Overcoming Knowledge Hoarding in the Workplace

The steps our team took to successfully create a culture that embraces knowledge sharing and documentation.

by RC Victorino February 19, 2020

Knowledge sharing is critical to a company’s success. It makes onboarding easier and gives every team member the context they need to work autonomously and excel at their job.

Plus, knowledge sharing helps your teammates stay connected. The more knowledge you share, the more you shape and define your company culture.

That’s why we built Slab, to make knowledge sharing more accessible.

But Slab isn’t a magic bullet. No software is. Just because your team uses a company wiki doesn’t mean team members will share their expertise willingly. Their natural inclination may be to hoard their knowledge.

Knowledge hoarding — when employees purposely keep critical knowledge to themselves — is a fairly common phenomenon found in companies of all sizes. It’s an uphill battle to create a culture of knowledge sharing if you don’t address knowledge hoarding head-on.

As our team grows from our initial product and engineering teams to content, marketing, customer support, and beyond, we’ve looked for ways to prevent knowledge hoarding from finding its way into our own company culture.

To do this, we first had to identify why employees hoard knowledge.

Why employees hoard knowledge

Our research suggests that employees keep critical knowledge to themselves for typically one of three reasons:

  • Leverage: If an employee hoards their knowledge, they may feel like they are irreplaceable.
  • Fear: Putting yourself out there can be intimidating. What if colleagues or supervisors respond with negative feedback?
  • Competition: If your workplace rewards personal triumphs over shared victories, employees are less likely to want to share their “secrets.”

Regardless of the reason behind the behavior, research shows that motivation may be the answer to helping your team embrace sharing their knowledge.

Motivate employees

Research done by Harvard Business Review, published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, found that employees are far more likely to share knowledge if they are personally motivated to do so — not when they’re explicitly rewarded for it.

That could be because personal motivation has the power to overcome one’s fear of giving up leverage or being critiqued by colleagues.

Employees who are motivated to share knowledge are likely to engage in internal dialogues like:

  • “I love getting to share what I know with others.”
  • “It’s really important for me to share what I know with my team.”

The result is an autonomous knowledge-sharing culture, one that sustains as you scale.

But how do you motivate your team to share critical knowledge?

More on that below.

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Model knowledge-sharing behavior

Managers and team leads must make documentation and knowledge sharing a regular part of their workflow. Only then can they expect their teams to follow suit.

For example, the Head of Growth at your company wants to increase conversion rates on Facebook. He compiles a list of the top-performing Facebook ads from the last quarter in a single document housed in your team wiki. He then shares this document with his team during a brainstorming session.

He encourages his team to identify the likely reasons why these ads were effective. He records these findings inside the document. Then, he assigns each team member to come up with two new ad ideas on their own, based on these findings, and add them to the existing document.

The Growth Team reconvenes a few days later to review these new ideas and come to a consensus on the top four ad concepts worth pursuing.

This exercise does three things:

  1. It addresses an existing business goal (the need to increase conversion rates for Facebook ads)
  2. It models how knowledge sharing can fit into the workplace setting
  3. It showcases the benefit of sharing knowledge

There are times, of course, when knowledge sharing doesn’t seem appropriate.

A team’s top salespeople are rewarded with bonuses for their successes. Engineers are recognized if they commit the critical bugfix that no one else could. Internal competition has its benefits and should not be eliminated. A good manager, however, knows when to nurture this competition, and when to nurture collaboration.

Create clear guidelines

No one on your team should have to guess what’s worth sharing. There should be clear instructions and context, otherwise, you risk inaction.

For example, a Customer Support rep on your team creates a new process for identifying bugs in your product.

  • Does she create a document in your knowledge base for this, and if so, where?
  • Should she edit an existing bug report document, and risk offending the teammate who created that existing doc?
  • Should she ping her team lead for clarity, and risk being seen as incapable of making decisions on her own?

Faced with these scenarios, she’s most likely to keep the new process to herself. It’s the least risky of her choices.

That is not the result what you want. This behavior creates siloed thinking within your team and robs your colleagues of potentially valuable information.

Every team should have clear guidelines on what goes into a knowledge base and what doesn’t. On our team, we use Slab’s topic descriptions feature for this.

Here’s an example:

The image above shows the subtopic Importing Content, which lives inside the Support Team’s topic section. The description, “How to automatically/semi-automatically import content for our users.” explains what types of posts belong in that subtopic. If it has to do with important content for our users, it belongs here.

Here’s another example of a topic description with even more context:

The description above provides specific instructions on what a teammate should do if/when they need to update our integration pages.

Nurture collaboration

Employees like to be recognized for their work. Writers want to know their content style guide is useful. Engineers want to hear that their local development guide is seamless and easy to follow.

But employees aren’t typically recognized when they share knowledge with their colleagues. Often, they’re provided little to no feedback, leaving them unsure if their content is useful.

They also question whether it was worth the effort.

Recognition and appreciation are positive reinforcers that shape behavior. And, it’s an effective way to reinforce to your team that sharing knowledge is as important as any other contribution they provide to the team.

Even a simple thanks is an easy and unambiguous way for teammates to show their appreciation for the effort and transparency of one of their colleagues. That’s why a core feature inside Slab is the ability for teammates to thank post owners for their contributions or give accolades via emoji.

We also deliberately make the list of contributors and maintainers associated to a post highly visible (at the bottom of every post, as well as listed in the associated topic). That way teammates can easily see who to ask, thank, or mention in response to a specific post.

Why knowledge hoarding is so damaging

Before the digital revolution, an organization’s knowledge had a longer shelf life. Processes remained intact for years, if not generations.

That is no longer the case. Today, relevant knowledge expires at an alarming rate. And employees remain with one company, on average, for just over four years.

Having an organization that actively shares its expertise keeps your team from falling behind.

Knowledge hoarding = productivity drain. Knowledge sharing = employee empowerment.

What we’ve discovered is it’s not enough to say you want your team to share knowledge. You need to practice what you preach and demonstrate just how important shared knowledge is to you.

For example, we make knowledge sharing a regular part of meetings. We open up and update key documents during meetings, so our team members visualize the connection between exchanging ideas and preserving them in Slab.

Your goal is to tear down any preconceptions your team has about documentation. Reduce the fears they may have about giving up leverage or being judged by their peers.

These steps should drastically minimize the likelihood that your employees will purposely keep their critical knowledge to themselves. They have certainly helped us to keep the fallout from knowledge hoarding at bay here at Slab.

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