3 Knowledge-Sharing Tips From 3M to Spark Visionary Product-Design Ideas

by Curt Moreno
- May 28 2015 - 4 min read
culture of innovation knowledge sharing

When it comes to companies that epitomize the practice of knowledge sharing, there are few that can match 3M.

From adhesives to medical technologies to the ceramic-fiber products that allowed the U.S. space shuttles to reenter Earth’s atmosphere, 3M has mastered the art of knowledge sharing, allowing its industrial designers and engineers to break new ground.

A senior industrial designer with 33 years experience at 3M, Jon Kirschhoffer has tapped into the wealth of knowledge harnessed by the company for more than 100 years. Coming from a family of teachers and working in an industry where curiosity and exploration are inherent, Kirschhoffer is very familiar with the concept and value of knowledge sharing. One of the key missions at 3M is to create a culture of innovation through research and development, risk-taking, technology, and knowledge sharing.

3m nextel textiles
3M Nextel Textiles ceramic-fiber products. Courtesy 3M.

In 1951, 3M founded 3M Technical Forum, which brings together more than 9,000 members of its technical community (including mathematicians, engineers, biological psychologists, and scientists) to share best practices and technologies. “There are so many disciplines and so many creative things going on in the company that need to be shared,” Kirschhoffer says. “Technical Forum serves as a grassroots organization that has grown over the years and has great strength and importance in our company.”

Other companies have started their own groups and projects, as well. Case in point is NASA’s Spaceport Innovators employee group at Kennedy Space Center (which meets biweekly and has grown from 20 to more than 200 members in the past five years) and General Electric’s Open Innovation initiative, which crowdsources innovation both internally and externally.

But what’s it all about? Why are such massive brands hopping onboard the knowledge-sharing bandwagon? Discover three knowledge-sharing tips and learn how these innovation groups can be fruitful for your own product-design company.

1. Unite the Right People With the Right Project. Many projects require a team, however large or small. That means pulling the best candidates together, so each one can bring his or her own specific talents to the table.

knowledge-sharing tips

But due to the sheer logistics of large companies, the best project candidate may not even be aware that the project exists. So how do you make sure that the right person is on the right project?

“What is the culture of the company and its attitude toward project development, sharing, and creativity, and then nurturing all of that? That is the big success story behind 3M,” Kirschhoffer says. “Technical Forum is a gathering of special-interest groups for people who have skills or interests in a particular area—with monthly meetings that are shared, broadcast, and published through a public calendar.”

Through its public groups participating in Technical Forum, 3M is able to let the company at large not only know what is in development and what projects are available, but also open the floor for nonproject staff to observe and even contribute to the success of 3M projects.

2. Generate Brilliant Ideas. The ability for nonmembers of a project team to view and contribute to 3M projects exemplifies another benefit of knowledge sharing in any company: the pooling of ideas and expertise. The effects of this kind of knowledge sharing in the workplace can be stunning. The reduction of inefficiencies and boost in productivity can be measured in orders of magnitude once coworkers are communicating and sharing more.

3m gossamer space frames aperture trough
3M/Gossamer Space Frames collaboration: the world’s largest aperture trough using 3M Solar Mirror Film. Courtesy 3M.

Whether coworkers are sharing ideas regarding specific projects or helping one another improve their skill sets, knowledge sharing raises the ceiling of what your team can achieve. By making the collective ideas and experience of the entire company available, everyone has access to assets that would otherwise be relegated to the backs of envelopes, Post-it notes (a breakthrough 3M invention), or outright forgotten.

3M recognizes the importance of widening the pool of thought and the value that it can bring. “Cross-pollination of these ideas can stimulate ideas in other, disparate technology areas,” Kirschhoffer says. “Whether it is through word of mouth, Tech Forum, various databases, or other organizations and activities going on off-company, it all overlaps and fills in those nooks and crannies to get to that knowledge sharing that you are looking for.”

That kind of knowledge sharing was literally a lightbulb moment when 3M’s Tom Simpson and Ray Johnston collaborated on the LED Advanced Light, which burns for 27,500 hours and can amount to about 25 years of home use.

3. Don’t Be Shy; Make Friends. There is no lone path to creating a culture of innovation. In order to successfully increase the number of participants sharing ideas and expertise in your design company, it’s helpful to try various methods.

3m led advanced lightbulb
LED Advanced Light lightbulb. Courtesy 3M.

The key takeaway is that with collaboration, you’re more likely to unearth great ideas than if you secretly squirrel away inventions like a mad scientist in your basement. And when you do make the choice to step out of your own brain and share ideas, nothing beats person-to-person communication. Beyond website posts, emails, and social networking lies the wonderful human trait of sharing knowledge with those you know.

“Get to know your colleagues in person,” Kirschhoffer says. “Learn about their interests and passions. Knowledge sharing is a dialog. It’s about understanding the subject matter on a deeper level beyond just a sharing of data. People are invested in what they do and like to be heard. That’s where the real learning occurs.”

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