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3 keys to promoting knowledge sharing within an organization… and stopping it going to competitors

Effective knowledge sharing among employees has long been recognized as important for companies notably due to its impact on performance, and even in terms of stimulating creativity or innovation. However, it is not necessarily easy for companies to manage knowledge flows efficiently. Their employees may be based in different geographical locations, or have diverse motivations for sharing or hiding knowledge, and these may not necessarily be aligned with companies’ goals or expectations. Certain employees may even have personal motivations for sharing knowledge outside of their organization and even with competitors. A new study* carried out by Professors Giada Di Stefano from Bocconi University and Maria Rita Micheli from IÉSEG outlines three ways organizations can impact knowledge flows – stemming the tide of knowledge internally instead of letting knowledge leave the organization, thus potentially eroding its competitive advantage.

The importance of knowledge sharing

Knowledge sharing – between teams and individuals – is a key element of collaboration. This has become even more apparent in the last years, as the pandemic prompted many companies to evolve towards hybrid or remote working.

Professor Maria Rita Micheli explains: “The collaboration with my co-author started by talking about our common interest in knowledge sharing. She had been doing some research in the context of gourmet cuisine, and wanted to extend this work to different industries. I personally knew several physicists and thought it could be very interesting to study knowledge sharing in the context of physics.”

What made the context of physics interesting in her eyes was the fact that the work of physicists generally involves a great deal of collaboration. Still, physicists are in constant competition with their peers to be able to claim priority on discoveries. The researcher hence wondered: what happens to knowledge sharing in a context where competition and cooperation are forced to co-exist so closely? Previous research had studied how managers could affect knowledge sharing by leveraging financial or legal incentives. “We wanted to look at more informal mechanisms, such as the role played by organizational climate,” Professor Micheli adds.

We approached ATLAS and CMS, two different research groups within CERN, the European organization for nuclear research. It was a great opportunity to look at two organizational entities that were in collaboration, by sharing certain resources for example, while at the same time competing with one another.” As the paper points out, the two research groups had indeed been created to be in competition with each other, so to ensure the validation of scientific discoveries through independent replication.

The authors engaged in a five-year research project. They started by carrying out desk research, field observations and over 50 interviews. They then ran an experiment involving over 500 physicists from CERN and two lab experiments involving 389 participants recruited online. “This provided us with empirical support for three key findings”, explains Professor Micheli.

Three key findings – organizational climate, job design and socialization

1.Organizational climate: The main result of the paper is that employees are more likely to share knowledge with their colleagues when they feel they are an integral part of the organization. The researchers measured the propensity of employees to identify with their organization through a series of questions looking at topics such as the extent to which the organization encourages them to outperform coworkers vis-à-vis cooperate with them as a team, or the extent to which the organization rewards individual vis-à-vis collective achievements.

We show that employees who work in a more competitive environment, where they are encouraged to outperform each other, would rather share knowledge with their competitors, than with their own colleagues,” Professor Micheli explains. “This suggests that an organizational climate can significantly impact knowledge flows. Interestingly, however, our results highlight that even in this sort of climate, organizations can redirect knowledge flows internally by acting on two levers at the individual level, namely job design and socialization regime.”

2.Job design: The researchers found that the responsibilities attached to a particular job or function can also affect the propensity of employees to share information internally or externally. “Our results suggest that employees in managerial positions, for example, were less likely to transfer information externally, probably because they were more likely to internalize rules and needed to ensure their team members follow such rules,” Professor Micheli explains. “We also noticed how younger employees, or those with less experience, seemed more likely to share externally, most likely in the attempt to gain visibility and advance their careers.

3.Socialization regime: The researchers also note that the physical location of the employees, and the possibilities for them to ‘socialize’, could also impact knowledge sharing. As with many large organizations, members of CERN are partly located in the Geneva headquarters and partly spread out around the world. “Our findings suggest that scientists based in the headquarters were more likely to share knowledge internally instead of ‘leaking’ such knowledge outside of their team. We can speculate that the opportunity to socialize on a regular basis with coworkers contributes to the feeling of being part of the same organization, thus leading employees to share more within the boundaries of the organization.

Some applications for managers/companies

Professor Micheli believes the findings from her study can be useful to organizations in a variety of ways.

First and foremost, they highlight the importance of organizational climate in knowledge management. “While an unfavorable organizational climate may be tempered in the short-term by working on job design or socialization,” Professor Micheli notes “in the longer term we would advise managers to incorporate activities/mechanisms that encourage individuals to identify with the organization and motivate them not to undermine the interests of the organization with their behavior.” This could imply for instance, focusing on team rather than individual results, or rewarding collective achievements, rather than those of individual employees.

Another key takeaway for managers, in particular for those in complex organizations, is that different units or teams can develop very different organizational climates. We believe it important for managers to be aware of such differences and adapt their interventions to the “personality” of each unit,” Professor Micheli concludes.

Biography

Maria Rita Micheli is Assistant Professor of Strategy at IÉSEG School of Management in Paris. She completed her PhD in 2015 at Rotterdam School of Management – Erasmus University, and has been a visiting pre – doctoral research fellow at Kellogg School of Management  – Northwestern University in 2013. Her research revolves around knowledge transfer and innovation, with particular emphasis on how organizations and individuals leverage knowledge to enhance innovation and introduce new paradigms.

*Di Stefano, Giada and Micheli, Maria Rita, To Stem the Tide: Organizational Climate and the Locus of Knowledge Transfer, Organization Science, 0 (0) 1–28 https://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/10.1287/orsc.2021.1551