Fighting the Knowledge Hiding Epidemic

hidingA new Canadian study reveals that companies are suffering from a “knowledge hiding” epidemic.  Or, as Kimberly Weisul puts it, the $73 billion that companies spent on knowledge management software in 2008 (according to AMR research) might possibly be a complete waste.

That’s a thought that should strike terror in the heart of every knowledge management professional.

So what’s going on?  Apparently, companies have invested in marvelous (and expensive) knowledge management systems without first properly identifying and addressing the barriers to knowledge sharing that exist within their organizations.  As a result, their systems lack the key content that make them mission critical. Instead, the people with the goods are keeping them hidden.

The study by Catherine Connelly, Jane Webster and David Zweig cites the following popular methods of knowledge hiding:

  • ignoring requests for assistance
  • claiming that the requested information is confidential and cannot be shared
  • pretending ignorance

The study also provides some reasons why colleagues indulge in knowledge hiding:

  • they are distrustful of co-workers or management
  • they feel an injustice has been done to them
  • they are retaliating for someone else’s bad behavior
  • their organizational culture encourages secrecy rather than sharing
  • they believe that they can get away with it

In a similar vein, Ian Thorpe has noted in his KM on a dollar a day blog the following reasons why people won’t share information:

  • the requested material is “rough and ready” — fine in the hands of the originator, but not safe in the hands of others
  • it is a preliminary draft and has not been perfected
  • the material was not intended for external consumption
  • it may not conform to the public position of management or the organization
  • it may be based on evidence or arguments that have not yet been properly vetted

So what are the best antidotes for knowledge hiding? The key is to build an organizational culture of knowledge sharing.  However, that is easier said than done.  In light of that, what do the study’s authors recommend?

The paper suggested that companies can overcome knowledge hiding by having more direct contact and less email communication with employees, highlighting examples of trustworthiness, and avoiding “betrayal” incentives, such as rewards for salespeople who poach another’s clients. (Jordan Press, Ottawa Citizen, May 16, 2011) [emphasis added]

In addition,

  • Build trust — emphasize positive relationships among employees
  • Demonstrate the mutual benefits that result when colleagues share information
  • Treat all workers fairly and respectfully, thereby reducing feelings of injustice and the need for retaliation

At the end of the day, if you want to get value out of your expensive knowledge management systems, you have to spend the time and effort to ensure that all the people involved are willing to cooperate and share.  Don’t let a technology vendor tell you otherwise.

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For further reading, see: Jack Vinson, Knowledge hiding among co-workers.

[Photo Credit: Susan NYC]

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