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The relative value of rewarding content experts for their work: the role of social norms vs. market norms

1 October 2010
A group of people climbing up a stack of books

Content experts are usually the "fuel" and the executive drive behind any Knowledge Management project. No portal, website or community, as well defined as it might be, it will not answer users' needs if it doesn't contain updated articles; it will not gain sufficient entrance percentages, even if it was set up according to the most updated UX regulations, if the content it displays is incorrect.

So how can we recruit experts, who are responsible for the creation and quality of its content?

Knowledge Managers are hesitant about the manner and type of incentives that will drive these content experts. This is a job that is usually not defined in the worker's formal work requirements and as such depends on the workers' "good will" and their identification with the importance of Knowledge Management in the organization. As human beings, we perform better when we are rewarded for our behavior. The question knowledge managers are interested in examining is- what is the required reward in this case: credit for the good job, a symbolic present, monetary bonus or simply a pat on the shoulder and a nice "thank you"?

Professor Dan Ariely, a professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics, reviews dilemmas similar to those mentioned above in his book titled "The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home" (HarperCollins, 2010). His research show that we live in two worlds: a world ruled by social norms and a world in which marker norms define the rules. An example of a social norm is friendly favors and requests (whether big or small) that people request from one another. These are gestures pleasant to both sides which do not involve returning the favor immediately.

Market norms, however, are based on stark take-give relationships: salaries, prices, rent payments, interests, costs and benefit. Such business relationships usually involve a clear demand for fairly equal benefits for both sides of the agreement which in turn means you only get what you paid for.

Professor Ariely has reviewed the efficiency of market norms compared to social norms in a situation in which participants were paid immediately after performing a task. Three groups of subjects received an identical task of collecting circles displayed on a computer screen. The first group received five dollars before performing any work. The second group received tent cents for their work- again, before performing the task. These two groups represented works according to market norms. The third group was presented the task as a friendly request- a "favor". These participants represented people that act according to social norms.

Astoundingly, the group that did not receive any reward performed the task best. The participants worked harder and displayed higher motivation under the influence of social norms compared to those that performed under market norms.

What about presents? In a similar experiment conducted among three groups, one group was rewarded with a bar of chocolate, a second group was rewarded with luxurious chocolate, while the third did not receive any reward. All three groups displayed similar results. It seems that presents have no effect and the relationship remains bound to social norms rather than market norms.

What can we learn from these results? How should we reward content experts for their work? Professor Ariely's insinuates that a bonus or monetary reward might not achieve its goal and even harm it: the worker might compare the reward they received to the effort they invested in their work and sense that these are not compatible. Such a conclusion may decrease their motivation to continue performing this task. However, a positive comment, credit or a symbolic gift may be received as compatible with the good civilian work they've done and the social norms on which this task was based.


Dan Ariely, The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home" (HarperCollins, 2010)

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