When it comes to job knowledge, usually few know more about it than the person performing the assignment.

 

“Employees accumulate a wealth of information about their jobs and, along the way, develop efficiencies that make them more productive. Yet, they are often reluctant, for various reasons, to pass along that knowledge to others within the organization,” says Dr. David Zweig, an assistant professor of organization behavior at the University of Toronto.

 

“Knowledge sharing is often one of the most troubling issues facing employers and they keep trying to develop effective ways to encourage employees to share what they have learned on their jobs. It remains a difficult goal.”


Companies consider knowledge acquired on the job as belonging to the organization and it is critical that it be shared. But often, employees do not see it that way.

 

Zweig, Dr. Susan Brodt of Queens University and several colleagues have been studying why people are reluctant to share their knowledge. They recently presented their findings at the annual conference of The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology in Dallas.

 

Knowledge sharing differs from industry to industry, says Brodt, who has been studying secrecy in high-tech companies. Just the nature of the work in some organizations, such as the amount of sensitive or proprietary information, highlights the need for secrecy. To deal with the issue of what should and should not be disclosed (and to whom), most workplaces have developed norms – informal rules quite separate from formal policies – for handling information.

 

Unfortunately, Brodt notes, these norms end up not being very helpful, leaving employees to cope with vague or incomplete or even conflicting guidance about what to share and with whom.

The pitfalls of secrecy norms are that they often lead to a work climate where everyone keeps knowledge to themselves, which, in turn, may hinder productivity.


The researchers found that people with critical knowledge will often protect it as if it were their own property and they will engage in different behaviors to hide knowledge from others.

 

Zweig identified three reasons why employees engage in knowledge hiding. One is interpersonal. That includes circumstances when people feel that an injustice has been done to them, they are distrustful of management or feel they are reciprocating for someone else’s behavior toward them.

 

Closely related are employees who are unsure of themselves and keep information to themselves.

 

“They are afraid of negative job evaluations and figure they are better off not sharing anything,” Zweig says.

 

A third reason is the organizational climate.

 

“If there is a culture of not sharing and being secretive, then employees tend to adopt that culture,” he added.

 

Also, hanging on to their job knowledge gives them a sense of power and importance because they have specific information that no one else has.

 

Zweig notes that not all employees refuse to share information. They are more than willing to provide job knowledge to people they trust and who treat them fairly.

 

Companies often turn to technology, encouraging employees to build databases of knowledge. But if workers are not willing to cooperate, these efforts are not very productive. Knowledge sharing requires more personal interaction than person-to-computer links, Zweig maintains.

 

If organizations want to promote knowledge sharing, and it is in their best interests to do so, they need to enhance the workplace climate and make knowledge sharing and collaboration a norm in the workplace.

 

“It could be part of their performance appraisals. If employees know they will be rewarded for sharing their expertise, they will be more open to doing so,” he says.

 

He also suggests that if organizations emphasize positive relationships and trust among employees, then knowledge sharing will become part of the culture.

 

“And that makes everyone better,” he says.

 

The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) is an international group of 6,000 industrial-organizational psychologists whose members study and apply scientific principles concerning people in the workplace. For more information about SIOP, visit http://www.siop.org.