Why Are We So Hostile to Sharing Knowledge? New Case Studies in Denmark Highlight the Value Which Is Lost When Managers Fail to Tackle the Human Challenge of the Corporate Intranet

Article excerpt

Companies nowadays emphasise the strategic benefits of knowledge management and point to the introduction of expensive computer-based intranets and performance-oriented incentive structures to demonstrate their commitment. But in spite of such initiatives employees often hoard or reject knowledge and remain hostile to the idea of sharing. While this may be rational for the individual it is clearly inefficient from the perspective of the company's wider interests.

Three case studies investigated by the Copenhagen Business School have thrown new light on why individuals hoard knowledge (see Box opposite). Common motivations appear to be: first, to protect their career opportunities; second, to save time and the resources needed to share knowledge, and third, to avoid exposure. Further, 'not-invented-here' syndromes, professional pride and lack of trust are barriers to co-operation with other corporate units.

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Husted and Michailova (2002) gave a full description of the concept of knowledge sharing hostility--drawing attention to both individual and organisational reasons for hoarding and rejecting knowledge. One key issue is the economic concern of the individual; employees assess their market value--and bargaining power--in respect of the quality and uniqueness of the knowledge they possess. Knowledge-sharing with colleagues on the same hierarchical level is perceived to bring about a personal value loss and destroy career opportunities.

Another individual economic concern, certainly in the absence of appropriate incentive structures, is the widespread reluctance to spend time and resources on codifying tacit and complex knowledge. Skilful employees, who have spent years on their own education and building best practices, are less likely to share knowledge with less experienced colleagues (whom they may regard as free-riders). Conversely, when the knowledge they possess is of poor quality or lacking robustness, employees will not expose their inexperience and will avoid external assessment and criticism. The latter effect is well-known to most of us: who likes going to the exams?

Katz & Allen (1982), meanwhile, depicted the 'not-invented-here' syndrome, whereby individuals or groups of individuals believe they possess a monopoly of knowledge and reject ideas from outsiders. Sometimes, employees discard knowledge because it is more prestigious to develop ideas on their own, though Szulanski (1995) argued that low levels of trust in the knowledge source was a more important factor.

The case companies

Interviews were conducted in three companies: Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), Coloplast and Siemens.

CSC was founded by two young computer analysts in 1959, offering assemblers for computer manufacturers, though it later switched to IT outsourcing and consulting. CSC Danmark, the object of our research, was originally government-owned Datacentralen, which offered IT solutions to the public sector and acquired by CSC in 1996. CSC implemented 'the Portal', an Intranet-based knowledge management system.

Coloplast, a Danish manufacturer of colostomy, wound care and skin care products, was established in 1957, operates in 15 countries and boasts a global turnover of around [euro]750m. The group employs more than 6,000 people and exports 98 per cent of its output to more than 100 countries. At the corporate level, special systems have been developed for managing knowledge and developing competencies for understanding customer needs, technology, innovation, marketing and providing services.

Siemens, the German electronics and engineering giant employs 485,000 people worldwide and has annual sales of $87bn. The research was centred on Siemens Information and Communication Networks Group (ICN), a $10bn provider of integrated voice and data networks (part of the Information and Communications (I & C) business segment of the group). …