Surprise! Why don't people share their knowledge?

I am reviewing a bunch of KM material at the moment as I develop KMRt's new KM101 course.

Several people have been very generous to allow me to use their teachings and some of them are papers from my Masters degree program.  One of those really struck me as I re-read it today, almost ten years after I first came across it and I wanted to share what today I see as a critical problem with the way some companies found their KM systems.

Ask most knowledge managers who people don't share, in fact, ask most managers this and you will usually get two answers:
  1. They are hoarding their knowledge
  2. They see their knowledge as a type of personal advantage and fear losing that power
It makes sense right? We have probably felt that way ourselves sometimes. But do we act on those feelings?  Taken corporately as a culture we see patterns of individualist and collectivist people as described by Keith de la Rue, and maybe there is some wisdom in that.

So why don't people share their knowledge?

However, this research by Ardichvilli seems to say that the real barriers to knowledge sharing were far more personal:
  1. Fear that posting will reveal that they don't know what they should
  2. Did not believe they had earned the right to post on a company-wide system
  3. Fear of possible criticism or ridicule
  4. People were not sure of what they needed to post.  Needed more direction on What Where and How.
  5. Fear of letting colleagues down or misleading them
  6. Fear of losing face
  7. Afraid their contribution was inaccurate or incomplete

In reading these, your knowledge program's focus changes completely

It is no longer about prying precious company knowledge from self-focused individuals - an idea that has launched a thousand failed KM projects. Instead it is about enabling people so they feel they can contribute safely and effectively.  Arthur Shelley touches on this regularly, including in this post where he frames knowledge sharing in terms learning objectives and using conversations that matter to give people that validation they need.

The beauty of this approach is that it runs alongside people's natural inclination instead of against it. Respondents in the study backed up previous research when they stated their reasons for wanting to share knowledge:
  1. The majority of respondents said they saw their knowledge as a public good, belonging not to them individually, but to the whole organization.
  2. They felt this towards
    • Their organization
    • Their professional association (engineers)
  3. Respondents also wanted to assert themselves as experts. 
  4. Some felt they were at the stage of their career that they should give something back.
  5. Organisational culture played a part in their feeling of altruism.
So as you review the very underlying principles of your Knowledge projects, ask yourself the question "Why don't people share their knowledge?" and then do some empirical research to find out why.

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