The "Knowledge Hiding" Epidemic in Corporate America

Last Updated May 17, 2011 9:42 AM EDT

Companies spent about $73 billion on knowledge management software in 2008, according to AMR Research.

Wow. And, possibly, what a waste.

A new study, authored by David Zweig of the Rotman School of Management, Catherine Connelly of McMaster University, Jane Webster of Queen's University, and the University of Toronto's John Trougakos, pokes at the phenomenon that has become the elephant in the room for those who specialize in knowledge management: What if employees-those folks with the knowledge-don't want to share? All the IT in the world isn't going to help you there.

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

How they Hide
In particular, Zweig and his colleagues found that employees have three particular techniques for bucking knowledge management initiatives, all of which the researchers classify as "knowledge hiding":

  • Being evasive, or just repeatedly ignoring requests for information
  • Rationalized hiding, such as claiming a report is confidential when it really isn't
  • Playing dumb, or pretending they don't have the information that is being requested
There are two big reasons employees refuse to share, say the researchers. They both boil down to the same thing: Knowledge is power, and in this age of downsizing, rightsizing, and high unemployment, who in their right mind would give it up? Employees won't share because:
  • They don't trust the other party. They don't believe the information will be used in a way that will help the organization as a whole, or they fear that the information will be used against them-to poach a client, for example.
  • The culture of the organization doesn't encourage it. If people who share information aren't rewarded or at least recognized, why would they bother?
The paper suggests two ways companies can encourage more sharing of critical knowledge-and the first one takes a direct shot at that $73 billion spend mentioned above.
  • Cut down on email. Instead, encourage trust through more person-to-person contact
  • Make positive examples of people who share and who use information well, thereby highlighting examples of trustworthiness
Make sure not to reward people who use information that's been shared with them in a duplicitous manner.

Would you be willing to share hard-won, mission-critical information with a close colleague? With someone in another department? Why or why not?

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Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.