Key to an organization’s success is its collective ability to exchange information, expertise, experiences, and insights among its employees. This is otherwise known as knowledge sharing. 

Research has found that knowledge sharing is extremely beneficial for an organization contributing to more creativity, collaboration, and innovation. Most companies understand the benefits of knowledge sharing. Yet many still struggle to achieve the kind of knowledge-sharing culture that capitalizes on these benefits. This is especially important when investing in cutting-edge technology like generative AI.

In fact, in Coveo’s 2023  Workplace Relevance Report, 73% of respondents said they don’t know where information is stored. Or don’t have access permission which is a huge barrier to the ability to share knowledge effectively. While this is likely due, in part, to poor knowledge management practices and clunky technology, there’s an unfortunate reality that also contributes to this organizational challenge: knowledge hoarding. 

A chart shows a breakdown of reasons why employees struggle to find information
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What Is Knowledge Hoarding?

Knowledge hoarding is when individuals or groups within an organization intentionally withhold valuable knowledge rather than share it with others. It’s a conscious decision to limit the accessibility and dissemination of knowledge. 

There are several reasons why someone would do this. But whatever the reasons are, knowledge hoarding is a problem that many organizations are facing. Unfortunately, it can have a negative impact on overall company performance. 

Why Do Employees Hoard Knowledge?

Employees hoard knowledge for a number of reasons. These include personal reasons like the fear of competition, an attempt to keep control, or to ensure job security. It could also be for their own gain like receiving praise or bonuses related to their knowledge or performance. 

They also simply may not have bought into the idea of a knowledge-sharing culture. They may not understand the benefits of of said culture. This leaves them to settle for the easier route of hoarding information instead of being a team player.

Why Is Knowledge Hoarding Bad?

Knowledge hoarding can have a significant impact on an employee’s experience and performance, from their initial onboarding to overall success in their role. Learning company culture and norms requires ample knowledge sharing from team members, as does the execution of proper training. 

For employees, teams, and organizations to be successful, having a culture of knowledge sharing is essential from the start. In fact, according to a Stanford study, companies that promote collaboration are 5 times as likely to be high performing. Knowledge sharing is the fuel for collaboration. When individuals hoard knowledge, the impact is wider than most realize.

An infographic visualizes how stagnant knowledge creates a disconnected journey

The customer experience can also greatly suffer from knowledge hoarding if critical knowledge is unavailable. For example, if a customer support employee possesses certain knowledge or expertise and fails to share it with others, the customer experience will be, at best, inconsistent from customer to customer. And at worst, a poor experience where customers’ needs go unmet. 

The effects of knowledge hoarding will always make their way to the customer, which negatively affects their perception and interaction with the organization.

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What Is The Difference Between Knowledge Hoarding And Knowledge Hiding?

A similar term to knowledge hoarding is knowledge hiding — which also has to do with withholding information. 

The key difference between the two is whether or not the information was requested by someone. According to the Online Journal of Applied Knowledge Management, knowledge hiding “is an attempt by an individual to retain or hide knowledge that has been requested by someone else” while knowledge hoarding is “an individual’s deliberate and strategic concealment of knowledge.” 

A chart shows the knowledge hiding, hoarding, collection, and donation framework
Knowledge hiding, hoarding, collection, and donation framework (source: Silva de Garcia, Oliveira, & Brohman, 2020).

Both are deliberate, but knowledge hiding involves hiding requested information rather than concealing knowledge in general. While knowledge hiding is a problem within organizations, knowledge hoarding has a broader impact than just one individual keeping information from another. It keeps critical information from individuals, teams, and sometimes the organization as a whole, stunting collaboration and innovation across the company.

9 Signs Your Organization Has a Knowledge Hoarding Problem

To identify whether or not your organization has a problem with knowledge hoarding, we’ve outlined some key indicators associated with this common workplace issue below.

Sign 1: Lack of documentation

Standard operating procedures, critical knowledge, processes, or best practices are not documented (or not well documented) and aren’t stored in a centralized, accessible system. Important information is known to only a few individuals who don’t openly share it, making it difficult for others to access and benefit from it.

Sign 2: Limited cross-departmental collaboration

There is a lack of collaboration and knowledge sharing between different departments or teams. Individuals and teams tend to work in silos, and they rarely seek or provide assistance beyond their immediate departmental responsibilities and projects.

Sign 3: High employee turnover

If employees frequently leave the organization, taking valuable knowledge and skills with them, it may indicate a lack of knowledge sharing and poor knowledge transfer processes. When offboarding isn’t done correctly, or when there are multiple employees leaving at once, the knowledge transfer process can get neglected. 

When experienced employees leave and don’t bother to share their knowledge or expertise, it goes with them, and this can hinder organizational continuity and growth.

Sign 4: Ineffective onboarding or training programs

New employees struggle to access relevant knowledge and resources necessary for their roles and take longer to get the hang of their responsibilities. The onboarding or training programs may lack comprehensive knowledge sharing processes, leaving new hires uninformed, ill-equipped, or dependent on a limited set of individuals or resources for guidance.

Sign 5: Slow execution of projects or initiatives

Some team members withhold crucial information, insights, or resources during projects, creating bottlenecks and hindering progress on the rollout of initiatives or completion of projects. This behavior may stem from a desire to maintain control, gain a competitive advantage, or stand out among others working on the project.

Sign 6: Knowledge gaps and repeated mistakes

When mistakes or issues arise repeatedly, it may indicate a lack of knowledge sharing and learning from past experiences. If the same problems occur because employees are not sharing or learning from each other’s knowledge, it highlights a knowledge hoarding problem. 

Whether it’s for fear of owning one’s mistakes, or an attempt to keep a good reputation, hoarding knowledge about how to avoid mistakes creates more opportunities for others to make them.

A chart shows four steps in the knowledge capture process

Sign 7: Lack of cross-training or skill development

Opportunities for cross-training or skill development within the organization are limited or non-existent. Employees are not encouraged or provided with resources to learn from each other or expand their skill sets to grow within the company. 

This can lead to stagnant employees with little to no upward mobility and heavy reliance on a few individuals.

Sign 8: Little collaboration and innovation

If the organization lacks a culture of collaboration and innovation, it’s a big indicator of knowledge hoarding. Knowledge sharing is a key component of dynamic collaboration between employees and teams and helps spark innovative ideas. 

If employees do not actively contribute their ideas or share knowledge to drive improvements or explore new opportunities, it’s likely that knowledge hoarding is the culprit.

Sign 9: Customer complaints or negative feedback

As we’ve discussed, the effects of knowledge hoarding always make their way to the customer. Customers may express frustration or dissatisfaction due to inconsistent or inaccurate information provided by employees. 

And, if customers frequently encounter issues that could be resolved through better knowledge sharing, but fail to be quickly and effectively taken care of, it may be a sign of a knowledge hoarding problem.

How Do You Stop Knowledge Hoarding?

If knowledge hoarding is negatively affecting your organization, you’re likely desperate to put an end to it. But how? To stop knowledge hoarding, you not only need an effective knowledge management system, but you also have to build a knowledge sharing culture.

An effective knowledge management system requires four things: people, process, technology, and company culture. The people hold the knowledge; the process is how they share it; and the technology supports the sharing and accessing of the knowledge. Today, AI-supported technology can greatly improve the effectiveness of your knowledge management system. It can help pull information from multiple platforms or data hubs to provide a more accessible, more relevant knowledge sharing experience. 

Even if you have the right technology, process, and people, you won’t get far without a culture of knowledge sharing. Creating this kind of culture requires deliberate intention, including:

  • Leaders setting an example of knowledge sharing and clearly communicating the expectations around it
  • Investment in the right kind of tools, like AI-powered enterprise search
  • A commitment to the continual development of the knowledge management process
  • Foster a more collaborative environment with opportunities for employees from different departments or teams to collaborate on projects or initiatives

Overall, knowledge hoarding is the enemy of a knowledge sharing culture. Effective knowledge management will push your business into the future. If you’ve identified a knowledge hoarding problem within your organization, it’s time to work toward a more collaborative culture. Supported by the right people, processes, and technology.

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