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Dismantling A Culture Of Knowledge-Hoarding

by Jamie S. Walters

Despite initiatives to foster a spirit of teamwork and collaboration, the reluctance of many workers to share knowledge and credit is hurting productivity and staff morale in many organizations. What should leadership be doing to reverse the trend?

Despite the many corporate initiatives launched to decrease information-overload, increase teamwork, and facilitate knowledge-sharing, many organizations still find themselves stymied by cultures where knowledge-hoarding and "each man out for himself" behaviors flourish.

While some of the programs designed to help turn out to be more costly than valuable, it's also true that hoarding, failing to share credit, and the lack of skillful communication and true teamwork also have high costs.

What's a leader to do?

A snapshot of the problem

Research has shown that poor communication and knowledge-hoarding (and information-hoarding, which aren't necessarily identical concerns) are alive and well in corporate cultures, as well as in healthcare organizations, law firms, consultancies and the like. Not even non-profits escape the problem, no doubt, despite missions that some might guess would make them "kinder and gentler".

Studies strongly suggest that poor communication and interpersonal or relational issues, such as knowledge hoarding and a failure to share credit, are directly related to staff morale and higher turnover rates.

To compound the issue, employees and managers alike have problems integrating information and knowledge that is shared or that they do have access to—a reality that has vexed some knowledge-management consultants, as their costly initiatives go the way of re-engineering strategies in their failure to produce impressive results that justify the expense.

A key reason for this may be the same for both knowledge-management and re-engineering initiatives: Both are often designed with a reliance on rational, linear, numerical data—and expectations—and yet both have historically failed to take into account the degree of human and psychological influences inherent in organizational culture and its relationships.

MBAs and others design programs using spreadsheets, data analysis, and project-management software, and then are vexed when people don't act like widgets or gears (this is one of the reasons that current MBA programs have come under heavy criticism). Even the language used by initiative-creators is often more appropriate to an industrial engineering plan than one that involves large groups of people.

But people are, well, human beings who don't always act rationally or communicate skillfully! Human beings and human systems have much more in common with chaos and complexity theory than with the Newtonian, Darwinian biases of the professionals designing corporate "human capital" initiatives.

Perhaps they'd do better to understand what makes an environment where knowledge-sharing flourishes naturally, and foster such an environment if the organization's structure and mission would truly allow it, rather than to continue failing at the knowledge-engineering programs.

Why do people hoard information and knowledge?

The issue is both simple and complex. On one hand, it's simple because we know that hoarding information, being stingy with vital knowledge, and communicating and managing unskillfully are costly and less productive. We know we're capable of better.

The issue is complex because most traditional work environments are still hierarchical—and may need to be in order to achieve their particular missions (the real, bottom-line missions rather than the ones word-smithed for public-relations purposes).

In such environments, the organizational cultures traditionally rooted are ones of hyper-competitiveness, where people hoard knowledge because it makes them more valuable and thus more likely to be promoted (or less likely to be sacked). In such organizations, for better or worse, the emphasis on competition, individual achievement and reward, and financial opportunities have well-fertilized these patterns of behavior.

Particularly in very large companies, the organizational system required to maintain order between the many parts ends up impeding true collaboration, knowledge-sharing, or the chaos required for creativity—and organic, creative exchanges. Smaller groups or organizations may have a greater likelihood of success in each of these areas, because its smaller size requires fewer control structures.

Compounding these traditional cultural issues are ones brought about by economic strains, where repeated rounds of layoffs heighten fears of joblessness and encourage certain individuals to hoard information, take individual credit for a team's accomplishments, and tend more towards "cover your derriere" behavior than collaborative efforts.

While not optimal, it makes sense, that an individual who fears losing his job would act in ways that he believes would make him indispensable, no matter how many team-building ropes courses he attended with his colleagues.

In addition, hoarding knowledge, or the inability to make use of it, are magnified by problems of information-overload and a basic problem of an individual's inability to manage his schedule and priorities well. A person who feels chronically behind is more likely to lapse into "security behaviors" like hoarding information (or just failing to share it) or thinking only of his own job survival.

Again, many corporate cultures, with their lust for longer-than-necessary meetings, perpetual change and layoffs, etc., help to foster such problems.

What might encourage knowledge-sharing, and discourage hoarding?

As we can see, there is no easy answer, particularly for larger, more established companies, or the younger enterprises that emulate their elder brethren. Yet there are some things that a leader—or an enterprising and courageous employee—might sample to create a group culture that is at least more balanced, if not completely successful at collaborative, more natural-systems efforts.

1) Create sub-cultures or initiatives that focus on small-group interactions (which can tolerate a greater degree of chaos or complexity in their way of functioning) where individuals/groups can tap system-wide tools that act as information repositories.

The dynamic nature of an individual's or a group's knowledge render such complicated or system-wide tools or repositories chronically out of date. Still, technological tools that allow people to share information, knowledge, and experiences can be an excellent resource.

2) Model from above. Many employees act according to what they perceive from their leaders and managers. Those who themselves share information, award credit where credit is due, and display collaborative, group-centered behavior will be more likely to attract and encourage the same in their employees.

(Acting in a non-collaborative way can be deeply ingrained, stemming from a long, cultural devaluing of the gifts and talents associated with "feminine" ways of working or being. The latter attributes, however, are increasingly important to the sustainability of our traditional organizations and culture as a whole, and often flourish more in a natural systems, rather than the Newtonian, Darwinian-engineered system of our marketplace and its organizations.)

3) Integrate "teaching and sharing" into the group fabric (again, something that is more likely accomplished in an autonomous small group—"grassroots-up"—than it would be as a "top-down" policy). Some of the more simple ways to do this include:

a. Ask people to share instances where one of their colleagues shared knowledge or information to help them do their work more effectively.

b. Ask staff members to contribute in a group-led dialogue—in the format of a mini-workshop at a staff meeting or retreat—where everyone in the group teaches something about how knowledge hoarding and lack of credit-sharing is harmful to their work and its outcomes, and how sharing knowledge and credit improves work effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction.

c. Ask people to share such stories—or have one person collect such stories—for use in a group, departmental or organizational newsletter. This information can also be shared and collected for use in a "best practices" and "peak performance" library (online or physical).

d. Ensure that these performance issues are included in formal job descriptions and performance evaluations, and identify and measure them accordingly—with either reward for effectiveness or accountability for improvement.

e. Create and emphasize an organizational and group culture where peak performance and relational skillfulness are most valued, rather than relying solely on one's educational degree and title/position with the organization.

f. Create and emphasize an organizational and group culture where peak performance and relational skillfulness are most valued, rather than relying solely on one's educational degree and title/position with the organization.

g. Ensure that the culture of the group and organization are safe for people to demonstrate behavior that is different from the norm, and where people feel confident that, if they share examples, they won't be punished (formally or informally). The group culture has to be "made safe for change".

h. Create a group blog (web log) that's searchable, and in which group members include clear keywords for areas that are a priority to the group's peak performance, or have someone else routinely gather such stories and "blog them" (as well as put them into other sharable formats).

i. Assign a "story keeper" and ensure that the person has the leeway to fulfill that function. (Many organizations vastly underestimate the importance of such communication- and relationship-oriented roles, while tribes and other groups that more easily operate in these areas routinely value such roles, including that of "knowledge keeper" or "story keeper").

4) Deal with the "unnecessary meeting" problem, which most larger companies have. People who move rotely from one overly long meeting to the next unnecessary meeting, where meetings are characterized by lifeless agendas and "sleepy food snacks", are not going to have the time or the motivation to share valuable knowledge or integrate it into their own activities.

5) Ensure that both the directors/leaders and staff gain organizational and time-management skillfulness, so that they're more likely to well-manage their day and less likely to fall prey to less skillful habits because they're always feeling disorganized and behind. Again, the group culture has to be safe for people to decline meetings and prioritize their own projects and tasks.

Needless to say, this topic and its issues and solutions are the subject of much research. Yet there is progress to be made if we can step away from traditional formats and cultivate pockets where chaos, creativity, and natural relationships can flourish.

The sharing of knowledge would more likely occur by default, more effectively than any current hyper-quantitative, highly controlled, "enterprise-wide engineering solution" will tolerate.

Copyright, Ivy Sea, Inc. Reprinted with permission from author and Ivy Sea, Inc.

Jamie S. Walters is the founder of Ivy Sea, Inc., the author of Big Vision, Small Business and the producer of Ivy Sea Online. Jamie and Ivy Sea helps people to find their own pathways and connections to the authentic and Spirit-full life—conscious enterprise, mindful transformation, skillful communication—and then integrate those insights into their own entrepreneurial or livelihood endeavors, leadership styles, and organizational transformation efforts.

 

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