3 reasons why people don’t share knowledge

A recent article from HBR identifies three reasons why people don’t share knowledge. 

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There are many reasons why people don’t seek or share knowledge; the 3 most basic being that they don’t think of it, they don’t know how, or they don’t want to (Unaware, Unable, Unwilling).

From an HBR article earlier this month, named Why Employees Don’t Share Knowledge with Each Other, comes another analysis, and the identification of three factors which inhibit knowledge sharing.  These are as follows:

People are more strongly influenced by internal incentives (the authors call these “autonomous motivation”) than external incentives (“controlled motivation”). Examples of both these can be found in my blog post “20 incentives to swing the KM behaviour balance“. We can also see the strength of internal vs external incentives in  Shell’s analysis of incentives, and NASA’s approach to incentives. This particular issue is related to the Willingness to share. As the HBR authors say:

Our results showed that knowledge sharing is more likely when employees are autonomously motivated (for example, they’d agree with the statements “It’s important to share what I know with colleagues” or “It’s fun to talk about things I know”). In contrast, people are more likely to hide their knowledge when their motivation is driven by external pressures (“I don’t want to be criticized” or “I could lose my job”). This means that pressuring people to share knowledge rather than making them see the value of it doesn’t work very well…  Interestingly, in the Chinese sample, controlled motivation was associated with increased frequency of knowledge sharing but not with greater usefulness of what was shared.


People share more readily if they are involved in Knowledge work (what the HBR authors call “cognitively demanding work”). This is probably more related to Awareness of the need to seek and share, rather than Willingness or Ability. As the HBR authors say;

“Because cognitively demanding work can be more interesting and stimulating, and also more difficult and challenging, we expected that people would both enjoy sharing information more and see a greater need to share. Similarly, because having more autonomy in one’s work leads to finding it more meaningful, we’d expect to see the same propensity for sharing”. 

Knowledge work requires knowledge, knowledge becomes a precious commodity, people become aware of its value, and knowledge sharing and seeking emerge as behaviours which drive a knowledge marketplace within the organisation.

Finally, people are less willing to share if others are relying on them. This is counterintuitive. The HBR authors say that;

We expected that if respondents perceived their colleagues to be dependent on them, they would be more willing to share knowledge and less likely to hide it. Much to our surprise, we found the opposite. When people perceived that others depended on them, they felt pressured into sharing knowledge (the controlled type of motivation), and this in turn promoted knowledge hiding. This could be because frequent requests from colleagues created more demands on their time — quite a rare commodity these days. People often chose to prioritize their own tasks over sharing knowledge and even pretended not to have the information being requested.

Notice the assumption in the last paragraph – that “their own tasks” do not include “knowledge sharing”. This is a typical factor where KM is not yet treated as “part of the job” and instead is seen as something separate and different. KM is then seen as competing for your time against the “real job” rather than being part of the real job.  This was the sort of thing that Elon Musk was trying to counter in his email of last year.

So the conclusions from this are, for knowledge work, ensure that knowledge seeking and sharing are seen as part of the job, and incentivise them wherever possible using internal incentives – the desire to be recognised, the desire to help, and the desire to do a Good Job.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

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