Information Sharing and the Fear of Chaos

One facet of knowledge management which can readily make a large difference to the efficiency of an organisation is the sharing of information. However, there are a number of commonly occurring problems which arise when managers try to create a culture where information sharing is part of everyday activity.

A few years ago I found myself in a working as part of a team in the IT department of a largish organisation. Some of the everyday duties of a number of people in three different teams could have been made dramatically more efficient if all of them were able to access the information that already existed. One person had a database which was useful to everyone that she kept privately to herself. Another person knew of documents created by a predecessor in the job that would be of use to another team. One team had access to technical information that would be of use to another team, and so on.

I proposed setting up a folder on the drive shared by all the teams involved with an html page in the root where there would be a brief description of each document with a link to it. Once set up, the maintenance of the ‘database’ would take minimal time and have no other cost implications.

When I asked people about sharing the information that they had, most of them thought that it was a good idea though none of them thought that the sharing should be given any priority. In other words, they were happy if I did the work but were not willing to do it themselves. This attitude reflected the culture of the organisation which was good natured but little thought was ever given to knowledge sharing of knowledge transfer.

However, there were others who had more serious reservations. They asked who would be ultimately responsible for the database and suggested that there might be false or damaging information creeping into it unless it was tightly controlled, and no one had the time to do that. They went on to say that probably many of the documents in the database would be out of date, could be misleading and no one had time to check them and correct or rewrite them if necessary. These objectors were mostly team leaders or others who had responsibility for the workings of these teams.

Whenever change is proposed, however minor it may be, there are always those who look for the disadvantages and emphasise them over any possible gains. In this case the objections came from a fear of loss of control over subordinates and a fear that blame might accrue to them in some unforeseen way. These objectors felt that a lack of information sharing and the resulting ignorance, costly in time and in the degraded quality of the service provided, was preferable to the risks that might be introduced by trusting employees to make their own decisions about what information was worth sharing. It was true that some documents were out of date and that some of them might contain inaccuracies but I pointed out that, nevertheless, making the information available did not make the situation any worse than it already was and it offered obvious benefits.

Of course, if the organisation had already had a culture where information was routinely shared, we would have been encouraged to set up a wiki on the intranet. In this case, it was so difficult to have information made available on the intranet, unless for a very small and select group of people, that no one thought that it was worth the expenditure of time and effort.

It is generally true that information is not shared more within organisations because of a blame culture, because of a lack of trust in employees and because of a fear of chaos. If the knowledge asset is to be used effectively in many organisations, these are among the issues that have to be addressed and the culture changed. To facilitate better knowledge management it is not only attitudes towards knowledge itself that have to be addressed.

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