A few years ago I gave a talk on the huge risk of knowledge loss caused by the retirement of the baby boom generation. In the talk I highlighted the crucial importance of planning ahead for this and attempting to transfer knowledge way before someone even thinks of retiring.
Alas, as the after talk questions revealed, a huge number of organizations had failed to plan at all, and were instead hurriedly looking around for sticking plaster strategies they could use to try and capture the knowledge of highly skilled boomers who were half way out of the door.
The whole process by then is rather tragic. I mean if you put yourself in the shoes of the retiree, there’s no real incentive for them to share their knowledge, especially if not doing so means they can be re-hired later on as a highly paid consultant.
Now contrast that with attempting to transfer the knowledge before they retire.
A recent study published in the Academy of Management Journal highlights how harmful it can be to our careers when we hoard knowledge. It suggests that there are similar processes at play in us as individuals as when we look at how our organizations share knowledge with others.
“More specifically, employees who intentionally hide more knowledge seem bound to receive such selfish behavior in return from their co-workers, which will ultimately hurt them and decrease their creativity,” the researchers wrote in the study.
So in other words, just as shielding intellectual property behind patents encourages other organizations to do the same, so does shielding knowledge from your colleagues. The research went on to reveal some of the systemic factors that tend to produce such an environment. Highly competitive environments for instance not surprisingly do little to promote sharing.
The researchers revealed the importance of management, even in cultures where sharing and cooperation were actively promoted. They revealed that in many such environments, the rewards and measurement parts of the system were seldom aligned, therefore employees were not rated any higher by their bosses when they shared knowledge than if they kept it to themselves.
What’s more, selfish behaviour, as evidenced by hoarding knowledge, was found to be viral in nature. As employees suffered from knowledge hoarding when they themselves required help, that encouraged them to hoard knowledge themselves, and so the vicious circle began, with all employees losing out.
The moral of the story seems to be a simple one. If you want to encourage knowledge sharing and mutual support amongst employees, then you need to ensure that all of your systems are aligned to achieve that.
Most importantly of all, it needs to be something you’re doing throughout the lifecycle of each employee, and not when they’re just about to leave the building.