What if a team member refuses to share his knowledge?

Option 1 – Have someone from the senior management talk with him. Not so preferred option.

Have your CEO or President give the person a good talking to or document how time would have been saved or new sales could have been generated if you had obtained the necessary information from this person on time and present it to the person & CEO/President. By then they should get the message.

Option 2 – Force him

Information hoarders usually think it gives them power and if the company lets them get away with it, it does give them power. The best option is to deal with it directly and quickly. Force them to either become a team player or get marginalized as the team moves forward.

One option would be to require that person to document everything. Take him off other projects until the information is fully documented so someone else can pick it up and use it. Have other people review the documentation to make sure it is clear and complete. If information turns up later that was not documented and you need to go through the politics again, document the fact that the previous assignment was not completed satisfactorily in the person’s review. This will take away his power real quickly and put him on the defensive for his behavior.

Option 3 – Value the person’s knowledge and work on the sharing part.

This answer from Philip Stanley is a long one, but is by far the best:

The answers received so far are somewhat combative and position a burden upon the information holder that is likely to be insupportable and at odds with the true extent of their knowledge – particularly around ideas in forcing the documenting of the knowledge they hold.

Their ability to retain information in depth and recall it accurately is the skill your team have already recognised as immensely valuable – the ability to map, organize and arrange the same depth of information in documentation to be useful to a team is not necessarily a skill this personality type would hold.

Whilst I appreciate the frustration, the net result of either course laid out so far is likely to be alienation, massive intellectual resistance and at worse, deliberate, subtle, misinformation.

Go a different way. Establish the person as a guru, an information god, an oracle. Make their ten words as valuable as 20 minutes and a page of notes. Involve them and enrapture them in the data, remove unnecessary complications and their day to day obligations and put them on high availability for the teams. Give them more overview, establish them as the domain owner and expert, and provide them with an assistant to marshal requests. Make sure that brain is invited into meetings and their opinion is sought.

Suggest and then help them prepare a series of ‘10 things you must know’, ‘10 things we _must_ avoid’, ‘10 ways -not- to spoil the project’ etc. bulletins for the team.

Pull them so far into the heart of things that there is simply nowhere else they want to be, make it easier for them to answer the ad hoc questions from a team because it is their recognised skill and function – reward them.

Stepping up a level, invent a new title (better than these ;-) TECH (Technical Collaboration Head) GURU (General User Research and Understanding) and understand _their_ appreciation of the difference between giving, sharing, and collaborating.

Often collaborating is a option when the other two are not, because it is information acquisitive at the same time as information sharing; there is balanced input and output. You may need to reframe presentation of information need so it can be seen as being collaborative working.

Why on earth would one go to all this trouble, when a simple blast from the CEO is what everyone thinks they deserve? They’ve been there a long time, the firm is invested and the cost to release is high, perhaps prohibitive.

Better to take that mind and experience and help the owner find a new paradigm for involvement. Work your asset, rather than liquidating at below market value.

Take Philip’s excellent suggestion of the series of “10 Things” papers and put them on an internal Wiki. This will allow several positive things. First, it recognizes the person as an expert inside the community. Second, it allows other team members to add snippets of additional information so that you get a company repository rather than an “in the head” repository. Third, as the amount of other information increases, it pressures the information hoarder to share more to keep their position of expertise intact.

Option 4 – Talk with him about his job security

There are two issues at work here:
1) You have one individual with a lot of “tribal knowledge” that resides nowhere else in the organization
2) The individual often feels that sharing knowledge puts his/her job at risk

You need to deal with both in order to have an effective fix. A senior manager or dept head should meet with the individual first and appeal to the ego – “Mary, you’ve been here a long time and you are such a great resource for us. I really need your help in training some of the less experienced staff members, etc.” Offer an incentive for a successful outcome – the ability to work on a fun new project, attend a seminar at a nice location, etc.

Now address #1 by documenting what this person knows so that knowledge can be easily transferred to others. Using ISO, six sigma, or another type of business process improvement can be a good mechanism for this, i.e., “Mary, we need to document this process for our upcoming ISO audit and I’d like you to take the lead on this.”

Establishing goals with measurable and specific outcomes will go a long way toward making this happen. Good luck!

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