September 2002 Archives

September 9, 2002

Digging deeper into knowledge hoarding

Digging deeper into knowledge hoarding.

Something tells my intuition that we're not framing things correctly when we get wrapped up in discussions of the appropriate reward systems/incentives needed to encourage knowledge sharing. It's encouraging to see the beginnings of some research data, but I remain suspicious. I suspect that we still need to get a more nuanced understanding of knowledge work and knowledge sharing before we can draw any good conclusions. Right now, I think the reports we're getting are the same low quality data we'd get out of focus groups. I'd like to see some data on what people do about knowledge sharing as opposed to what they say.

Are Rewards the Answer?. Ernie and Rick correctly identify the problem within US law firms—the lack of motivation among lawyers to share their knowledge. There are many reasons, monetary and non-monetary, why lawyers are unwilling or reluctant to share their intellectual capital. To understand why this is, I believe you have to look at the intrinsic disincentives within US law firms, before you can even think about ways to incentivize lawyers.

Hazel Hall, Senior Lecturer in the School of Computing in Edinburgh, Scotland, has conducted some of the best knowledge sharing studies I've read to date. In Devising Intranet Incentives: Rewards and Conditions for Knowledge Exchange, Hall lists several oft-heard excuses for hoarding knowledge within organizations. Remarkably, they all sound similar to what lawyers say:

My time is better spent generating revenue for the firm
I'm too busy to learn how to use the technology
It's not my job
I'm not rewarded for it
I'm not measured on it
The work is confidential
Why should I willingly hand over my work product
I don't have anything of value to share
I share my knowledge in other ways
I like to work alone
What's in it for me?

In Sharing Capability: the Development of a Framework to Investigate Knowledge Sharing in Distributed Organizations, Hall discusses motivational incentives in the form of rewards (Note: the parenthetical references are mine).

Hard rewards (i.e., money):

financial rewards (salary, bonus, extra vacation days, laptops, Blackberries, etc.)
access to information and knowledge (sharing clients contacts)
career advancement (more interesting work, promotion to partner)

Soft rewards (i.e., ego)

enhanced reputation (being considered an expert in a practice group)
personal satisfaction (altruism, praise, flattery, etc.)

In order to encourage knowledge transfer within a law firm, the disincentives must be eliminated, or at the very least, substituted with some other motivational factor. That motivational factor just may be in the form of rewards.
[excited utterances]