Barriers in information sharing

Factors that contribute to barriers in information sharing from selected literature review

1. Introduction

Many people feel that information sharing makes things “better”. It produces better working practices, better services (Peel & Rowley, 2010) and is better for the organization as a whole and the community at large. Information sharing is an essential part of learning organization. The concept of learning organisation is based on the assumption that information freely flows throughout the organisation, which is not always the case (Shaheen, 2010). This is because organisational structure is rather complex. One of the major reasons for not creating information-based organisations is the failure to manage the politics of information use and distribution (Shaheen, 2010). Many studies suggested that people are least likely to freely share their information even in most information-oriented organisations.

Studies and research have identified many factors that hindered free-flow of information in an organization. The paper by Chen, et al. (2009) specifically mentioned Riege's term, “the triad of knowledge-sharing barriers”, where the barriers to knowledge sharing are classified into the individual barriers, organizational barriers and technology barriers (Riege, 2005). While, Choo (2009) categorizes the barriers into training and education; information security, etc. Many studies have shown that barriers to information and knowledge sharing do exist and some of these factors will be discussed through the selected literature review. This literary review draws on studies and researches that were done to understand the factors that contribute to barriers in information sharing in organisations.

2. Cultural influences

Culture is one of the common factors that hinders information sharing in an organization. A case study by Ardichvili, et.al. (2006), presents cultural influences on knowledge sharing through online communities of practice. This study was done among employees from a multinational corporation (Caterpillar Inc.) in three countries: Russia, China and Brazil. The organization's main business is engineering. The study was done with assumptions that the contributing factors to knowledge sharing are; degree of collectivism, in-group orientation, importance of saving face, power and hierarchy, competitiveness among employees, and culture specific preferences. Some of these factors will be discussed further.

2.1. Collectivism

The concepts of individualism and collectivism were discussed in the paper. Individualism is when people place personal goals ahead of the goals of a larger social group, such as, the organization. While collectivism is when people tend to give priority to the goals of the larger collective or group they belong to (Hofstede, 2001). Members of collectivistic cultures (e.g. China, Brazil and Russia) tend to disregard information in writing (Bhagat et al., 2002) as they prefer face-to-face communication or phone calls, that is, communication media with high media-richness to convey meaning. On the other hand, members of low-context cultures (e.g. USA) tend to place more emphasis on the written word, which entails that communication media low in media-richness, like e-mails or online discussion boards are preferred. Understanding the difference between high- and low- context styles of communication will improve the effectiveness of information sharing.

2.2. In-group and out group orientation

Collectivists tend to make a greater distinction between in-group and out-group members. Chow et al. (2000) compared factors influencing knowledge sharing behaviours between US and Chinese managers, and discovered that Chinese nationals were much more reluctant to share with an out-group member than Americans. This implies that collectivists are more likely to share what they know within their in-group members, thus attempting to serve the interest of the group. Individualists, who do not have such strong association with in-groups, may not be willing to share even within their immediate collectives. In addition, strong in-group orientation is often accompanied by negative feelings towards out-group. China and Russia are examples of countries that have strong in-groups. Thus, an employee might not share knowledge with someone not considered a member of their group even though they belong to the same larger organization. As a result, knowledge sharing on organization or inter-organization level could be significantly inhibited by this group orientation (Hutchings and Michailova, 2004).

3. Information hoarding

Ardichvili, et.al. (2006) identify information hoarding as another factor that hinders information sharing. According to the study, the levels of information hoarding vary from country to country. For example, in Russia, information hoarding and lack of information sharing are common among employees. Michailova and Husted (2003) identifies the factors that contribute to this behaviour, such as, the need to cope with great uncertainty because of rapid economic changes; and the tradition of respect for hierarchy and power. Thus, countries with unstable or rapidly changing economic conditions and strong hierarchy are assumed to have information hoarding within the organizations.

3.1. Hieararchical structure

Ardichvili, et.al. (2006) study about information sharing in virtual communities stated that in a more hierarchical and “vertical” cultures, top managers control the information flow and restrict access to critical information by lower-level employees. This inhibits active sharing of knowledge online, as online sharing requires posting of questions and responds freely without the employee checking with their supervisors first. Furthermore, in this type of society, higher level managers may not be participating in the online knowledge sharing as it is considered “not in line” with their status image. Hence, this task would be delegated to their secretaries and lower-level employees. Subsequently, the online communication initiatives will not be effective.

4. Fear of losing face and modesty

Tong & Mitra (2009) explore national cultural influences on knowledge management practices within Chinese manufacturing enterprises in their case study. This qualitative study was organized within a Chinese mobile phone company, Lotus. The findings of the study showed that a series of factors derived from Chinese culture such as hierarchy consciousness, fear of losing face, sense of modesty, competitiveness and a preference for face-to-face communication, contribute to barriers in knowledge management activities within Chinese manufacturing organisations which consequently, inhibits information sharing. Some of these factors will be elaborated further.

4.1. Fear of losing face

Study by Tong & Mitra (2009) presents that face value is very important to some societies. For the older members of the organisation, they are unwilling to hear or accept different views from juniors because of this fear of losing face. They would be embarrassed if the junior staff disagree with them. On the other hand, for the young or junior employees, face saving means not exposing their lack of knowledge publicly. Exposing their lack of knowledge would make them ‘lose face' to their competitors and display their weaknesses. Ardichvili et al. (2006), mentions in his study that responding to questions and making suggestions online could make people lose face because they could be seen as incompetent by asking trivial questions. Thus, knowledge sharing becomes inefficient and counter productive. Due to this fear of losing face, precious working time could also be wasted.

4.2. Modesty

Modesty, that is prevalent in Asian culture contribute to the barrier in information sharing. In Chinese culture, there is a saying that, “there will always be a higher mountain than the one you have seen”. It means that we should be modest because there will always be somebody who knows more than us. In Chinese society, expressing one's opinion in public is not encouraged (Tong & Mitra, 2009), leading to some employees unwillingness to share their knowledge. In cultures that put a significant weight on modesty, community members are inclined to avoid being too active in online and other open-forum discussions, so as not to appear too immodest and boastful (Ardichvili et al., 2006).

5. Security and secrecy

A study by Goh & Hooper (2009) disclosed the requirement to maintain high security, as well as encourage the free flow of knowledge and information as a considerable challenge in information sharing. In the study, a research was done to determine the present status of, and barriers to knowledge and information sharing; to make suggestions for improvement: and to discover whether the situation is different from that experienced by organizations in an average business environment. A survey was conducted within the New Zealand Defence Force for this purpose. Participants surveyed felt that knowledge and information did not flow well between the departments. This could be attributed to a silo-type structure in the NZDF, which might create a good flow within but not between departments.

Majority of the respondents also felt that requirement of security and secrecy could deter knowledge and information sharing. They believed that some employees refrained from sharing information because of the lack of training in security classification and dissemination procedures while others identified the lack of sufficient security between technological systems and departments as the contributing factors. Some respondents added that staff often over-classified and over-compartmentalised information to prevent security breaches. Hence, information sharing suffered because of this.

5.1. Attitudes of staff

Beliefs, fears and attitudes of staff are also seen as important barriers to information sharing (Goh & Hooper, 2009). Some of the negative attitudes of staff are their lack of interest in sharing, fear that others would take credit for their work and a perception that other people's information or knowledge was irrelevant to them. This uncertainty about the benefit of knowledge is also mentioned by Chen, et al. (2009). General lack of time to share knowledge, dominance in sharing explicit knowledge over tacit knowledge, poor verbal and interpersonal skills are some of the factors that were classified as individual barriers to knowledge sharing in an organisation (Chen, et.al, 2009).

6. Ignorance

Chen et.al (2009) examined the views of executives working in an American based multinational company (MNC) about knowledge sharing, barriers to knowledge sharing and strategies to promote knowledge sharing design/methodology/approach. With regards to barriers in knowledge sharing, the paper presented that some employees have a certain degree of uncertainty over the value of their possessed knowledge. They do not know how their knowledge can help others as well as who possesses the knowledge that would be useful to them. Neither the knowledge source nor the recipient is bothered with who possesses knowledge and who requires them. Ignorance on both ends is one of the biggest information and knowledge sharing barriers in most companies.

6.1. Organizational and technological barriers

Riege (2005) coined the term, “the triad of knowledge-sharing barriers”, where the barriers are grouped into individual barriers, organizational barriers and technology barriers. List of organizational barriers to knowledge sharing: lack of leadership and managerial direction, lack of transparent rewards and recognition system, unsupportive corporate culture, shortage of appropriate infrastructure, size of business unit, etc.

Technology barriers are listed as: lack of integration of IT systems and processes, lack of technical support, lack of maintenance for the IT systems, unrealistic expectation of IT, lack of compatibility between diverse IT systems and processes, lack of training for staff to familiarize themselves with the system and use it effectively, etc.

7. Legislative and regulatory context

Peel & Rowley (2010) seeked to understand knowledge sharing in the public sector, with specific reference to multi-agency that dealt with personal case information in the UK. A questionnaire-based survey was conducted within the Trafford Children and Young People's Service workforce to explore attitudes toward the sharing of personal information. Findings showed that information systems and complex legislative and regulatory context were the main reasons for barriers in information sharing for this study.

Legislative and regulatory context pose challenges to information sharing with regards to sharing of personal data. Information sharing within the children's services deals with both sensitive and less-sensitive personal information. There are several legislation related to these issues, for example, Data Protection Act (1998), the Human Rights Act (1998) and the Common Law Duty of Confidentiality. These legislations assist with protecting personal information, as well as making provision for the sharing of information. The study highlighted that while there are guiding principles as to what information may or may not be shared, under what circumstances, and with whom, each professional group (teachers, nurses, social workers, police, etc.) could be subjected to different guidelines and requirements under certain circumstances which contribute to the complexity of multi-agency working and information sharing.

Respondents to the survey highlighted several interesting points with regard to how legislations hindered information sharing. Some felt that legistlations add to confusion because there is ambiguity in the law and while maintaining privacy is critical, it is also confusing, people's lack of understanding led to misapplication of legislation. Some respondents felt that the misapplication of legislation were deliberate in some cases and is an excuse for not sharing information.

8. Observations and Conclusion

The selected articles presented in this review show that there are many factors that contribute to the barriers in information sharing in organization. However, culture is the most common study in this aspect. Many literature on culture as the hindrance to information sharing can be found and culture is discussed at great length in this essay through the papers by Ardichvili, et.al. (2006), Goh & Hooper (2009) and Tong & Mitra (2009). Some of cultural factors identified in this essay, although are predominant in Chinese culture, are also mentioned in general in several papers. For examples, hierarchical issues, modesty and fear of losing face. These imply that these issues are common among organizations.

In the paper by Goh & Hooper (2009), it was concluded that developing trust among staff members in light of the need for tight security is the same for most organisations. The only difference is that the consequences of not doing either are much more detrimental in a closed information environment such as the defence force. Besides security, closed information environment could also face similar hierarchical issues and staff attitude like the other organizations. It would be useful if more studies and research could be done on closed information organizations so that knowledge management and information sharing strategy in these environments could be explored further and contribute to the richness of this study.

Many factors associated with Asian cultures are identified as the barriers to information sharing as shown in this essay. However, it would be more insightful if research and studies could be done on other aspects of information sharing barriers in organizations with strong Asian values besides culture. Besides, there are limitations to some of the studies as highlighted in the papers, for examples, the studies or surveys were done to a certain group of people, such as, the executive staff only or certain culture, like Chinese and certain type of organisations, for example, defence.

Although there are many factors that contribute to information sharing barriers, there are also efforts to improve on the situation so that the organisation can truly benefit from information and knowledge sharing. Some of the initiatives suggested to promote knowledge sharing is to link it with rewards and performance appraisal, top management support and improving the system and infrastructure so that people could easily identify who or how they can share their knowledge. With more organizational awareness about information sharing, knowledge management and learning organizations, information sharing will be more effective and productive in the future.

List of References:

1. Ardichvili, A., Mauver, M., Wei, L., Wentling, T. & Stuedeman, R. (2006). Cultural influences on knowledge sharing through online communities of practice. Journal of Knowledge Management. 10(1), 94-107.

2. Bhagat, R., Kedia, B., Harveston, P. and Triandis, H. (2002). Cultural variations in the cross-border transfer of organizational knowledge: an integrative framework”. Academy of Management Review. 27(2). 204-221.

3. Chen, W. L., Sandhu, M. S. & Jain, K. K. (2009). Knowledge sharing in an American multinational company based in Malaysia. Journal of Workplace Learning. 21(2), 125-139.

4. Chow, C., Deng, F. and Ho, J. (2000). The openness of knowledge sharing within organizations: a comparative study in the United States and the People's Republic of China. Journal of Management Accounting Research. 12, 65-95.

5. Goh, C. H. & Hooper, V. (2009). Knowledge and information sharing in a closed information environment. Journal of Knowledge Management, 13(2), 21-34.

6. Gray, B., Robinson, C., Saddon, D. & Roberts, A. (2008). Confidentiality smokescreens and careers for people with mental health problems: the perspectives of professionals. Health and Social Care in the Community. 16(4), 278-387.

7. Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture's consequences: comparing values, behaviours, institutions and organizations across Nations, 2nd ed., Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.

8. Hutchings, K. and Michailova, S. (2004). Facilitating knowledge sharing in Russian and Chinese subsidiaries: the role of personal networks and group membership. Journal of Knowledge Management. 8(2), 84-94.

10. Michailova, S. and Husted, K. (2003). Knowledge sharing in Russian companies with western participation. Management International. 6(2). 19-28.

11. Peel, M. & Rowley, J. (2010). Information sharing practice in multi-agency working. Aslib Proceedings New Information Perspectives. 62(1), 11-28.

12. Riege, A (2005). Three-dozen knowledge-sharing barriers managers must consider. Journal of Knowledge Management. 9(3), 19-33.

13. Shaheen, M. (2010). Managers as Information Users & Information Sharing. [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved Mar 14, 2010 from Nanyang Technological University website: http://edventure.ntu.edu.sg/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab_id=_2_1&url=%2fwebapps%2fblackboard%2fexecute%2flauncher%3ftype%3dCourse%26id%3d_324924_1%26url%3d

14. Tong, J. & Mitra, A. (2009). Chinese cultural influences on knowledge management practice. Journal of Knowledge Management. 13(2), 49-54.

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