What Is Knowledge Hoarding and How Can You Overcome It?

Madeline Jacobson
5 mins
woman focusing on laptop alone in office represents knowledge hoarding

What does workplace knowledge hoarding look like? Let’s take a look at a couple of examples:

A new salesperson is struggling to answer a prospective customer’s question about a specific product feature. Meanwhile, one of their more tenured co-workers has created a slide about this feature that they use in their own presentation decks but haven’t shared with the larger team.

A market research team leader is the one person at their company who knows the full list of research vendors their organization partners with. They go on vacation for a week, and other department leaders are left scrambling to figure out where they can find answers to their research questions.

The experienced employees in these scenarios have valuable knowledge. And yet for different reasons, they refuse to share it.

Knowledge hoarding is an indirect business killer, and there are often signs of knowledge hoarding in the workplace if you know what to look for. The good news is that once you recognize the signs, you can start addressing them.

We’re going to take a deeper dive into the definition of knowledge hoarding, why employees may keep knowledge to themselves, and what you can do to promote a culture of knowledge sharing within your organization.

What Is Knowledge Hoarding?

Knowledge hoarding occurs when a person chooses to keep the knowledge they possess to themselves. It can also occur when someone gathers knowledge for themselves and doesn’t think about the fact that others could benefit from it as well.

When teams or individuals keep knowledge to themselves, it can hurt productivity, lead to duplicate work, and create misalignment between different groups.

On the other hand, if your company has a culture of knowledge sharing, employees have a better view of the knowledge that exists across the whole organization, are able to collaborate more effectively, and have better relationships with their co-workers. And all this, in turn, can positively impact both the employee and customer experience. 

But if the advantages of knowledge sharing are so great, why do so many organizations have a knowledge hoarding problem? 

Why Do Employees Hoard Knowledge?

Not everyone who hoards knowledge does so deliberately or with malicious intent. Sometimes, knowledge hoarding happens because of some avoidable and fixable reasons. 

Individual motivations

Knowledge is power, and some employees may feel there’s an advantage to hoarding it. For example, they may feel that they have greater job security because they are the only person at the company who possesses certain knowledge, or they may like being recognized as the go-to person to resolve certain issues. 

Lack of trust

According to the American Psychological Association’s Work and Well-Being Survey, nearly one in four workers say they don’t trust their employer, and one in three report that their employer is not always honest and truthful with them.

When employee don’t trust their employer, they are less likely to share their knowledge, which in turn affects the overall performance of the company.  

Organizational hierarchy

A study by the Academy of Management Discoveries found that employees are more willing to share information with a colleague if there is some distance between their positions on the company’s org chart. For example, a customer service representative might be more willing to open up to someone on another team about some negative feedback they heard from a customer because they perceive this person as less of a threat than someone they work with directly.

Competition

In a competitive workplace, employees are eager to climb the ranks and prove their value. One of the best ways to do this is to make sure that no one else can do what they can. This leads employees to hoard the information that they alone have access to. 

Fear

Some employees avoid sharing their knowledge out of fear. They might think that their manager would shoot down their ideas or worry that they will say something wrong and be corrected in front of their team members. Or maybe they don’t want to get accused of using the wrong methods to achieve their goals. In any case, they keep their knowledge to themselves to avoid any potential negative repercussions.

Why Is It Important to Avoid Knowledge Hoarding in Your Workplace?

We’ve already established that your organization should avoid cultivating a culture of knowledge hoarding, but let’s take a closer look at some of the specific reasons knowledge hoarding can be so harmful:

Company growth

Knowledge hoarding can harm company growth in a number of ways: dissatisfied employees are more likely to churn, knowledge silos can lead to costly errors, new hires are more likely to struggle getting up to speed.

On the other hand, companies that have a knowledge-driven culture tend to thrive and dominate their industry. Employees document their processes, knowledge sharing becomes the norm, and everyone has the information they need to work successfully.

Relevant knowledge expires at an alarming rate

According to Segmeasurement, a research study is considered outdated when it is over three years old due to variations in the market, economy, and consumer behavior. And research studies aren’t the only types of content or knowledge that have expiration dates. At some point, knowledge is no longer current, and before that point comes, that piece of knowledge should be used to prevent waste.

Employee engagement and job satisfaction

Employee engagement is another reason why it is important to avoid knowledge hoarding in your organization. Employees are more engaged and satisfied with their jobs when they can interact comfortably with their colleagues, give and receive information from their peers without having to worry about negative outcomes, and see how their work contributes to the company’s success.

How to Overcome Knowledge Hoarding

We’ve covered what knowledge hoarding is and why you must avoid it at all costs. But what if your company is already facing this problem?

Here’s what we suggest to combat knowledge hoarding:

Make it easier to share knowledge than hoard it

Sometimes, sharing knowledge can be stressful or time-consuming. Think of a subject matter expert who finds themselves constantly answering the same question for different team members. They may feel like they are getting pulled away from more important activities, and they may get frustrated with having to repeat themselves. 

One way to encourage employees to practice knowledge sharing is to make it simple, uncomplicated, and fast. For example, subject matter experts could publish answers to common questions in a knowledge management platform so that everyone can access that information. Department leaders could create templates for common types of content so that their team members don’t feel like they are reinventing the wheel every time they publish something. 

Also, reward employees who consistently share valuable information so that they associate knowledge sharing with positive outcomes.  

Model knowledge-sharing behavior

You’ve heard the phrase “lead by example.” Now put it into action. If you want your employees to get comfortable sharing knowledge with their team members and the broader organization, then you must do the same thing. It’s also important to own up when you make mistakes and show how you have learned from them so that employees aren’t worried about negative consequences when sharing their knowledge.

Create clear guidelines

Another way to combat knowledge hoarding in your organization is to simply teach your employees how to share knowledge. Establish an easy-to-use knowledge management system and implement it. Make sure employees are comfortable using the knowledge management system on a day-to-day basis so it becomes part of their workday routine.

Nurture collaboration

Reward and encourage collaboration between employees. Engineer situations where employees have to share their knowledge to achieve a goal. Nurture your employees and make them feel like part of a team.

This strategy enforces knowledge sharing and relationships as part of the workplace culture, which reduces the tendency to hoard knowledge. 

Banishing Knowledge Hoarding With a Knowledge Management Platform 

Little acts like giving credit where credit is due, rewarding excellence, and removing barriers to sharing knowledge can overcome an employee’s impulse to hoard knowledge.

But the absence of the proper resources can, of course, restrict knowledge sharing. While we have talked about how changes to your management style and workplace culture can combat knowledge hoarding, there is another factor to consider: using the right software.

Kick off your new knowledge sharing strategy by using a good knowledge management platform. This type of platform gives your team one place to document their knowledge, share it, and access information from their peers, wherever they are working. It surfaces relevant knowledge when employees need it so that everyone’s contributions are elevated and no one is left in the dark.

March 30, 2022

The Enterprise Guide to Finding a Knowledge Engagement Platform

Ready to banish knowledge hoarding and improve knowledge sharing across your organization? Read our guide to learn what to look for in a knowledge engagement platform.

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