Don’t Reward the Hoard: Combat Knowledge Hoarding at Work
Sharing is caring when it comes to workplace knowledge. We’re champions of knowledge-driven cultures, and we know that there are many reasons why organizations should invest in sharing knowledge instead of hoarding it.
Do you remember what happened the last time a “big fish” left your company? Depending on whether your company values knowledge sharing, we bet that one of two things happened after they gave their two weeks' notice:
Despite being sad that the big fish is leaving, everyone wished them well. Most asked their superiors if there was anything they could do to help while they fill the position and maybe went out for a fun happy hour.
Managers and employees went into a full-blown panic while teams were thrown into chaos because nobody knew what to do. The “big fish” spent their last days writing down “anything people needed to know” once they left, but their notes didn’t really help.
The chaos in the latter scenario didn’t come from everyone just being bummed about an employee leaving. All of the credit for that unpleasantness goes to knowledge hoarding.
Why knowledge hoarding happens at work
Knowledge isn’t meant to be kept by a few key players. It’s meant to be shared so that everyone can do their best work. The above example is only one problem that comes with hoarding knowledge. Plenty of other processes and important things suffer when knowledge isn’t readily available to people that need it the most.
Companies that truly want to embrace innovation, equality, and diversity should be leading the charge in knowledge sharing.
The saying that knowledge is power is very true in the average workplace. When the playing field is leveled and people have the information they need to do their jobs, it’s easier to explore new ideas, bring in people from different walks of life, and set people up for success.
It’s more important than ever for employees to be in sync on proper projects and processes when they’re part of a distributed workforce. The push for more hybrid and remote first environments may have led some companies to think more critically and strategically about the way they share knowledge.
So, if knowledge sharing is so great, why do so many companies struggle with knowledge hoarding? Despite what you may think, most managers and employees aren’t Machiavellian villains that are trying to undermine their fellow co-workers. In truth, knowledge hoarding happens for some very mundane (and fixable) reasons.
Sharing knowledge is tedious
You want to share an important update on a project. You could use your usual project management software, but that’s really more for tracking work instead of relaying messages. An email or Slack message could work, but since some people aren’t in you’re worried about your update getting lost in the shuffle. Maybe the next team meeting could work, but you really need to get this out now.
As you’re thinking about the best way to share news, you realize that you’ve spent the better part of your only half-hour of downtime thinking about how to send the message. You shrug it off and resolve to find a way to make your update after your next meeting, but you got pulled into something important and need to wait until tomorrow.
But wait, tomorrow you have to shift gears onto another project, so maybe after the weekend, you can make your message…
You can’t expect employees to be willing to share knowledge if it comes at such a hefty cost. When organizations aren’t set up to share knowledge, sometimes sharing the simplest news becomes a big time and money suck. Sharing knowledge should be simple, uncomplicated, and relatively fast to do.
There’s a reward in the hoard
It pains us to admit it, but some workplaces are really great at low-key encouraging employees to hoard knowledge. We’ve said it once and we’re happy to dust off this old gem again: knowledge is power, and that’s very true when it comes to work.
People that hold important information close to themselves become defacto leaders at work. Every task, no matter how small, has to go through them to get completed. Eventually, the knowledge hoarders slowly become seen as subject matter experts, even if they’re only “experts” in keeping people away. They get the better projects, they start calling the shots, and they continue to hold knowledge close to them to keep their power.
He gets it (in the worst way possible)
We understand that there has to be some knowledge distribution at work for things to go smoothly. After all, everyone can’t know everything about certain topics and projects. The problem arises when it seems like there’s only one person that has the answers to everything.
People are punished for sharing knowledge
We know what you’re thinking. “That’s absurd! I’d/My office would never punish an employee that’s helping others!”
Have you or your manager ever:
Reprimanded an employee for taking too long to explain something to a co-worker?
Written off requests to expand your knowledge base as “unnecessary”
Viewed complaints about confusion around processes and projects as the fault of employees and not the systems they use?
You may not have meant to, but you’re doing a lot to harm knowledge sharing at work. How can employees take the initiative to document and explain things if they’ll be punished for it?
Constructive criticism is one thing, excessive nitpicking and downright negativity is quite another. Instead of constantly finding fault with the way things are done, try to come up with suggestions on how to make things better.
The importance of combating knowledge hoarding
“Big deal,” you think. “Everything here is pretty much a common complaint about work. Things seem fine the way they are, why do I have to invest in so much change?”
Well, performance, for one thing.
Companies that have a knowledge-driven culture tend to be firing on all cylinders. Processes are documented, important knowledge is shared, and everyone has the information they need to work.
In fact, we have research indicating that 94% of companies with knowledge-driven cultures achieve or exceed their goals. On top of that, 84% report being satisfied with their employee engagement.
When you’re killing it at work, customer satisfaction usually isn’t too far behind. Suddenly the support staff doesn’t have to spend precious minutes searching for the right answer to help a dissatisfied customer. People in fulfillment have what they need to easily increase production or switch to a different shipping service. Since everything is going smoothly, the customers reap the benefits.
4 simple ways to stop knowledge hoarding
We know you want your company to always be at the top of its game, so we’re going to help you combat knowledge hoarding the right way. If you’re serious about stopping the hoard, we know what you need to do.
Get on Diane Lockhart's level
1. Make documentation easy
One of the biggest hurdles companies face when they assess their knowledge base is how to organize everything. Finding the best way to get the sheer amount of knowledge each subject matter expert has won’t be an easy task.
We can’t recommend the use of templates enough here. When you use templates, you can share easily repeatable processes and make it simpler for people to follow. Remember, the documentation does take time to get right. But when you build it on the right foundation, it gets a lot easier to handle.
2. Show recognition
You’re dreading telling the knowledge Gollum at work that they have to give up their precious. For all of the ragging we just did on knowledge hoarding, we understand why it can be hard to give up. After all, people still want credit and recognition for what they’ve done.
Oh, you shouldn't have :)
Believe it or not, you can still have subject matter experts without having them turn into hoarders. Our cardholder system can give people who came up with important processes and documentation recognition while simultaneously making it easier for people to update important knowledge.
We’re also advocates for managers and other stakeholders to be employees’ biggest cheerleaders. Find ways to highlight people’s contributions to work so it’s a little easier to let go of some of the knowledge that has been hoarded.
3. Make sharing simple
Tired of shoulder taps and interruptions upsetting the flow of the workday? Make it easier and more natural to share knowledge while people work!
Words we live by at Guru
Make knowledge sharing and consumption a natural part of the workday by giving people the time they need to read, write, and communicate. Encourage people to set up “focus times” during the day so they can be heads down on communicating.
Are you tied to 60 or 30-minute meetings? Give people back some of their time and make meetings more efficient by shortening them. Make pre-reading a part of big meetings so people come prepared with questions and ideas. Giving people 5-15 minutes to get in the right mindset can do wonders for productivity.
4. Detoxify your culture
If you've seen any of the following:
People are afraid to ask questions because they don’t want to be seen as incompetent.
You used to have an engaged subject matter expert, but after their last 2 big wins went unacknowledged they’ve checked out of work.
Employees are feeling so overworked and overwhelmed with their next deadline they don’t even want to ask questions.
Uh... it sounds like you have some problems that go deeper than knowledge hoarding.
Hate to break it to ya
If you truly want to have a knowledge-driven workplace and decrease the number of hoarders in your midst, work on creating a positive culture for everyone.
Praise creativity and encourage people to come to the table with new ideas regardless of how well thought out they are. Put learning and growth at the forefront of culture and encourage people to be curious and ask questions. The more people share AND feel comfortable with sharing, the better the knowledge they produce will be.
Welcome to the new era
Knowledge hoarding is the silent killer of promising workplaces, and it can be difficult to detect if you don’t know the signs. We talked a lot about things you can do within your management and culture to help, but there’s one obvious solution we haven’t mentioned: having the right software.
You need to build your new culture of knowledge sharing on a solid foundation. Start things off right by utilizing a new knowledge base.