Knowledge hoarding could well be the greatest barrier to well-functioning information-sharing systems in organizations, as well as in broader society. Isabel Rechberg and Jawad Syed mention this phenomenon in passing in their article Ethical issues in knowledge management: conflict of knowledge ownership: “Insufficient or inefficient reward systems may lead individuals to believe they are better off hoarding rather than sharing what they know.” Knowledge hoarding costs organizations money and time in retraining employees and recompiling information that employees would prefer to keep rather than share with colleagues and employers.
Rechberg and Syed recommend that organizations institute a “moral contract” with employees to encourage them to “willingly process knowledge” – an appealing yet abstract concept. A great deal of ink has been spilled as corporations seek concrete ways to encourage employees to share what they know. The Harvard Business Review attributes the expert employee’s impulse to hang on to experience-based knowledge – what they call “deep knowledge” – to “financial incentives, personal ego, discontent or frustration with the company.” The employee mentality could be summed up as – “what’s in it for me?” Why should an employee bother sharing knowledge that they worked hard to collect, if it won’t gain them money or prestige, for the benefit of colleagues who did nothing to earn the information?
HBR recommends that companies create a “knowledge transfer program” that will foster mentoring and teamwork, so that knowledge will never be concentrated in any single person, and make employees feel appreciated so that they will want to pay back their employer and leave a legacy when they depart. In the corporate context, then, employers have a clear plan of attack against knowledge hoarding – dismantle hierarchical work structures that make employees think they must keep their knowledge close to keep themselves from becoming irrelevant or less valuable; encourage mentoring and group work and set aside time for education; and provide encouragement and incentives for employees who share.
As Kenneth Husted and Snejina Michailova noted in an article entitled Diagnosing and fighting knowledge-sharing hostility, the impulse to hoard knowledge is an unproductive one, but it is also completely human and natural: “The decision to hoard knowledge is destructive from an organizational point of view but, at the same time, it is often rational and well-justified from the perspective of the individual.” People do not trust others with their hard-earned knowledge and do not want people to “freeload,” or they worry about being judged harshly if their knowledge is deemed incorrect.
These concerns are not limited to the corporate context, and neither is knowledge hoarding. How does knowledge hoarding manifest in the non-corporate world, for example in academia? How can we combat it and foster an intellectually open culture? Is it even realistic to think that we could overcome such ingrained human behaviors?
The first example of non-corporate knowledge hoarding that comes to mind is that of scientific research – researchers spend years of their lives obtaining funding and resources for their research, compiling data, and interpreting it. Being the first to conduct and publish cutting-edge research can lead to prestige and further funding to conduct even more cutting-edge research. It is reasonable that researchers would prefer to hang on to their ideas and data so that others cannot cut in. The fear of “knowledge parasites” is real.
It is all well and good for researchers (and the institutions that sponsor them with money and resources) to reap the rewards of their own hard work, to the exclusion of those who did not meaningfully contribute to it. But this culture of hoarding ignores the fact that research does not occur in a vacuum. It inevitably builds on discoveries that came before it, and collaboration among scientists can speed progress and increase the quality of the knowledge that is put out in the world for society’s benefit. This is the root of the recent trend toward open research databases that encourage researchers to make their findings, and in some cases the underlying data, publicly available. Indeed, the National Institutes of Health – a major grantmaker – has instituted a public access policy. With the stated goal of advancing science and improving human health, NIH requires scientists to submit final peer-reviewed journal manuscripts that arise from NIH funds to an open access repository.
As one example, the New England Journal of Medicine recently published a report on one NIH-funded repository, ClinVar, which compiles research on genetic mutations. ClinVar is meant to foster a more complete, unified perspective on the current state of research in this area. According to the NEJM study, no single laboratory can have the complete picture of genetic mutation research – indeed, individual laboratories possess varying and inconsistent data and, as one researcher remarked, “if private companies or single labs followed their own interpretation of variants, they’re likely to get it wrong.” Accordingly, NEJM found, “[h]ealthy competition among isolated entities is no longer sufficient to drive our understanding of human variation, and patient care may be compromised when data are not shared.” The best possible solution is for researchers to contribute to and learn from open databases rather than keeping data to themselves. No researcher is an island.
The trend toward open access databases is not limited to the sciences and is moving forward across disciplines, including the humanities and social sciences – although the sometimes slow pace of growth in participation is frustrating to many advocates. Just like in the corporate context, individuals are frequently unwilling to open up the knowledge they have worked hard to compile, and it can take considerable convincing and incentives for them to do so.
Individuals will always hoard knowledge when they think it is in their interest to do so. It is human nature. However, when openness and knowledge sharing make a true difference to a common good – for the success of an organization or for the growth of scientific knowledge – people have developed strategies to change individuals’ incentives and to combat knowledge hoarding. These strategies shift the information culture from one of individualism and personal knowledge ownership to one of collaboration and mentorship. Efforts like open access databases should eventually gain traction and show their worth in growing the quality and quantity of knowledge in the world, in a way that benefits both the original knowledge creators and a broader population.
Rechberg, I. & Syed, J. (2013). “Ethical issues in knowledge management: conflict of knowledge ownership.” Journal of Knowledge Management, 17(6), pp. 628–647.
Leonard, D. (2014). How to prevent experts from hoarding knowledge. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/12/how-to-prevent-experts-from-hoarding-knowledge.
Husted, K. & Michailova, S. (2002). Diagnosing and fighting knowledge-sharing hostility. Organizational Dynamics, 31(1), pp. 60-73. http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Snejina_Michailova/publication/247142520_Diagnosing_and_Fighting_Knowledge-Sharing_Hostility/links/02e7e51e051bacb293000000.pdf
Subbaraman, N. (2015, May 17). Want better science? Quit hoarding data, genetics researchers say. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from http://www.betaboston.com/news/2015/05/27/want-better-science-quit-hoarding-data-genetics-researchers-say/.
NIH Public Access Policy. (2014). Retrieved from https://publicaccess.nih.gov.
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