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Secrets and Lies: An Ever-Present Knowledge Management Threat

Jul 14, 2015
Sarah Dimick Sarah Dimick
Senior Research Associate
Technology and Innovation

Managing knowledge effectively in today’s organizations continues to grow in importance. Our recent research briefing highlights how this can play a key role in fostering innovation. The Conference Board of Canada’s Council on Information and Knowledge Management (CIKM) continues to investigate major themes in knowledge management (KM), and our most recent meeting featured a presentation from David Zweig from the University of Toronto. Professor Zweig has been studying a field called knowledge hiding for a number of years with some startling results.

Knowledge hiding is defined as an intentional attempt by an individual to withhold or conceal knowledge that has been requested by another person.

Through a collection of studies, Professor Zweig has found that knowledge hiding exists and occurs in at least 12–15 per cent of situations. Furthermore, the people who hide knowledge can’t be identified by any other commonality—there is no “knowledge-hider profile.” Since everyone is potentially hiding knowledge, every organization is susceptible to its effects.

In fact, his research has identified three modes for knowledge hiding: basic evasion and stalling, faked ignorance, and rationalized hiding and excuse making. Each of these generated distrust among those from whom knowledge was being hidden. That distrust was further found to be cyclical—the more it was felt, the more knowledge would be withheld in the future.

It is well established that for knowledge management to be successful, which in turn will lead to increased productivity and even innovation, a culture that encourages sharing must be established. But how do you build an effective culture of knowledge sharing?

The answer lies in a combination of using simple positive reinforcement and taking a fearless approach to understanding an organization’s culture—warts and all. We heard much about this from Christine McAllister, of the Canadian Payments Association (CPA), during the same CIKM meeting. Her team’s work on assessing and understanding their organization’s culture and KM impacts has produced a collection of activities to purposefully support a knowledge-sharing culture.

The CPA has identified four main areas of activity and attitudes that support knowledge sharing and easily translate to any organization:

  • Collaboration: This includes a collegial attitude, removing barriers between different areas of the organization, building opportunities and tools for contact and collaboration between groups, and a willingness to work on cross-divisional projects.
  • Openness to sharing: This attitude is needed because institutional knowledge is localized in employees or teams. The required openness can be built through clear communication about the direction of the KM goals and objectives.
  • Trust, learning, and growth: The organization can work to build this through investing in personal development, clear communication, and greater transparency from management, thereby removing the ambiguity that can lead to uncertainty and fear.
  • Collective sense of purpose: Uniting the organization with a strong and shared mission will contribute to improved knowledge sharing. Further understanding the needs of stakeholders will drive that mission in daily work.

In short, knowledge hiding is a danger and a risk for every organization. In today’s world, knowledge is absolutely key for long-term success and innovation. Actively supporting a culture of knowledge sharing and collaboration is the only effective way to mitigate the threat of knowledge hiding, and requires consistent effort from all areas of the firm.

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