Research Brief: Knowledge Hiding in Organizations

Knowledge hiding comes in three flavours: playing dumb, evasive hiding, and rationalized hiding

WHAT DID THE STUDY LOOK AT?

Employees often do not share pertinent knowledge with their colleagues, even when organizations offer incentives to create strong knowledge-sharing climates. Previous studies have mainly focused on enhancing knowledge-sharing practices, but this study provides a new starting point. It aims to “uncover the barriers to effective knowledge transfer” by defining and building on the concept of “knowledge hiding” — the deliberate concealment of information requested by another person.

HOW WAS THE STUDY DESIGNED?

Three distinct but interdependent studies were carried out to identify the existence, tactics, and causes of knowledge hiding in organizations. In the first study, researchers conducted daily surveys of 36 employees of a Canadian-based financial services firm to detect knowledge transfer events as they occurred over multiple days. They also conducted detailed interviews of 11 employees in a variety of companies. In the second and third studies, they conducted web-based surveys of 194 employees, mostly from North American companies, and 105 undergraduate business students with work experience. 

WHAT DID THE STUDY FIND?

  • Although relatively infrequent, “knowledge hiding does indeed occur in organizations on a daily basis.” Just over 10 percent of all incidences of so-called knowledge transfers considered in the first study were identified as examples of knowledge hiding.
  • Knowledge hiding is not simply a refusal to respond to a coworker’s request for information. In fact, it appears in three unique forms — playing dumb, evasive hiding, and rationalized hiding — each with a range of motivations. The first two types of knowledge hiding involve some level of deception, while rationalized hiding is more often justified (perhaps the “hider” is legally or ethically bound to protect the knowledge).
  • Distrust of fellow employees, for any reason, was proven to motivate all three forms of knowledge hiding. This indicates the extent to which personal relationships and attitudes sway the practice of knowledge sharing in professional settings.
  • The nature of the information requested influences the way knowledge is hidden: requests for more complicated knowledge beget evasion — perhaps a result of employee laziness or complex issues for which incomplete answers are easier to provide.
  •  Conversely, in organizations where knowledge sharing is encouraged and facilitated, employees “were less likely to engage in evasive knowledge hiding.”

WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW?

The study shows that knowledge hiding is not merely the flip side of knowledge sharing. Knowledge hiding is always intentional, while a lack of knowledge sharing is usually just the result of a lack of knowledge. Also, given that distrust of colleagues is a major driver of knowledge hiding, “[m]anagers can attempt to increase employees’ perceptions of the trustworthiness of their colleagues, by emphasizing a shared identity, or by highlighting instances where trustworthiness has been demonstrated.”

Title: Knowledge hiding in organizations

Authors: Catherine E. Connelly (McMaster University), David Zweig (University of Toronto), Jane Webster (Queen’s School of Business), and John P. Trougakos (University of Toronto)

Published: Journal of Organizational Behavior (vol. 33, 64–88). Working paper version available on the Wiley Online Library website

Nick Walker and Alan Morantz

Smith School of Business
Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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