Shirley J. Caruso, Ed.D.
To understand knowledge hoarding, it may be beneficial to first define the opposite of knowledge hoarding, or knowledge sharing. Knowledge sharing is the exchange of information, skills, or expertise among select members of an organization that forms a valuable intangible asset that is typically not shared with the entire organization. It is the process of contributing and partaking in information and procedures that are effective in enhancing performance and meeting an organization’s goals. In order for knowledge sharing to occur, internal and/or external knowledge must be present. The existing knowledge is then distributed, or transferred from individual to individual or from a particular group to another group. Knowledge sharing also involves cooperation among the individuals or organization.
In today’s typical workplace, however, the opposite of knowledge sharing occurs. Employees tend to keep the knowledge they have gained to themselves as somewhat of a guarded secret. Thus the term “knowledge hoarding” emerges. There is much speculation on why employees are knowledge hoarders. Some see knowledge as power, and they are unwilling to share their knowledge in fear of giving away some of their power. Some take ownership of what they know and view their knowledge as job security. After all, if a single employee is the only one who knows how to perform a certain task, they can’t be fired, right? Maybe not, but that particular employee stands a good chance of being passed over for promotions as well. Who could possibly replace them and their unique knowledge? And, so it seems that knowledge hoarding is neither beneficial to the organization nor to the employee. Consequently, the transfer of knowledge to or from individuals can be instrumental in enhancing the overall performance of an organization. Organizations can benefit from the performance enhancement of its employees by realizing increased productivity and profitability.
How Valuable Knowledge in the Workplace Is Acquired
One way that valuable knowledge in the workplace is acquired is through the informal learning experiences of the everyday work life of employees. This type of learning is referred to as being embedded and can be obtained or learned through self-directed experiences or passed down from colleagues. Because learning occurs while on the job, integrating the new knowledge becomes second nature.
Furthermore, job-embedded learning maximizes time because learning occurs while on-the-job. Finally, job-embedded learning is beneficial because it promotes immediate application of what is learned and costs less, in most cases, than conducting formal training.
The Focus of Informal Learning
Informal learning focuses on an individual’s emotional intelligence, such as self-awareness, self-confidence, flexibility, trustworthiness, and optimism, rather than the IQ of the person. In order to enhance individual and organizational performance, it is essential that skills and behaviors acquired through informal learning experiences be fostered and developed.
Informal learning in the workplace accounts for the majority of the learning that takes place. Research by Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007) suggests that the great majority (as much as 75% percent) of learning in the workplace is informal. When employees communicate via the intranet, through conversation with a seasoned colleague, or even at the lunch table, it is likely that this informal exchange of information leads to knowledge. When knowledge gained through informal learning is shared it becomes the development necessary to meet the challenges of the organization.
Knowledge Sharing Enhancement
Organizations must also be able to identify and understand some of the tools that people can utilize to enhance knowledge sharing throughout the organization. Knowledge sharing is the exchange of information, skills, or expertise among members of an organization that forms a valuable intangible asset. Online collaboration tools such as wikis, social-networking sites and blogs are notable new tools for knowledge sharing.
Rather than controlling knowledge sharing, some organizations are attempting to facilitate its growth by creating knowledge sharing events, such as employee trade shows and open forums to encourage employees to share knowledge with each other. But before implementing knowledge sharing practices or new collaboration tools, organizations must have a good understanding of the organizational culture and its readiness to share. They should test new approaches with selected groups before implementing them across the organization.
The Informal Learning Infrastructure
It is the responsibility of the Human Performance Technologist (HPT) within an organization to ensure informal learning takes place. This is achieved not only through identifying and providing the tools and technologies necessary to facilitate informal learning, but also through understanding the social networks of the organization.
Human capital management, or talent management, is essential to the informal learning infrastructure. Experts estimate that 80 percent of organizational knowledge exists exclusively within an individual. If the individual leaves the organization, the organization stands to lose the knowledge if it has not been captured. The implication is that HPTs must adopt methods of extracting individual knowledge into an organized data base or learning systems that can be drawn upon by the entire organization.
Organizations are realizing that the knowledge residing in their human capital is important in creating economic power and value. Human capital refers to the ideas, skills and knowledge that employees acquire on the job that make a company competitive. As the head of the learning department, HPTs have the best understanding of learning methods and modalities.
However, HPTs must realize that much of the organization’s knowledge is transferred informally between its workers. Workers talk to each other at the water cooler, at lunch, or in informal conversations throughout the day. These social opportunities are critical to building a workforce that leverages its human capital. Knowledge is power. Today’s HPTs have a major responsibility in leveraging the power of that knowledge to achieve the organization’s goals.
Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: Acomprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.