Are You A Corporate Hoarder?

Posted By on Nov 30, 2011

A close friend recently transitioned from an extremely large organization to a small, fast-paced and entrepreneurial startup. We met shortly after he completed his first all-hands meeting, during which the CEO said something that got his (and my) attention. Namely, that the difference between the new firm and their much larger competition was based on one absolutely critical and innovative tenet – “There will be no corporate hoarding.

What Is Corporate Hoarding?

Information and knowledge still represent power and this is truer in today’s economy than ever before. Organizations are learning that employee interactions constantly yield new knowledge and information that can benefit their business in tangible ways. And although many companies state that knowledge sharing is important to their business and culture, in most cases, the opposite is occurring.

Corporate hoarding — where people do not want to share knowledge because they see knowledge as a source of power — is very common, and can happen for various reasons within any given business environment, including:

  • People feel that an injustice has been done to them;
  • People are distrustful of coworkers or management;
  • People are retaliating against behavior toward them; and/or
  • The organizational and operational climate encourages or reinforces secrecy, not sharing.

In her recent piece, The Fractured Foundation of Social Learning, Radian6′s Amber Naslund accurately defined the problem:

We don’t teach people to work together – even when we encourage group work – because ultimately our reward systems are still based on individual achievement and skills. We don’t share a grade amongst our entire class. We’re held accountable for our individual contribution and effort. Working together and contributing to a group is not the same as sharing in a collective result.

Good Ideas Come From Sharing

In his 2010 article, TechDirt’s Mike Masnick described the innovation born from random collisions and a culture of openness:

Almost all good ideas come from people building on the works of others, with a minor tweak here or there, or a random decision based on a suggestion from someone new, after an idea percolates for months or years. The more open systems are to sharing ideas and spreading information and allowing those collisions to happen, the more likely that new good ideas and new innovations occur.

Mike also cites the work of entrepreneur Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Johnson’s TEDTalk encourages us to overcome IP-centric thinking, instead allowing your idea’s chocolate to easily combine with your colleague’s peanut butter:

You have half of an idea and someone else has the other half, and if you’re in the right environment, they turn into something larger than the sum of their parts. So, in a sense, we often talk about the value of protecting intellectual property. You know, building barricades, having secretive R&D labs, patenting everything that we have, so that those ideas will ‘remain valuable’ and people will be incentivized to come up with more ideas. But I think there’s a case to be made that we should spend at least as much time, if not more, valuing the premise of connecting ideas and not just protecting them.

This Takes More Than Technology

We have tendency lately to think that “there’s an app for that” when the roots that prevent collaboration lie much deeper. Businessweek’s Evan Rosen described this situation as follows:

When tools fail to create value, it’s usually because decision-makers adopt tools before the company’s culture and processes are collaboration-ready. Organizations even adopt tools for the wrong reasons, primarily the belief that tools will create collaboration. Tools merely offer the potential for collaboration. Unlocking the value of tools happens only when an organization fits tools into collaborative culture and processes. If the culture is hierarchical and internally competitive, it will take more than tools to shift the culture.

A Model For Assessing Likely Behavior

Perhaps the best and most realistic study that accurately addresses these challenges can be sourced from the INSEAD Working Paper series. The author defines four models that organizations can use to assess the likelihood of sharing versus hoarding:

  • The High/High: Individuals perceiving their knowledge to be high in individual value and high in corporate value will engage in selective sharing, sharing that knowledge which might bring recognition and reward to them but concealing that knowledge which might be successfully used by others with no reward for them.
  • The High/Low: Individuals perceiving their knowledge to be high in individual value and low in corporate value will engage in information hoarding, choosing to avoid sharing their knowledge but attempting to learn as much as possible from others.
  • The Low/High: Individuals perceiving their knowledge to be low in individual value and high in corporate value will engage in information sharing, sharing freely with others for the benefit of the organization.
  • The Low/Low: Individuals perceiving their knowledge to be low in individual value and low in corporate value will engage in random sharing, sharing freely when their knowledge is requested but not consciously sharing otherwise.

Although it may seem obvious the study also cites that, “Individuals in subunits characterized by an open communication culture will view knowledge less as an individual asset whereas individuals in subunits characterized by a closed communication climate will view knowledge more as an individual asset.” A good way to assess the challenge ahead is through this simple cultural lens.

A Closing Thought

Organizations and individuals need to have a keen sense of self awareness and avoid the tendency toward aspirational values that don’t ring true to the reality of either party. So before you declare that “corporate hoarding is dead” and expect it to magically dissipate, take a cold hard look at how you communicate, motivate, incentivize and model the same behaviors you’re attempting to eradicate. What you find may surprise you.


  1. Great article. Was true then, more true now due to economy & information on internet which previously was hoarded more by ‘higher ups’ I believe.

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    • Thanks for the comment Ursula. The kind of “higher up” information hoarding I’ve seen lately involves partial or incomplete communications on what’s really going on. I think many senior executives underestimate how plugged in employees really are. Putting your head in the sand because you’re not ready to have a difficult and transparent conversation is never the answer.

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  2. Great article, Mark. You point out the exact reasons why social business initiatives fail. The corporate culture has to reflect the shift to a more collaborative working environment – with both external and interal stakeholders – to succeed. This is something that needs to be championed at all levels of the organization.

    Post a Reply
    • Great point Melany, and I especially agree with the “all levels” aspect. Too often we forget to tap into the folks at the bottom of the pyramid when they are often the most grounded and connected to your clients.

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  3. nice article.
    good ideas always come from sharing thoughts with other people and get their opinions.

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  4. There is a lot of competition between team members and departments but unless knowledge is shared (or “cashed in”) then it has no power at all. The only way to make a name for your self and to get recognised is to share your ideas and help other members of your team reach their potential. I think there is a misconception that in order to be a valued member of the team you have to do it all yourself, when in fact you can be much more valuable if you enable others to be better employees. Only a silly boss would ignore your contribution to team dynamics in favour of any personal accomplishments you happened to make. Good article.

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    • I could not agree more. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

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