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Knowledge Mismanagement: Hiding Knowledge for Work Security

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Larisa Owen
April 16, 2020

“Power does not come from knowledge kept but from knowledge shared”- Bill Gates

It has long been said that knowledge is power, and the saying has more validity in an era of vast amounts of knowledge which we can carry around in our pockets. But there remain critical kinds of knowledge that are not as accessible, such as whether the ways in which we try to help people really are effective. Sometimes people seek to exercise power by suppressing knowledge that might increase their accountability for results. In those cases, the denial of shared knowledge is a malevolent kind of power. Such tactics must be resisted with persistent, informed insistence that knowledge is not only power—but also a very direct path to enriching the lives of people who need and deserve help.

Are there one or a few employees in your organization who are the only ones who can answer the questions needed to perform the organization’s core mission? Does only one person have access to information that can’t be accessed when that employee is busy or out of the office? Employees who treat knowledge as their own property may fear what might happen if they share it; they may use the knowledge they conceal as protection to preserve the advantage of their control.

Hoarding the knowledge of an organization as a kind of job security demonstrates lack of effective leadership that values shared accountability. Accountability removes the person behind the curtain who withholds vital information from an organization. In collaborative projects, that hoarder is crippling the advancement and achievement of the partners in that network. Being able to identify this kind of barrier to success caused by information hoarding is a key collaborative skill. Like all humans, teams acquire skills in avoidance, denial and deliberate misdirection. Detecting those tactics isn’t necessarily technical—it’s intuitive and forensic, seeing what is and isn’t happening and what results from it.

Simply providing information is not necessarily helping. Providing information is far less important than understanding the context for that information. The skill needed is diagnosing and then persuading the knowledge hoarder that sharing information doesn’t lessen her value—it increases it by eliminating a barrier to knowledge, growth and improvement.

Achieving a vision demands naming and removing these barriers to the change needed to make the vision real. Since talking about knowledge barriers and information hoarding is negative, those problems often get set aside or ignored. This can increase the lack of accountability for measuring progress toward realizing the organization’s vision. As the song puts it, we try to “Accentuate the positive,” describing what we believe will increase accountability for results without dwelling on the obstacles we are likely to encounter on the journey. Most barriers are not hidden land mines; they are in full view once an innovation is tracked through the systems that will provide support. Agreeing on the value of shared information can be a kind of barrier-busting itself, as the shared information becomes the focus, rather than the denial tactics.

How can we show employees that data and knowledge are critical for collaborative projects to be capable of adding to a cumulative body of knowledge and understanding for better outcomes? Acknowledge, as an agency with a mandate to provide services and supports to specified clients, that a flow of data about results and barriers is critical for accountability. Show, through sharing data, that one person with all the informational power cannot solve problems by herself within the framework of the agency’s resources.

One solution is cross-training across agencies with staff that may not be connected in an organizational chart. Once staff in another section see the value of shared data, the pressures for taking down the data barriers will increase. Another solution is accountability with a specific action plan with deadlines. Employees can be given incentives for sharing their expertise across sections of the agency, rather than working mostly within their own arena. Finally, a climate can be set by agency leadership that demonstrates a transparent, free-flowing culture of knowledge- sharing across the organization, showing how collaborative use of information can contribute to greater progress and productivity.

“Knowledge is power, shared knowledge is power multiplied.”- Robert Noyce


Author: Larisa Owen, Ph.D., M.B.A. [email protected]

Dr. Owen is a Program Director with Children and Family Futures.  Dr. Owen works on several project including leading the Veterans and Military Families (VMF) projects within the organization, including planning and implementation of veterans treatment courts (VTC) evaluation and technical assistance involving families in the VTC.  Dr. Owen has extensive experience evaluating the effectiveness of program implementation, program enhancement, and evaluation methods for state and national programs including training and evaluation of collaborative programs. Dr. Owen received her Bachelor of Science in Criminology and Legal Studies, holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration, and has a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Law

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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