinsic rewards can also be non-material – promotions and training opportunities, for example (see this paper by Wolfgang Semar for more on non-material, extrinsic rewards).

Intrinsic rewards generally pertain to the satisfaction derived from performing a task. The moral satisfaction arising from a job done well is also a form of intrinsic reward. It should be clear that these rewards work only for intrinsically motivated individuals. Intrinsic rewards are invariably non-material and they cannot be controlled by management.  However, awareness of factors influencing intrinsic motivation  can help managers create the right environment for intrinsically motivated individuals.  Kenneth Thomas, in his book entitled, Intrinsic Motivation at Work – Building Energy and Commitment, identifies four psychological factors that can influence intrinsic motivation. They are:

  1. Feelings of accomplishment: These can be enhanced by devising interesting work tasks and aligning them with employee interests.
  2. Feelings of autonomy: These can be enhanced by empowering employees with responsibility and authority to do their work.
  3. Feelings of competence: These can be enhanced by offering employees opportunities to demonstrate and enhance their expertise.
  4. Feelings of progress: These can be enhanced by fostering a collaborative atmosphere in which project successes are celebrated.

These factors are (to an extent) under management control. If nothing else, it is worth being aware of them so that one can avoid doing things that might reduce intrinsic motivation.

Motivation crowding and psychological contracts

The authors then examine the effects of rewards on intrinsic motivation in the context of knowledge management projects (Recall that intrinsic motivation was seen to be a key success factor in knowledge management projects).  They use motivation crowding theory to frame their discussion. Crowding theory suggests that intrinsic motivation can be enhanced (“crowded-in”) or undermined (or “crowded-out”) by external rewards.

To understand motivation crowding, one has to look at how extrinsic (or external) rewards work. Basically there are two ways in which an extrinsic reward can be perceived. To quote from the paper,

External interventions, such as rewards, may influence this perception either through information or control. If people see a reward as being related to their competence (information), intrinsic motivation for the task will be encouraged or maintained. On the other hand, if they see a reward as a way to control their performance or autonomy, intrinsic motivation would be decreased.

Extrinsic rewards can have a positive or negative effect on information and control. This is best understood through an example: consider a company that announces cash incentives for the top three contributors to a knowledge database. This reward has a positive control aspect (i.e. encourages participation) but a negative information aspect (i.e. no check on quality of contributions). Consequently, the reward encourages high volume of contributions with no regard to quality. This situation typically undermines or “crowds-out” intrinsic motivation. Note that motivation “crowding out” is sometimes referred to as motivation eviction in the literature.

Crowding-out is also seen in recurring tasks. For example, if a monetary incentive is offered for a task, there will be an expectation that the incentive be offered the next time around. On the other hand, non-monetary interventions such as increased employee involvement and autonomy in project decision making can “crowd-in” or enhance intrinsic motivation.

These effects are intuitively quite obvious, but it’s interesting to see them from a social science / economics point of view. If you’d like to find out more, I highly recommend the paper, Motivation crowding theory: A survey of empirical evidence, by Bruno Frey and Reto Jegen.

The take home lesson from the above is that intrinsic motivation can sometimes be negatively affected by external rewards. Manager, beware.

Whittom and Roy also discuss the notion of psychological contracts between the employer and employee. These contracts, distinct from formal employment contracts, refer to the unstated (but implied) informal, mutual obligations pertaining to respect, autonomy, work ethic, fairness etc. An employee’s intrinsic motivation can be greatly reduced if he or she perceives that the contract has been breached. For example, if an employee’s regarding improvements to a knowledge database are ignored, she might feel undervalued. In her eyes, management (and hence the organisation) has lost credibility, and the psychological contract has been violated. In psychological contract theory, personal relationships are seen to be  an important driver of intrinsic motivation: people are more likely to enjoy working in teams in which they have good relations with team members.


Practices to foster intrinsic motivation

One conclusion from the aforementioned theories is that intrinsic motivation is essential for the transfer of tacit knowledge. Accordingly, the authors suggest the following practices to maintain and enhance intrinsic motivation of employees involved in knowledge management projects:

  1. Avoid the use of monetary rewards. Instead, use non-monetary rewards that recognize competence. Monetary rewards may also encourage the transfer of unimportant knowledge.
  2. Involve employees in the formulation of project objectives.
  3. Encourage team work and team bonding. A good team dynamic encourages the sharing of tacit knowledge. The technique of dialogue mapping facilitates the sharing and capture of knowledge in a team environment.
  4. Emphasise how the employee might benefit from the project – this is the old WIIFM factor. This needs to be done in a way that shows how the benefit is integrated into the organisation’s culture – i.e. the benefit must be a realistic and believable one, else the employee will see right through it.
  5. Good communication between management and employees. This one is a “usual suspect” that comes up in virtually all best practice recommendations. Unfortunately it is seldom done right.

Contextual recommendations based on knowledge and motivation types

Theories of motivation indicate that, as far as motivation for knowledge sharing is concerned, one size does not fit all. The particular strategy used depends on the nature of the knowledge that is being captured (tacit or explicit), participants’ motivational drivers (intrinsic or extrinsic) and organizational resources. Based on this, the authors discuss the following contexts

  1.  Tacit knowledge management / intrinsic motivation: This is an ideal situation. Here the manager’s role is to support participants in achieving project objectives rather than to influence their behaviour through rewards. Extrinsic rewards should be avoided because participants are intrinsically motivated.
  2. Tacit knowledge management / extrinsic motivation: From the preceding discussion of motivation theories, it is clear that this is not a good situation. However, all is not lost. A manager can develop knowledge management strategies based on structured training, discussion groups etc. to help codify and transfer tacit knowledge. These strategies should highlight the project benefits (for the employee and the organisation). Further, extrinsic rewards can be offered, but their “crowding-out” effect over time should be kept in mind.
  3. Explicit knowledge / intrinsic motivation:  Here the knowledge management aspect is easier because the knowledge is explicit. Typically, once the objectives are identified, it is clear how knowledge should be captured and organized. Obviously, structured training and tools such as Wikis and databases can help facilitate knowledge transfer. Further, these will be more effective than case (2) above, because the participants are intrinsically motivated.. Recommendations, as far as rewards are concerned are the same as in the first case.
  4. Explicit knowledge / extrinsic motivation: For knowledge management the same considerations apply as in case (3). However, these strategies will be less effective because employees are extrinsically motivated. For rewards management, the considerations of case (2) apply.

As discussed above, the motivation strategy should be determined by whether the team members are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. Unfortunately, though, the strategy often dictated by the culture of the organization – the manager may have little say in determining it. The authors do not discuss what a manager might do in such a situation.


The paper presents no new data or analysis of existing data. As such it must be evaluated on the basis of new concepts and theoretical constructs that it presents. From this perspective  there’s little that’s new in this paper.   That said, project managers leading knowledge management projects might find the paper a worthwhile read because of  its coverage of motivation theories (crowding theory and psychological contracts, in particular).

Let me end with an extrapolation of the above discussion to software projects. The holy grail of knowledge management initiatives is to capture tacit knowledge. By definition, this knowledge is difficult to codify.  One sees something similar in requirements gathering for application software. The analyst needs to capture all the explicit and tacit process knowledge that’s in users’ heads. The former is easy to capture; the latter isn’t. As a result requirements usually do not capture tacit process knowledge. This is one aspect of what Brooks referred to as the essential problem of software design – figuring out what the software really needs to do (see this post for more on Brooks’ argument). Well designed software embodies both kinds of knowledge, so software projects are knowledge management projects in a sense.  As far as motivation is concerned, therefore,  the theories and conclusions sketched above should apply to software projects.  An intrinsically motivated development team will  improve the chances of success greatly;  a trite statement perhaps, but one that may resonate with those who have had the privilege of working with such teams.

Written by K

June 18, 2009 at 10:20 pm

8 Responses

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  1. I would disagree that “The holy grail of knowledge management initiatives is to capture tacit knowledge”.
    Capture is nothing without re-use, and re-use does not necessarily involve capture (there are many mechanisms for transferring tacit knowledge directly, for example). The “holy grail” of knowledge management initiatives, I would say, is to ensure the systematic and strategic use and application of corporate knowledge. However that is an aside

    In terms of motivation, I believe you should address this as you do any other management discipline. How do you motivate people to follow the company risk management approach, or to comply with diversity guidelines, or to do their budgeting and financial reporting? You do a number of things

    1) you make the expectation for KM very clear, and you embed it in work structures. See for example the way BP have embedded KM within their common work frameworks

    2) you make accountabilities very clear. The job description of the subject matter experts in Shell, for example, makes their KM roles, objectives and deliverables very clear. These are reviewed in the normal way, in their appraisals

    3) you monitor activity, and sanction those who are not complying. Look at the way Buckman labs operate – the notes that go out from the CEO saying “dear associate – you have not been sharing knowledge. How can I help you improve?” As Melissie Rumizen used to say – “we reward knowledge management. If you do it, we reward you by letting you keep your job”

    Motivating people to do KM should ultimately be done the same way as any other aspect of required working practice. Make it part of the job – part of expected working practice – part of “what it means to do my job well”.


    Nick Milton

    June 19, 2009 at 5:52 pm

  2. Nick,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I agree – re-use is important. However reuse is implicit in the case of software – reuse is guaranteed once knowledge is codified in software, providing that the functionality expressed by that knowledge is used.

    You make an excellent point that re-use does not necessarily involve capture. You’re absolutely right – in many cases direct transfer (through apprenticeships, say) is more effective than capture.

    Regarding your other point, most motivation research – including many of the papers referenced in my post – suggest that motivation cannot be addressed as a management discipline. In particular, intrinsic motivation can only be fostered by creating the right environment.





    June 19, 2009 at 8:01 pm

  3. Great Discussion. I have learned alot from this, in terms of application to motivating people.

    A quote I am particularly fond of that I learned from Khor Soon Kheng a Malaysian Project Manager, is from Confucius. “hear forget, see remember, do know.

    Stephen Downes ~ An Introduction to Connective Knowledge
    a. Types of Knowledge
    “”You probably grew up learning that there are two major types of knowledge: qualitative and quantitative. These two types of knowledge have their origin in major schools of history and philosophy, the former in the works of the ancient Greeks, and the latter in Arabic and then later Renaissance philosophy.
    Connective knowledge adds a third major category to this domain, knowledge that could be described as distributed, because it is spread across more than one entity. A property of one entity must lead to or become a property of another entity in order for them to be considered connected; the knowledge that results from such connections is connective knowledge.””

    The intrinsic motivation is a quality we should measure more. A New York Times Article “How Google Decides to Pull the Plug”. Describes that Google will measure simply the activity of communication between people as a measure of when to cancel a project. As recently as July 2 2009, Google has opened up there Contacts Application to allow more enterprise socialization. I think that would be an ideal way to quantify the intrinsic motivation based on the communication nodes, and the frequency of communication methods between people.


    Robert Higgins

    July 3, 2009 at 6:16 am

  4. Robert,

    Thanks for your appreciative feedback, and very interesting ideas / references.

    The idea of connective knowledge is interesting, particularly in the context of projects where the know-what and know-how needed to get things done is often spread across many stakeholders.

    Your idea of measuring intrinsic motivation via communication nodes/frequency is an interesting one. However, this may be hard to quantify, as the correlation between the two is indirect.





    July 3, 2009 at 6:49 pm

  5. […] the merging of various project management cultures to facilitate the transfer and most importantly utilization of knowledge utilization of knowledge.  Ajmal and Kokinen cite the best way to increase our success is to […]


  6. […] Awati and his vast knowledge and his ability to stimulate positive dialogs, one post in particular Managing participant motivation in knowledge management projects . The subject is Motivation.  If we can locate the Connectors “the people who link us up […]


  7. It seems to me that in order to understand the discussion better, one needs to be an expert both in human anatomy and psychology.



    July 10, 2010 at 2:31 am

  8. […] incentives: As I have discussed at length in my post on motivation in knowledge management projects, people will contribute their hard earned knowledge only if they are truly engaged in their work.  […]


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