Why companies tend to be bad at sharing knowledge

Academics argue that promoting better knowledge sharing isn't about buying swanky systems; it's about changing your culture.

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
The big problem with knowledge sharing within organisations is that staff often don't want to share, according to a new study by four Canadian academics. They found that even in companies that had invested heavily in knowledge management software - and that's a huge business, on both sides of the Atlantic - initiatives would often fail because employees basically weren't keen on other people benefiting from their hard-earned knowledge. The answer, the academics suggest, is to provide people with better incentives to share - and, possibly, to use email a bit less...

Apparently this 'knowledge hiding' tends to manifest itself in one of three ways: people avoid or ignore requests to share knowledge, they pretend they can't share it because it's confidential, or they pretend they don't have it in the first place. We suspect all three will ring a bell. And as a result, even companies with super-swanky knowledge management software often still end up getting nowhere. As report author Professor David Zweig of the Rotman School of Management puts it: "It was a case of ‘If you build it, they will come’ - but they didn’t come."

Why do people behave like this? Zweig and co reckon there are two main reasons: either they don't trust the other party to use the information appropriately (e.g. they worry it might be used to poach one of their clients), or the culture of their organisation doesn't encourage it. As far as we can see, these two basically amount to the same thing: companies are failing to recognise or reward knowledge sharing. So (not unreasonably, you might argue) employees think: what's in it for me?

All is not lost, however, because the academics have come up with three ways for employers to improve their lot. The first involves fostering greater trust between staff by encouraging more face-to-face contact and less communication by email. The second is to recognise, highlight and reward examples of good knowledge sharing, so they make it clear that it's something they value. And the third is to avoid 'betrayal' incentives, like giving salespeople commission when they pinch someone else's client. None of which is exactly rocket science - but it does makes sense. And it's probably a much cheaper approach than spending thousands of pounds on a new knowledge management tool...

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