Hoarding Knowledge

Updated May 16 2011 - Knowledge transfer may not be happening as often as organizations would like because staff don't always want to share, according to David Zweig, a professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and the University of Toronto at Scarborough. He said:

"We've had years of research in organizations about the benefits of knowledge-sharing but an important issue is the fact that people don't necessarily want to share their knowledge."

In a paper co-authored with Catherine Connelly of McMaster University, Jane Webster of Queen's University, and John Trougakos of the Rotman School and the University of Toronto at Scarborough, they label this behaviour, "knowledge hiding." David Zwei adds:

"A lot of companies have jumped on the bandwagon of knowledge-sharing, such as spending money on developing knowledge-sharing software. It was a case of, 'If you build it they will come.' But they didn't come."

Three ways by which employees hide what they know from co-workers are identified in the paper:

  • being evasive
  • rationalized hiding - such as saying a report is confidential, and
  • playing dumb

The authors identify two big predictors for such behaviours:

  • basic distrust
  • poor knowledge-sharing climate within the company

They argue that organizations can overcome them by using strategies such as increasing direct contact and reducing e-mail communication, highlighting examples of trustworthiness, and avoiding "betrayal" incentives, for example rewarding salespeople who poach each other's clients.

According to David Zweig: "If you don't work on creating that climate and establishing trust, it doesn't matter how great the software is, people aren't going to use it."

Forget Knowledge Sharing - Colleagues Hide Their Best Ideas

Has a colleague ever ignored you when you asked for information? Did you have the feeling that they were deliberately avoiding you or were only pretending to be ignorant? Recent research suggests that you may have been right.

Catherine Connelly considers that companies regard knowledge acquired on the job as proprietary and implement expensive knowledge management systems to ensure those in the know share with others and says that this behaviour is bad for business.

Catherine Connelly says that the reluctance to share produces a contagious tendency to hide important knowledge and as a result productivity suffers.

Connelly's research indicates that employees are more likely to share with people they trust and treat them fairly. "When organizations emphasize positive relationships and trust among employees, knowledge sharing will become part of the culture," she explained.

Clues you've been a victim of knowledge hiding:

  • You ask a colleague for help, and they say
  • "I'm sorry. My boss doesn't want this to be public right now."
  • Nothing. They ignore your request.
  • "I don't know. Maybe someone else can help you out."

Why people engage in knowledge hiding:

  • they feel that an injustice has been done to them
  • they are distrustful of co-workers or management
  • they are retaliating against someone else's behavior toward them
  • the organizational climate encourages secrecy, not sharing
  • they can get away with it

How to encourage knowledge sharing:

  • emphasize positive relationships and trust among employees
  • explain the mutual benefits of having colleagues share their knowledge
  • treat all workers fairly and respectfully
  • make knowledge sharing part of the culture