Why do employees hoard their knowledge, and what can be done to prevent this?

To date, knowledge has largely been seen as something positive that can be beneficially managed. However, in a recent article we reviewed a paper that argues that organizations also need to consider knowledge risks because of the emerging number of these risks and the growing complexity of organizational environments. One of the knowledge risks identified in that paper is knowledge hoarding.

A new paper[1] focuses specifically on knowledge hoarding, reviewing the literature to identify why employees hoard their knowledge and what can be done to prevent this. To the knowledge of author Elif Bilginoğlu, the paper is the first published comprehensive literature review on the construct of knowledge hoarding.

What is knowledge hoarding?

On the basis of the literature review, Bilginoğlu provides a definition of knowledge hoarding. Both knowledge hoarding and knowledge hiding are the opposite of knowledge sharing, with knowledge hiding another of the knowledge risks identified in the previous article.

Knowledge hiding is the intentional concealment of knowledge requested by another individual, whereas knowledge hoarding is defined as the accumulation of knowledge that may or may not be shared at a later date.

What are the consequences of knowledge hoarding?

If knowledge is hoarded, then the many others who could benefit from the knowledge have no easy way to access it, or may not know it exists. They must either do without the knowledge, squander valuable time trying to find it, or generate it again from scratch. This diminishes the competitive advantage and effectiveness of the organisation, and wastes vital resources.

In the case that the knowledge hoarder leaves the organization, the knowledge is lost because there is no backup.

The hoarded knowledge can sometimes not be the knowledge itself, but how that knowledge can be accessed, filtered, or organized.

Why do employees hoard knowledge?

Bilginoğlu alerts that knowledge hoarding is not an isolated or insignificant practice. Rather, “The natural inclination of employees at every level in almost every organization is to hoard knowledge, especially knowledge that is deemed valuable.”

A key reasons for why knowledge hoarding occurs is a “knowledge is power” workplace culture, where employees conceal their knowledge from others for personal gain or to make themselves indispensable in their work environments. In organizations with a competitive internal work environment, the contributor of an idea may be assuming a great deal of personal vulnerability by revealing the secrets of their own competitive edge.

The “knowledge is power” culture differs in different parts of the world, corresponding to the local labor market. In the developed world, knowledge is shared more freely and openly, while in the developing world knowledge is hoarded to a greater extent. Bilginoğlu advises that this is probably because there is an oversupply of labor in some developing countries which makes the labor market fiercely competitive, while in developed countries the feeling is that knowledge sharing builds a person’s reputation as a sought-after specialist in a specific area.

The absence of proper platforms for effective knowledge sharing can also contribute to knowledge hoarding. In the absence of an organized knowledge management initiative, hoarding often also takes place within the functional silos of the organization, especially where competition exists between various areas of the business.

There’s also a common view that older workers hoard knowledge because they are more insecure and feel threatened by younger workers, but Bilginoğlu says this is a stereotype.

How can knowledge hoarding be prevented?

From the literature, Bilginoğlu recommends creating a knowledge sharing organisational culture through the implementation of these three strategies:

  1. Establish the right environment for knowledge sharing by integrating knowledge sharing practices into strategic business objectives, human resources practices, and the organization’s culture. Knowledge should be treated as a corporate resource that cannot be hoarded by any particular part of the organization. As well as acting to prevent knowledge hoarding, managers should identify common barriers to knowledge sharing, and then work to develop ways to manage and improve the knowledge sharing process in order to lessen (or even eliminate) the greatest barriers.
  2. As knowledge is perceived as power, employees should be convinced that the benefits of sharing outweigh the cost of losing this perceived power. A strong argument in this regard is that while the “knowledge is power” belief may have been true in times when knowledge obsolescence took years, knowledge today has a limited shelf life due to the new technologies, products, and services that are continually pouring into the marketplace. There is nothing less powerful than hoarding knowledge that is time expired.
  3. Top management should believe that power comes from sharing knowledge and not from hoarding it, and act accordingly. Employees are typically rewarded for what they know, not what they share, and this reinforces knowledge hoarding. Management needs to facilitate a shift in this thinking so that employees feel they are appreciated for their knowledge sharing contributions and acknowledged as the true owners of knowledge.

Header image source: mohamed_hassan on Pixabay, Public Domain.

Reference:

  1. Bilginoğlu, E. (2019). Knowledge hoarding: A literature review. Management Science Letters, 9(1), 61–72.

Originally published at RealKM.