Overcoming Organizational Barriers to Knowledge Sharing

Barriers to Effective KM ImplementationAre “individual knowledge sharing barriers” really about the individuals? Or should the blame more properly be placed on the organization itself? Knowing the answer — and what to do about it — is quite important to successful KM implementation.

I had a hectic couple of days as I’ve been trying to catch up on some correspondence and also my “reading list.” Seems like a never-ending battle to try to read half of what I promise myself I will read.

But spent a bit of time following up on some reading from Gabriel Szulanski related to Sticky Knowledge, which tracked me back to then reading a bit from Andreas Riege, who had a great paper on knowledge sharing barriers. Which lead me further into some readings on different takes on what causes those barriers to knowledge sharing and then also to a couple of blog posts on the topic. And I also found a discussion thread that discussed the importance of “getting a handle on the individual barriers” because that was…sort of where the hold up was. Lots of reading and wandering around.

And somewhere in the middle of it…as I had several papers spread out next to me, and another couple up on the screen…I started thinking about something that I was noticing. It seemed that in talking about barriers to knowledge sharing all of these authors of the various papers had no trouble agreeing that there were at least two big categories of barriers — call them individual and organizational. Some folks touted a third category as technological and some broke apart the organizational by segregating out cultural. But what really stood out, in a way that wouldn’t have if I hadn’t happened to have all of those out in front of me at once…was the realization that it seemed that if you tallied up all the “individual” barriers to knowledge sharing vs. the “organizational”…that there were about 1.5 listed individual barriers for every organizational barrier.

Now I know what you’re thinking…probably that I need to come out into the daylight once in awhile…but work with me here, I think that I’m on to something.

When famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Which I think is appropriate to this discussion.

If you think about it…where is the knowledge “in” the organization? Within the individuals, and without going down down down too many rabbit holes let’s say that we’ll leave room for the knowledge being “embedded in the processes” or something similar. But I think that you will agree with me when I suggest that for the most part, given that we all have these brains full of knowledge (actual mileage may vary of course) that the knowledge is with the individuals more than not.

So if this were so…keeping in mind old Willie Sutton…wouldn’t it seem logical that the barriers to sharing would be more abundant there as well? So does that or could that explain why there always seemed to be more individual barriers listed than organizational barriers?

Interesting thought…but let me lay out some of the individual barriers for us to look at…and you feel free to jump in and tell me when you notice anything….”interesting” about those (these all came from one of the above sources):

  1. General lack of time to share knowledge, and time to identify colleagues in need of specific knowledge;
  2. Apprehension of fear that sharing may reduce or jeopardise people’s job security;
  3. Low awareness and realisation of the value and benefit of possessed knowledge to others;
  4. Dominance in sharing explicit over tacit knowledge such as know-how and experience that requires hands-on learning, observation, dialogue and interactive problem solving;
  5. Use of strong hierarchy, position-based status, and formal power (“pull rank”);
  6. Insufficient capture, evaluation, feedback, communication, and tolerance of past mistakes that would enhance individual and organisational learning effects;
  7. Differences in experience levels;
  8. Lack of contact time and interaction between knowledge sources and recipients;
  9. Poor verbal/written communication and interpersonal skills;
  10. Age differences;
  11. Gender differences;
  12. Lack of social network;
  13. Differences in education levels;
  14. Taking ownership of intellectual property due to fear of not receiving just recognition and accreditation from managers and colleagues;
  15. Lack of trust in people because they misuse knowledge or take unjust credit for it;
  16. Lack of trust in the accuracy and credibility of knowledge due to the source; and
  17. Differences in national culture or ethnic background; and values and beliefs associated with it (language is part of this).

So…did you see what I saw?  I mean, did you notice how many of the above “individual” barriers were actually things that the “individual” had little direct control over?  Think about it — lack of time?  Fear?  Low awareness?  Dominance in sharing explicit?  Pulling rank?  Lack of contact time?  Lack of social network?  Lack of trust?  Failure to take ownership?

Wow. It sure seems to me that all of those kinds of things aren’t really so much about the “individual” at all.  Sure, they may be “at” the individual level…but caused by someone other than that individual.  Clearly the organizational culture and the way the organization operates impacts the lack of time, fear, pulling rank, no social networking, lack of trust, etc. etc. Take one organization, remove coffee/break rooms, enforce a near “hall pass” mentality (going back to school days when you weren’t allowed to roam around at will and socialize), way too many managers who aren’t also leaders, years of forcing IT databases down their throats.   And what did they expect???

Good grief!  I mean, what are we left that the individual is clearly at “blame” for — age, gender, education levels, and reading ability???  Get serious.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m not dismissing the above as an issue….and I’m certainly not saying that I disagree with the research conducted on this.  But as I saw in the discussion group I mentioned above, there was a lot of this chest beating about how the organizations needed to get moving on motivating the individual to overcome barriers to knowledge sharing.  And I find that almost offensive because I think that it misses the very point that the researchers were trying to get across.

As I’ve said before, a huge part of the barriers to knowledge sharing is still and has been the culture of the organization itself. And that is not the fault of any individual, nor any groups of individuals. That is the fault of the organization and those who lead it.


Dr. Dan's Daily Dose:
Effective Knowledge Management implementation is dependent upon having in place an organizational climate that best supports and sustains communications, trust, sharing, collaboration, innovation, etc. etc. It’s still about the people, and how the organization sets the tone and builds the framework to either support Knowledge Management or not.
About Dr. Dan Kirsch