Knowledge hoarding

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —February 12, 2006
Filed in Communication

Kaye Vivien asks the question: knowledge hoarding (is it real?) Absolutely! is my answer. The term ‘hoarding’ suggests a premeditated attempt to hide something away for your own future purposes, so this is a serious charge. Most retained knowledge, however, is not a result of premeditated hoarding. Gabriel Szulanski’s work¹ on why knowledge is not transferred (sticky knowledge) helps explain unintentional knowledge retention. So does Dave Snowden’s aphorism: you only know what you know when you need to know it. So let’s put the unintentional knowledge retention aside and focus on hoarding.

Fear and ambition mixed with a dollop of distrust seem to create the conditions for knowledge hoarding. Fear is a strong emotion affecting behaviour. People will hoard their knowledge if they think sharing what they know will result in punishment. Here are some possible reasons for thinking this way:

  • I might share something that’s wrong and I’ll look dumb
  • What I share might be misused and I will be blamed regardless of the implementation
  • If I share it with others there is no need for my expertise
  • I might be recognised for my contribution

Fear of punishment is probably not the biggest reason why people hoard their knowledge. Ambition and organisational culture could play a more significant role. I believe, like Edgar Schein³, that people are incessant leader watchers. Watching leaders and retelling the stories of their deeds helps people understand how to get ahead around here—how to act. If there is a preponderance for leaders to keep their cards close to theirs chests there will be a growing number of people in the organisation who believe this is the way to act. The converse if also true. Check our Schein’s culture embedding mechanisms for the type of things people keep an eye on. This will give you some ideas for interventions.

OK, so its all about culture change if you want to tackle knowledge hoarding. I’m sure many of you have techniques and approaches to create a more conducive knowledge environment (the purpose of knowledge management). Here at Anecdote we favour participative approaches where the organisation works it out for themselves rather than having an ‘expert’ tell them what needs to be done. Our paper on change management will give you a good idea of the approach we take.

Another reason people and organisations hoard their knowledge is a fear of competitors stealing the ideas. Let me share one approach I’ve used successfully to combat the idea that we must always protect our knowledge from competitors (our IP).

A couple of years ago, when I worked at IBM, I was engaged by a legal firm to help design an online collaboration web-site which would enable the firm to communicate with its clients, the opposing party and their lawyers. Whenever large organisations enter into a contract to provide services the two sticking points are usually liability and intellectual property, and this wasn’t an exception. The law firm wanted to own the IP and so did IBM. To break the jog jam I introduced the lawyers to Max Boisot’s I-space.


The I-space² is a model describing how knowledge moves from being undiffused (ie only known by a few people) and concrete (ie very specific to a single situation) to becoming more abstract (ie. generalised to apply to more situations) and codified (ie. more able to be articulated). At point 3 on the diagram the knowledge has maximum value to an organisation because it can be applied in a variety of ways to a range of problems but hasn’t leaked (diffused) to its competitors. It is inevitable, however, that if the knowledge is valuable it will soon become common knowledge. In the case of the lawyers, the idea of using collaboration software to get all parties together can quickly arrive at point 3 but as soon as the solution is implemented the knowledge is diffused and available to everyone—competitive value diminished rapidly.

Boisot’s argument is that organisations which operate in a slow moving environment, such as flute makers where the way flutes have been made hasn’t changed in a century, should do whatever it takes to protect their intellectual property including doing everything to retain their master craftspeople. Fast moving industries require a different strategy: keep your mean time at point 3 as high as possible. This requires an organisation to continually rotate through the I-space spiral with new ideas—constant innovation.

The lawyers understood they were in a fast moving industry and agreed IBM will own the IP and moved the discussion to how IBM was going to help them to continually to innovate in this field. This was a massive turn around.

1. Szulanski, G. (1999). The Process of Knowledge Transfer: a Diachronic Analysis of Stickiness, Organisation Behaviour and Human Decision Processes (OBHDP): special issue on Knowledge Transfer, 14, June. Retrieved 12 February, 2006 from

2. Boisot, M.H., Knowledge Assets: Securing Competitive Advantage in the Information Economy. 1999, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

3. Schein, E.H., Organizational Culture and Leadership. 3rd ed. 2004, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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