Knowledge Hiding – Organizational “Prison Rules”

Three children playing hide and seek in a forest.

I read an interesting and recently released study the other day which talks about a relatively new term in the Knowledge Management game – “Knowledge Hiding.” I think though that the concept isn’t necessarily new, and it has similarities to another KM “boogie-man” — the knowledge “hoarder.” But it is in this new study that a label is applied to specific bad behavior that I’d say could be easily described as “Prison Rules” as applied to knowledge sharing.

“Prison Rules” is one of those “urban slang” terms – referring to those situations when someone will do something (driving, sports, holiday shopping, etc.) while cheating, being overly aggressive or intimidating, and otherwise trying to “win” at all costs.

And it seems to me that knowledge hiding then is all about prison rules as they would apply to organizational knowledge sharing.

According to the study, “Knowledge hiding in organizations” (Connelly, Zweig, Webster, Trougakos; 12/2010), knowledge hiding is defined as “an intentional attempt by an individual to withhold knowledge that has been requested by another person.”

Hiding knowledge is distinguishable from knowledge hoarding in that the hiding is an “intentional concealment of knowledge” while hoarding refers to the “accumulation of knowledge that has not necessarily been requested by another individual.” In short, knowledge hiding is an active attempt to keep knowledge from someone, while the hoarding is essentially passive.

Research indicates that there are at least three particular forms of hiding activities that a knowledge hider will do to avoid sharing knowledge:

  1. Evasive hiding (involves deception, such as giving incomplete answers when the situation is complex and an incomplete answer is believable)
  2. Rationalized hiding (presenting excuses when an answer would be obvious, such as saying that the person asking isn’t allowed access to the knowledge)
  3. Playing dumb (feigning ignorance)

The “good news” is that knowledge hiding is somewhat predictable. And I don’t think that you’ll be surprised to hear of the symptoms that indicate that the organizational culture may be at risk.

For example, if there is a “level of distrust” between the knowledge hider and the knowledge seeker, knowledge hiding takes place. Or if the organization doesn’t dissuade the knowledge hiders by ensuring that the culture is supportive of knowledge sharing (such as by rewarding, recognizing and encouraging knowledge sharing), knowledge hiding will certainly take place.

Unfortunately, that’s not exactly “new news” though is it? We’ve all probably seen behavior such as that in one organization or another and probably have also seen the impact that it has upon knowledge management implementation.

And I really don’t think that you’ll be surprised by the suggested ways that an organization can work to limit or eradicate knowledge hiding. The study pinged on two of those, and I’ll add in my own third suggestion.

First: Increasing Socialization
First up on the list is to encourage and increase the amount of socialization that takes place. We’re talking about getting together face-to-face. It’s certainly well known (r-r-right?) that bringing folks together allows for the building of trust. And it should be fairly obvious that you don’t share your knowledge with someone who you don’t trust.

Which is all well and good, but does this mean that you are left with hoping that folks get together on their own and that they then somehow build sufficient levels of trust?

Absolutely not! It is critical that the organization actively encourage an atmosphere that openly supports opportunities for folks to get together. There are just so many things that any organization can do to increase socialization opportunities….but it clearly begins with the recognition by those running the organization that face-to-face interaction is important and that it leads to improved communications and greater levels of trust. All of which then results in a culture that encourages sharing of knowledge.

Second: Reward and Recognition
To effectively “beat down” knowledge hiding you need to reinforce the behavior that you desire. So that means rewarding for knowledge sharing. It’s that old, “what’s in it for me?” approach. And it may seem obvious but it’s certainly worth stating it just in case: Behavior that is rewarded is repeated.

One of the bigger causes of failure in any cultural change is the failure to change the organizational reward and recognition program. Many organizations get so wrapped up in making the change itself happen that they consider dealing with rewards and recognition as a bit of a “back burner” (reduced priority) issue to deal with when there is time. And that is a huge missed opportunity.

Employees don’t change behavior overnight. It simply isn’t possible to announce one minute that a change is taking place and then to expect changed behavior in the next minute. It takes time. Recognizing that you cannot change a culture overnight is key. However, it is equally important to understand that you need to start sending signals to all employees as soon as possible. Signals that make it clear what future changed or modified behavior will be rewarded and how it will be rewarded.

Also key to rewarding the socialized transfer of knowledge is to reward both ends of the knowledge sharing. Meaning that you reward both the person who shares the knowledge and the person who receives the shared knowledge. In many organizations there is a bit of a natural reluctance to use someone else’s work or idea or knowledge. In the past it may have even been openly viewed as less important than coming up with your “own knowledge.” And so the organization must actively encourage and reward those who do share and those who use what is shared. Make a big thing out of it by, for example, writing about it in the organizational newsletter – complete with picture and description of both the knowledge sharing and what the reward was. Tell stories throughout the organization about those who share knowledge and those who utilize shared knowledge – as is often the case, we don’t know about a hero until someone tells us that story.

Carrot or the stick? Or dangle the carrot from the stick?

My Own #3: Sticks
This one wasn’t mentioned in the study but I’m going to go ahead and toss it out: There is a time for both the “carrot” and for the “stick.” In a perfect world it would be wonderful if when we introduced necessary cultural changes that all in the organization would just naturally fall in line because it was the right thing to do to improve the organization. But that’s simply not reality.

I’ve seen (and I’m sure that you have also) times when people openly defy rules as if daring the organization to call them out on that behavior. Ignoring that bad behavior doesn’t solve the problem. And this study certainly validates that some of that bad behavior then becomes knowledge hiding and with all the attached necessary consequences. So you need to be the leader…but recognize when it is time to act as the manager.

In short, after a certain amount of carrot dangling it may well become time to not only show the stick but to also apply the stick. If you don’t apply the stick to those who refuse to change that signals that they won’t actually be required to make the change (and thereby encouraging others to consider not making the change!). Applying the stick to those who refuse to make the change instead signals that refusing the change won’t be tolerated.

Dr. Dan's Daily Dose:
A new name for an old game. Knowledge hiding is bad for the organization in so many ways. So much of knowledge management is all about the people but some organizations forget that (or never acknowledged it). It’s all about connecting the people in as many ways as you can, and to openly encourage knowledge sharing. Reward the behavior you need and learn how to recognize when the time for leading is done and that the time for managing has begun.
About Dr. Dan Kirsch