For years, the industrial-era economy was one dominated by large corporations and even larger physical infrastructure. Today the internet has changed all of that. We’ve moved into an information economy, where data is king and ideas are the new business currency. For small businesses, that means it’s now possible to compete on more equal footing with businesses of all sizes. To do it, however, it’s necessary to make sure that the business’s most valuable resource – knowledge – flows freely throughout the organization where it can have the maximum positive effect. That’s not the kind of thing that happens accidentally. It requires small business owners and managers to take specific and concrete steps to make it happen. Here are five of the best ways they can do it. Create an Open Environment For a long time, businesses believed that the open-plan office layout was the best way to foster teamwork and collaboration among staff. After many years of anecdotal evidence to the contrary, formal studies have now proven that they’re actually counterproductive to those aims. In their place, many businesses are learning that including formal and informal gathering places in their offices is a much better approach. Adding features like casual seating (couches and comfortable chairs), coffee stations, and extra conference rooms are a great starting place. They’re the kinds of things that can be incorporated into existing spaces without changing entire layouts and can have a dramatic positive effect on employee communication and collaboration. Provide Knowledge-Sharing Tools One of the biggest problems that many businesses face when it comes to information sharing is that nobody’s ever quite sure who has the knowledge they seek. Today, technology has provided a solution to this problem in the form of information management systems and company knowledgebases. By utilizing an information management system, any small business can take all of the guesswork out of knowledge sharing. Employees can use the system to seek and share knowledge, which eliminates the need for time-consuming things like document searches, one-on-one consultations with other staff members, and extensive cross-checks of work to ensure overall consistency. Creating In-House Cross-Training Opportunities In a typical small business, there’s usually not too much overlap in the skills of staff members. Instead, critical knowledge and skills tend to be the domain of individual employees. Needless to say, this is not an optimal situation for any business. In such a case, an unexpected illness or employee departure can cripple the business when there’s nobody to assume the role of the missing staff member. To combat this, it’s a great idea to create a cross-training program that encourages employees to spread their valuable skills and knowledge to others. For example, a member of the marketing team can lead a training course that explains the company’s branding efforts to the rest of the team. Then, all employees will start to understand how their work fits in (and how it should be presented) within the broader marketing goals of the business, and be capable of taking on some marketing tasks if conditions require them to do so. Create an Incentive System As any business owner can tell you – if you want something, the fastest way to get it is to pay for it. The same holds true for encouraging good communications and knowledge sharing among staff members. That’s why it’s a good idea to create an incentive system that rewards the employees that go out of their way to share their knowledge with others. Incentives can be as simple as granting digital badges to high-performers, or giving public acknowledgment when someone goes above and beyond to help others learn. You might be surprised to find out how much motivation a simple pat on the back can provide for most employees. That doesn’t mean, however, that more tangible rewards won’t work. For example, tying raises and promotions to measurable sharing goals will do wonders for encouraging the practice, and things like bonus paid vacation time works well too. Make Knowledge-Sharing a Stated Priority Last but not least, one of the most effective ways that small businesses can encourage knowledge sharing is to make it a stated business priority. In practice, this means bringing up the topic at every meeting, and insisting that managers do the same. It also means creating work schedules that allow ample time for employees to work together to cross-train and learn new skills. Although this sounds obvious, it’s a step that many companies don’t bother to put into practice beyond issuing a mission statement and calling it a day. Scheduling time to dedicate to knowledge sharing lets all employees know that doing so is a vital part of their job and that their employer is serious about making it happen. Without this step, all other efforts to increase knowledge sharing are doomed to failure. Benefit From The Effort Taken together, the above steps help to create an environment where employees feel motivated, encouraged, and rewarded for sharing what they know with the rest of the team. Over time, they’ll start to see the indirect benefits of doing so, too. For example, the first time a vacationing employee comes back and isn’t greeted by an avalanche of backed-up work, they’ll sing the praises of the knowledge-sharing effort for the rest of their tenure. The business will see benefits as well. Better communications and the spread of knowledge helps to foster new ideas and new approaches to old business problems. It works to increase productivity, employee morale, and innovation – all of which are the lifeblood of small businesses. It’s a win for all involved, and now you know how to make it happen.