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.


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

[Photo Credit: Susan NYC]

9 thoughts on “Fighting the Knowledge Hiding Epidemic

  1. Even more difficult when the culture is one based on competitiveness and this doesn't just include sales. The whole reward and recognition policy does little to encourage a sharing culture, so without a change here a culture of 'it's what I know' will reign supreme

    1. Mike –

      You’re right that incentives can have a distorting impact on baseline tendencies towards (or against) sharing content. This is why it’s so important to take a close look at the “unintended consequences” of seemingly standard policies like competition among departments or business units. While the goal may be to spur greater productivity at the departmental or business unit level, the lack of transparency and sharing may well impede better organization-wide results.

      – Mary

  2. Do you see a difference between knowledge-hiding and information-hiding?

    1. Nick –

      Your question sent me off on some interesting paths. At the end the exercise, I’m not entirely sure I have a complete answer. I suspect that to the extent people are unwilling to share, they will be more inclined to hide content of high value. If this is true, then data would be more easily shared than information or knowledge. That said, I’m not sure this generalization applies all the way along the DIKW chain to wisdom. People often seem all too eager to share their homespun wisdom with any willing listener!

      All joking aside, what did you have in mind when you posed the question?

      – Mary

    1. John –

      Thanks for the additional material. I agree that the personal interchanges can be hugely important, yet so easily lost in the press of business.

      – Mary

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