Research explores why we hoard information

sharing-knowledgeDespite considerable hype around the virtues of collaboration, I would say the jury is still out, and indeed there are a number of dissenting voices highlighting the flaws of everything from open plan offices to multi-tasking and the time suck of endless ‘collaboration’.

Casting those concerns to one side if I may, as there are clear benefits to well targeted knowledge sharing.  A recent study set out to explore whether teams are traditionally good at this or whether informational silos are the norm.

Overcome silo thinking

The paper reveals that teams are often not playing particularly well with each other, with employees typically withholding information if they felt it would harm their own prospects.  This was especially so when it came to determining how much funding was received for particular teams, projects or departments.

“Most organisations must make decisions about where best to allocate resources,” the authors say. “Pharmaceutical companies as a whole need to regularly reassess their research and development portfolios and decide which projects have the greatest potential; for example they might choose to improve an existing drug or develop a new one. Such decisions are often made by executives who rely on information provided by the project managers. But individual project managers do not necessarily give accurate information to the boss if they think it will cost them the resources that fund their projects.”

The paper found that our likelihood to share information depended on the fit between the type of project and the incentives in place.

For instance, in small companies, there’s more of a collective responsibility, so rewards work best when they focus on this collective element of success.

As companies grow however, there is more of a singular approach to responsibility, with outcomes becoming less risky.  In such a scenario, people tend to follow their individual agenda, with individual performances rewarded by management.

The root of the problem

As you can imagine, when there is a collective incentive for success, we’re more likely to be upfront and transparent with our information and failures.  When we have to compete for resources however, that’s less likely to occur.

This is a particular challenge in knowledge intensive industries such as pharmaceutical where employees often have greater knowledge than their managers in their speciality.

This allows employees to present a particular picture to their colleagues that may deviate from the truth, and no one will have the knowledge to challenge them.

Building trust

Whilst a collective approach to rewards does have its virtues, the authors contend that it can also erode individual motivation and create a freeloader effect.  The answer, therefore, might be to encourage trust as much as possible.

For instance, Swiss company Roche retained a distance between the R&D teams at Genentech and the parent company when they merged in 2009.  A late stage development team then selected the strongest projects, with those not selected given support to improve matters later on.

It suggests that novel products require a collective focus, whereas less innovative endeavors require more individual approaches.  The approach is not without risk however.

“To operate in this fashion, companies must strengthen opportunities, negotiate deals and nurture external scientific ‘bets’ (work with outside experts). This means a cultural shift. It’s an enormous but necessary task,” they say.

The authors are realistic enough to appreciate however that there is no one size fits all approach, and that the number of variables involved in each unique situation makes believing so impossible.  They believe however that there are some general heuristics you can follow to apply to your personal circumstances.

“You must strike a balance,” they conclude, “between rewarding individual and group performance. It’s a spectrum and each company must find their place on it, for patients and for the advancement of treatments. Many companies are encountering this challenge. We’re only scratching the surface.”


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