Endowment Effect on Knowledge Management

An article in this week’s The Economist discusses the endowment effect: It’s Mine I tell You. The endowment effect (also known as divestiture aversion):

“is a hypothesis that people value a good or service more once their property right to it has been established. In other words, people place a higher value on objects they own than objects that they do not. In one experiment, people demanded a higher price for a coffee mug that had been given to them but put a lower price on one they did not yet own.”

I look at this behavior as to its impact on knowledge management. One of the many challenges in knowledge management is getting people to contribute. You need to build a cultural and enable the tools to get people sharing what they know. There are obvious technology challenges to this sharing. But the soft side of encouraging the sharing has been the bigger problem.

The endowment effect now seems fairly obvious to me. People are less likely to share because they have a sense of ownership over the knowledge. Inside the law firm, this knowledge is usually acquired through the assets of the firm. The attorney probably started with some existing agreement from the document management system, used their secretary and junior attorneys to help craft the knowledge and attended seminars on the firm’s dime.

The endowment effect seems to explain why people are less likely to share. One of my approaches to knowledge management is to look for ways to capture the knowledge of the attorney in a way that is more useful to the individual attorney. That the knowledge is being shared is just a by-product. I have seen this approach labeled personal knowledge management and knowledge management 2.0. The most important consumer of an individual’s knowledge assets is that individual.

A blog is a classic example. Especially inside the law firm, the blog is a great tool to “catch the butterflies” of knowledge as they pass through your day. It is a quick and easy way to capture interesting articles, thoughts and ideas that may otherwise end up in a stack or file folder. With the blog you can categorize your butterflies and search for them in a way that makes sense to the individual. That others inside the enterprise can find them is merely a by-product. It is an important by-product for knowledge management. But the focus of the tool is on the individual, not the firm.

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