Most organisations view knowledge acquired 'on the job' as belonging to the organisation rather than the individual – and certainly something that should be shared. But many employees don't see it that way.
When it comes to job knowledge, few know more about it than the person doing the job. Employees accumulate a wealth of information and along the way, often develop efficiencies that make them more productive.
Yet, according to Dr David Zweig, an assistant professor of organisation behaviour at the University of Toronto, they are often reluctant, for various reasons, to pass along that knowledge to others within the organisation.
"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," he says.
Zweig and Dr Susan Brodt of Queens University and several colleagues have been studying why people are reluctant to share their knowledge. They will be presenting their full findings at the annual conference of The Society for Industrial and Organisational Psychology in Dallas May 5-7.
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 organisations, 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 informal rules quite separate from formal policies, for handling information.
Unfortunately, Brodt says, these norms end up not being very helpful, leaving employees to cope with vague, 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 behaviours to hide knowledge from others.
Dr Zweig identified three reasons why employees engage in knowledge hiding. One is interpersonal and 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 behaviour 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."
A third reason is the organisational 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.
In other words, Zweig argues, knowledge sharing requires more personal interaction than person-to-computer links.
If organisations 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 organisations emphasise positive relationships and trust among employees, then knowledge sharing will become part of the culture. "And that makes everyone better," he says.