Competition and Knowledge-Sharing

In Knowledge Management Needs to be Agile, Too, I said

If you put people in competition with each other *in any way*, they will have dis-incentives to share their knowledge.

John, in his comment on that post, said it seemed intuitive, but was having trouble articulating why. I’m here to help 🙂 Some of my reasons, which all go to how people are evaluated and compensated.

Managers evaluate and compensate people for their knowledge, rather than the results they provide. Sure, a company might say “We want you to work together and share your knowledge.” But as soon as they pay people for their knowledge, not their results, everyone is in competition with each other.

And, if an organization pays people individually (even though all the work we do in organizations is via some sort of team), knowledge sharing goes right out the window. If you and I are in competition for raises (and paying people individually after evaluating them means that we are in competition), why should I share what I know with you? That sharing can only hurt me.

The only way I know to enable knowledge sharing across an organization is to:

  • Pay for results
  • Pay people “enough”so it doesn’t hurt them financially to cooperate with each other
  • Use open-book management so people know who’s making what.

Sure, some people will share their knowledge because it enables the organization to do better, but those of us who know the company doesn’t love us are going to be much less altruistic. As soon as our sharing hurts us, we stop.

9 Replies to “Competition and Knowledge-Sharing”

  1. I think the “why should I share” mentality is really only useful in a limited sense. You might be beating your coworkers to pay raises and recognition but I prefer to think that by collaborating I add value to every team I work on and I can take that experience and track record with me.

    Why not let your coworker nab the glory and stay behind to rule the molehill while you move on to the next big thing?

  2. I don’t understand why a knowledge based compensation causes more competition than a result based one.

    If my “competitors” knows exactly what I know, we would be equally compensated. I see no conflict there.

    However, if the metrics are flawed in any way, so that someone is in a position to cheat or game the system, there is a problem. But that is rooted in the system.

    I can’t see how a result based system is shielded from these problems.

  3. Would that all organizational behavior were tied directly to the management evaluation and compensation system, but it just is not the case. Rewards and recognition, team building and individual contributions on projects will be far more important than annual salary reviews.

    In my experience, knowledge hoarding is more prevelant at the management level in organizations, which is why we often find out about policies and procedures after we have violated them.

  4. We might not think of it as knowledge sharing at the developer (non-management) level, but when we are clearly evaluated based on the number of features we (as individuals) complete, rather than how much the team as a whole accomplishes, then there is definite disincentive against helping our co-workers. If we are taking the time to share knowledge with a co-worker to help them do their jobs more efficiently then we’re not spending time completing the individual tasks that have been assigned to us.

    While this type of knowledge sharing may improve the team’s ability to deliver, at the individual level it is a zero-sum game. We are either putting the hours towards our own tasks that we get evaluated on or putting them towards something else that we don’t get evaluated for. Work harder, not smarter. 😉

    And forget competing for raises. With the economy as it is, and layoffs occurring rather regularly, we’re competing for our jobs.

  5. I have one person on my staff who doesn’t share the knowledge because she thinks her expertise gives her job security. She can’t take a vacation, she can’t go to training, she works all hours around the clock supporting the globe and she can’t be assigned to new projects as a result. She’s been given several resources to support her yet she still doesn’t take full advantage of it. Sharing knowledge shows leadership strength, allows you to grow your career AND you can get to sleep at night knowing that it doesn’t all rest on your shoulders.

  6. I am not sure about your recommendations.

    In the Federal government we claim to do (1 – pay for results), usually pay people (2 – enough), and definitely do (3 – open-book salaries). We aren’t very successful at sharing knowledge among workers and cooperating and such. The main reason is that we fail miserably at (1 – pay for results).

  7. I hate to say I disagree with Johanna, but I’ve seen IT karma bite people hard. Sharing knowledge isn’t altruistic, it’s pragmatic.

    Using Lisa’s co-worker as an example, this person is going to become a managerial problem. If only one person knows the particular software/system/platform, then there is a finite amount of work that person can do. If no one else can work in the same sand box, that person becomes a project bottleneck. At some point, a manager is going to look at the amount of time it takes to get n number of projects or tasks completed and decide that maybe new software/system/platform would be better for the company. The knowledge hoarded like gold turns into pennies. Daniel’s comment about moving on is also a really good point. Making yourself indispensible by hoarding knowledge means you can’t move on to bigger and better things. If variety is the spice of life, moving on makes for more variety. That’s pragmatic.

    Since we don’t always know everything, knowledge sharing can be a two-way street. If you help me by sharing what you know, I should be willing to help you by sharing my knowledge at a later date. If I don’t share, then there’s no incentive for you to continue to help me. If you create a network of knowledge sharing, you are more likely to receive knowledge that makes you more productive and achieve results faster. Even though you seem altruistic, you are really being pragmatic.

  8. The results we reward matter. If those results include measures of contribution to shared knowledge you can bet on more collaborative behavior. So who’s sharing what they’re learning and how do we know?

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