Hidden in plain sight (Executive Series)

Examining 'knowledge hiding' within organizations

Editor's note: Once a month, the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) hosts a special seminar on a topic of interest to HR professionals and business leaders. Canadian HR Reporter covers these events for a special feature titled "Executive Series." The feature includes news coverage from one of our editors, plus commentary from SCNetwork's panel of thought leaders on strategic capability, leadership in action and organization effectiveness.

This web post contains all of these elements: 

Hidden in plain sight 
Examining 'knowledge hiding' within organizations

By Liz Bernier

Academics and researchers are always trying to uncover hidden knowledge about organizations. Maybe it’s knowledge about employee behaviour or the ROI of hiring diverse candidates, or how silos and subcultures emerge. 

But a new area of research is focusing directly on the knowledge or information employees withhold from each other — a process referred to as “knowledge hiding.”  

“We’ve all been in a situation where we’re working on something, we need help with something, we know there’s somebody who knows that thing. So you ask them, and you don’t get an answer that helps you,” said Catherine Connelly, Canada research chair and associate professor of organization behaviour at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton. 

“And, by the same token, sometimes you’re in a situation on the other side where there are sometimes reasons why we’re not as helpful as we (could) be.”

There are different ways in which employees can hide knowledge — it’s not just simply a “yes or no” thing — there are a lot of nuances and shades of grey, said Connelly at a Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto. 

“One of the main things to keep in mind is that it’s an intentional response. It isn’t just that you actually don’t know and you would like to help but you just can’t. This is you intentionally are keeping something to yourself,” she said. 

But knowledge hiding is not necessarily malicious — a person might have good reasons for withholding information, she said. 

Three strategies
There are essentially three different ways employees tend to engage in knowledge hiding, said Connelly. 

“One strategy could be rationalized hiding. So by this I just mean that there is a rationale behind it. It’s not like you’re trying to rationalize anything, it’s that you have some reasons and you’re explaining these reasons,” she said. 

“Maybe somebody asks you for help and you say, ‘I’d love to help you, it’s just that this is confidential information right now. I can’t share who we’re going to hire until this date — I’ll tell you later.’”

Rationalized hiding is fairly straightforward, but the other two strategies are less so. 

“The next one is what we call evasive hiding and this is where the level of duplicity starts to go up just a little bit. In this case, the hider pretends that the information will be forthcoming — and there’s lots of ways to do that. You could say, ‘Oh, right, I’ll get back to you.’ Or you send an email and say, “Oh, it’s really easy, all you have to do is this.’ But, really, you know there’s a lot more to it than that — you just don’t want to get into it,” she said. 

“So there’s some information or a promise of information but you’re not actually sharing the important stuff.”

The third strategy involves the most duplicity of the three, and Connelly refers to it as “playing dumb.” 

“So somebody asks you ‘How do you do that?’ and you say, ‘What are you talking about? I don’t know what that is. Ask somebody else; they know a lot more than I do,’” she said. “In this case, you’re pretending to be ignorant. It’s sort of the opposite of being a know-it-all.”

Negative impacts
So why is knowledge hiding a problem? It can have a number of negative impacts on the organization, said Connelly. 

“When somebody is asking for help with something, they’re putting themselves out there — they’re being a little bit vulnerable. And if that help is not forthcoming when they think it should be, it’s going to hurt your relationship a little bit.” 

Interestingly, the type of hiding really matters in terms of what impact it will have on the relationship, she said. 

“A lot of times, people think that the rationalized hiding is going to be too awkward… you kind of have to say to the person ‘You’re not senior enough for this information’ or ‘You’re not in the in-group.’ 

“And so people feel really awkward about it and I think that’s why they default to the ‘I don’t know’ or the ‘I’ll get back to you, sorry,’” she said. 

“But it’s actually the opposite. In our research, we found that people react the very worst to the most (duplicitous) ways of hiding the knowledge, and people are actually understanding when it comes to the rationalized hiding. So if somebody is taking the time to explain ‘This is the reason why,’ I think people appreciate that.”

HR professionals in particular will likely have to master the “rationalized hiding” approach, said John Silverthorn, senior vice-president of human resources at CIBC in Toronto, speaking at the Strategic Capability Network event. 

“Those of us who are HR professionals, we practise this with due diligence. In many instances, we’re in situations where withholding information that isn’t intended to be shared — which we call rationalized hiding… clearly there’s information that’s shared with us that’s shared in confidence that we aren’t able to share,” he said. 

Knowledge hiding isn’t the worst thing that can happen in an organization, said Connelly — but it can have some significant consequences. 

“Where it’s problematic and why it’s an issue, the one area would be where there’s information that the organization needs to have — in other words, it’s people withholding information that’s critical to the operation that you need to be able to share, and that information needs to be in the hands of the right individuals (for them) to be able to make decisions,” said Silverthorn.

Fostering trust
A major reason employees engage in knowledge hiding is distrust, said Connelly. 

“If there’s any kind of sense that the person who’s asking does not have integrity, is not, we’ll say, benevolent, they’re not fully competent, you might have good reasons why you might not share everything that you know with certain people,” she said. 
There are other reasons, of course, such as time pressure and stress.

“(But) that’s not everybody. There are some people who really care about other people, think of other people’s goals when they’re making their decisions, just really put themselves in other people’s shoes. So these people, even when they’re busy, even when they’re pressed for time, they will take the extra effort to try to help somebody.”

You can’t force employees to stop hiding knowledge — instead, you have to build trust, said Connelly. 

“The thing is, this trust takes some time to develop. It’s not as if you can just tell people to trust each other — they need opportunities to get to know each other. And it seems sort of counterintuitive, because people are busy, but giving them those opportunities to find out a little bit about people on a personal level gives them reasons to trust each other, gives them reasons to share their knowledge,” she said.

Managers also play a key role, said Connelly. 

“Managers can also set very good examples by sharing information that they are able to share, when they can share it. So if the manager is completely tight-lipped about everything, it kind of sets the tone for everyone else. So why would you be the only one sharing when your manager is quiet on every topic, and everybody else is the same?” she said. 

“If you can recognize people who do go that extra mile, that’s a way of starting to shift the culture.” 

Why the ‘great divide’?

By Michael Clark

Within academia, research is being conducted on corporate issues that will someday drive effectiveness in organizations. Yet, there appears to be no deliberate means to keep corporate Canada informed of what is being studied, nor to keep academia informed of the research needs of corporate Canada.

How can we close what executive Edmond Mellina refers to as the “great divide”? He did us a service by curating a presentation allowing three academics to present their current research. 

The unspoken question in the session was “Why the great divide”? Are academics deliberately withholding, waiting to release the next killer business book? Are they concerned about a loss of control? Are OD and OE practitioners deliberately not involving themselves in academic research?

If both parties had the will, the solution would inevitably involve a closer alignment. Partnership would seem to benefit both parties: research funding in exchange for a strategic competitive advantage; access to real-world data in exchange for new insights; and work for researchers in exchange for pre-recruited talent.

The presentations revealed some intriguing insights. Among the five research topics presented, two stood out from an organizational effectiveness perspective.

Catherine Connelly revealed a barrier to effectiveness that has been hiding in plain sight. Intentionally withholding knowledge, a common occurrence at organizations, creates distrust and interferes with potential. And though our natural tendency is to avoid difficult conversations by being evasive or playing dumb, it is by being forthright about why we are hiding knowledge that we negatively impact trust the least. Further, “hiders” suffer a reduced ability to be creative. 

Elizabeth Kurucz has an interesting perspective on complexity. Her thesis is that navigating complexity creates more stakeholder value than reducing complexity. We tend to react to complexity by simplifying the situation into trade-offs between stakeholders, whereas Kurucz’s model proposes that by holding the competing tensions in balance, more shareholder value is created. 

Mellina’s session highlighted the need for a clearinghouse of corporately oriented research where academia and business can bridge the great divide.

Michael Clark is director of sales and marketing at Forrest & Company. Forrest is an organizational transformation firm, with over 25 years experience in developing the organizational and leadership capacity in organizations. 

View from ivory tower includes trenches

By Karen Gorsline

Academia is often perceived as a place of intellectual pursuit disconnected from practical business issues and daily reality. This could not be further from the truth. Topics such as knowledge hiding in organizations, the cost of hiring contingent workers, gender differences in work-family balance, the importance of mindfulness in the workplace and leadership capabilities required to navigate truly complex issues highlight how relevant much current academic research and enquiry are to business and workplace success. 

While some academic researchers can’t resist seizing ahold of a fad, research by its very nature provides a disciplined approach to looking at and analyzing situations. Some of the potential benefits of business staying connected to academic research include:

Investigative bias: Researchers are constantly looking for interesting research topics. Business can assist and reap the benefits by communicating areas where they see needs and would like to see research completed. Often, this means business also provides an environment for data collection. While sometimes seen as a distraction, the intrusion on operations can be managed and costs can be minimal. Research conducted by an academic can also be less threatening than that of a consultant and communicated as a collaborative activity.

Assumptions challenged: At the initial phase, researchers look at an environment with fresh, unbiased eyes. They collect data to identify any patterns or trends or connections. They may test common assumptions to see which, if any, are valid. For example, are men and women both impacted by work-family balance? Assumptions in an organization come from a variety of sources: culture, new business fads, views of a specific executive or industry practices. The assumptions reflect beliefs or opinions rather than facts confirmed by analysis, and businesses that develop solutions or approaches this way are unlikely to understand and deal with the underlying issues.

Hypotheses developed and tested: The next step is to make sense of the data with at least one set of related hypotheses developed. This is then tested to see if there is a clear relationship and to refine the understanding and meaning of the data, including the extent to which the results can be generalized. Businesses often lack the patience to test and refine a hypothesis. The closest they often get is when a true pilot or test occurs versus a prelude to full roll-out subject to only minor tweaking. Testing the hypothesis is a critical step for determining whether further investment of time or money will be fruitful.

Models developed: If the research findings can be generalized, then the researcher can develop a model to explain the findings and any sequences or inter-relationships involved. This general conceptual model can then be used as a tool by others. The difference between this model and a typical approach often found in corporate presentations is that research supports it. It is just not making a point, but describing research findings in a way that can be used more broadly. It can help an organization pinpoint where and how to invest resources most effectively and also provide insight on how to best measure their effectiveness.

Businesses that stay connected to academic research have access to knowledge. They develop the discipline to collect data, analyze and draw conclusions. Those that understand how to apply this new knowledge and thinking to their specific environment can improve their competitive advantage, whether it is related to efficiency and effectiveness, or responding strategically to shifts in the market or business environment.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, a consulting practice focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. Toronto-based, she has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at [email protected].

Is it time to rework new partnerships?

By Trish Macguire

Could you name a Canadian professor you know when it comes to their research, insights and subject matter expertise on the impact and relationship between people and leaders in the workplace (not including Henry Mintzberg)?

Do Canadian leaders know how many local universities actively conduct research studies on leadership and organizational effectiveness? It may surprise you to know many leaders are totally unaware of the availability of these valuable resources.
I’m curious as to what the barriers may be that deter leaders from wanting to know and leverage local research, insights and expertise to help build a great organization. Hopefully, it’s a lack of awareness versus a lack of interest.

On the other hand, are there long-established barriers and institutional regulations within academia that hinder the marketing of their services to corporations? 

The three academics invited by the Strategic Capability Network each introduced, validated and offered fresh perspectives on the impact and relationship between people and leaders in our workplaces. 

Highlights included: the key roles and relationships between middle managers and their teams; the importance of leaders earning people’s trust; the need to embrace complexity and stop trying to reduce or control it; and the benefits of adopting reflective thinking practices.  Even a few enduring management assumptions and practices were debunked.

Evidently, local, cutting-edge research is available, yet finding or accessing the expertise appears to be a challenge for many corporations. There are, however, some outstanding examples where university-corporate linkages are proving to be highly beneficial. 

IBM Canada partnered with seven Canadian universities and created centres of excellence where leading-edge research is encouraged between cross-sector leading experts. These centres have reportedly made convincing advances across a broad range of issues and innovation-related activities in health care, water, cities and urban concerns. 

Then there is the national not-for-profit organization Mitacs which designs and delivers research and training programs in Canada. It works with 60 universities, thousands of companies and both federal and provincial governments and is dedicated to building partnerships that support industrial and social innovation.

Consistent with a publication prepared by Canada’s Public Policy Forum in May, both these examples show how collaboration and cross-sectoral partnerships help reinforce Canada as one of the world’s most viable investment prospects with a track record for maintaining a viable business environment along with an educated, diverse, highly skilled workforce that can generate innovation.    

With the changing global, economic and political world we live in, is it time academia re-positioned and reworked its relationship with business? What has to happen in order for academia to rethink its strategies and tools to make its research capabilities more visible, its expertise more accessible and its resources better known? 

Likewise, is it time for corporations to rethink how they can engage with academia and start to leverage subject matter expertise, applied and action research capabilities and resources? 

There’s clearly a win-win opportunity waiting to be reworked by academia and corporate Canada in developing a synergistic, collaborative framework with common interests to create forward-looking business partnerships based on trust, open dialogue and shared knowledge. 

Being able to create opportunities where common interests are identified, expertise is leveraged and theory can be translated into applied, cutting-edge research can only help accelerate innovation, create great organizations and sustain that competitive advantage. Let’s do it.   

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions in Nobleton, Ont., focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and OD in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial firms. She can be reached at [email protected].

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