Barriers to Information and Knowledge Sharing and How to Overcome Them

Nataša Mlađenović
Nataša Mlađenović
Nov 15, 20229 minute read

Leveraging knowledge is key to maintaining a competitive advantage in today's market. Yet, for all the focus on knowledge management and sharing, many organizations still struggle to overcome the barriers to knowledge sharing within their own workforce.

There are a number of reasons why knowledge sharing can be difficult in the workplace, and they vary from organization to organization.

overcoming barriers to knowledge sharing

However, surveys and interview data with virtual team leaders and members identified six common barriers to knowledge sharing, which actually apply to any modern team or workplace.

In this article, we will discuss each barrier in detail and share the strategies and "best practices" used to overcome them.

Barrier 1: Lack of Trust among Team Members

A lack of trust in the workplace comes with a number of consequences, one of which is a lack of knowledge sharing.

In the above-mentioned survey, this was the number one reason why employees were reluctant to share knowledge.

And although the survey was conducted amongst virtual teams, in the modern workplace, with hybrid working models and geographically dispersed teams, this is becoming increasingly common.

Why is this an issue?

Asking for information and sharing information with teammates can be risky. It can either be seen as an act of incompetence or overconfidence.

In either case, it can damage your reputation and hinder your career prospects.

It's therefore easy to see why a cohesive team that trusts one another is more likely to share information and knowledge.

How can you overcome this barrier?

The majority of respondents stated that they were hesitant to reach out and share info with their colleagues because:

  • they didn't feel like a real team because of the lack of face-to-face and informal communication
  • they found it difficult to reach out to someone whom they haven't met before
  • they weren't quite sure about the passion of members for particular issues

So even though trust in the workplace is a much more complex issue, for the sake of knowledge sharing you can start by just fostering more informal and personal communication among your team members.

In traditional workspaces, this can be done by organizing regular social events and team-building activities. These are great opportunities for employees to get to know each other on a personal level and build trust.

In a virtual or hybrid environment, however, you will need to be more creative. Traditional means of communication such as email or instant messenger are often not enough, and will rarely be used for informal or personal conversations - and those are the ones you want to foster.

So in order to improve communication in the workplace you would need to implement a new system, that's actually designed with that purpose in mind. Social intranets or enterprise social networks are great examples.

Barrier 2: Time Constraints and Deadline Pressures

In today's fast-paced work environment finding the time to do things that are not strictly "mission critical" can be difficult.

Everyone is under constant pressure to perform and deliver results, and taking the time to share knowledge or seek information from others can be seen as a luxury.

Employees might not feel free to ask questions or to take the time to document their process and findings, for fear of being seen as slacking off.

And there's also the issue of absorbing and processing new information.

Simply being told something or being sent an article to read is not enough, especially if the subject matter is complex. It takes time to process and understand new information, and that's time that most employees simply don't have.

How can you overcome this barrier?

The first step is to change the way you think about knowledge sharing in the workplace. Rather than seeing it as a "nice to have" it should be seen as a critical part of everyone's job.

It's not something that should only be done when there's free time, but rather it should be built into everyone's daily routine.

One way to do this is to set aside specific times for knowledge-sharing activities. Be it an hour per week or 15 minutes per day, if it's scheduled into everyone's week it becomes part of the job rather than an add-on.

You could also implement a knowledge-sharing platform or repository, where employees can submit articles, documents, or anything else they think would be useful for the team.

This is not only a great way to make sure that everyone has access to the same information, but it also allows everyone to access the info when it's convenient for them, so they can learn at their own pace.

This brings us to our next barrier.

Barrier 3: Technology Constraints on Knowledge Sharing

This is a big one, and it's one that a lot of organizations struggle with.

The way work is done has changed dramatically in recent years, but the tools and systems that are used to support knowledge sharing have not kept up.

For example, many companies still rely on email and instant messenger for all their communication, even though these tools were not designed for collaboration or knowledge sharing.

What's wrong with email?

There's nothing inherently wrong with using traditional means of communication for knowledge sharing, but the fact is that they were not designed for that purpose - so they make it unnecessarily hard.

For one, email is less than ideal for storing or organizing information. It's hard to search through old emails to find what you're looking for, and even when you do find it the context is often lost.

Old emails can also not be edited, so if there's new information to be added it has to be sent as a new email - which can quickly lead to confusion.

And direct chats aren't much better.

Survey and interview data revealed that most employees felt that the available technologies weren't adequate for their needs. The most frequently mentioned problems were:

  • The only way to share written information was through email. It would have been helpful to have one place where we could store this information.
  • Calls sometimes keep people from sharing an idea because they have to interrupt the flow of conversation, and people tend not to like to do that.
  • It is difficult to project the proper meaning or intent via e-mail.
  • Time differences make it difficult when working across time zones and work schedules.
  • Technology problems (e.g., data do not cycle through to different servers; files are not delivered due to size limits; data are stored improperly or in a different format)

How can you overcome this barrier?

The surveyed employees actually intuitively came up with a great solution: a centralized repository that gathers information in one place.

This platform should be designed for knowledge sharing, with features like search, tagging, and editing that make it easy to find and use the information.

It should also be accessible from anywhere, so employees can access it from their mobile devices or from home if they need to.

And most importantly: it should be easy to use.

Both employers and employees are sometimes hesitant to use new technologies, and the best way to overcome this is to make sure that the technology you're using is intuitive and user-friendly.

The good news is that there are now plenty of options for knowledge-sharing platforms that are easy to use and designed for collaboration, so there's no excuse not to take advantage of them!

Barrier 4: Team Leader Constraints on Knowledge Sharing

Team leaders can be a big barrier to knowledge sharing, both intentionally and unintentionally.

Intentionally, because some team leaders feel threatened by the idea of their team members sharing knowledge - after all, if everyone knows how to do everything then what's the need for a leader?

Unintentionally, because some team leaders simply don't realize how important knowledge sharing is, or how it can benefit their team.

In either case, the result is the same: a team that isn't able to take advantage of all the collective knowledge and experience of its members.

In the cited survey, for example, employees felt that their managers:

  • did not make knowledge sharing a priority
  • failed to enforce dead-lines for sharing information
  • failed to ensure that everyone was ‘‘on the same page.’’

And that not only lead to frustration with management but also slowed down the team's progress.

How can you overcome this barrier?

If you want to create a culture of knowledge sharing in your workplace, then your team leaders need to be on board.

How you'll accomplish that will depend on whether they are hindering the team because of their insecurities or simply because they don't know better.

More often than not, it will come down to them either not having the means and resources to facilitate knowledge sharing, or not understanding how it can benefit the team.

If, however, you find that your team leaders are purposely preventing knowledge sharing because they feel threatened by it, then you'll need to have a different conversation with them.

In any case, the key is to open up a dialogue with your team leaders and find out what's really standing in the way. Once you know that, you can put together a plan to overcome the obstacles and get them on board.

Barrier 5: Failure to Develop a Transactive Memory System

Each person has their own set of skills, knowledge, and experience, and it's important to know who knows what - otherwise known as a transactive memory system.

This system is important for two reasons: first, because it allows people to know who to go to when they need help or information; and second, because it helps the team to function more efficiently overall.

Knowing who knows what also allows people to fill in the gaps in their own knowledge, and learn from each other.

Developing a functional transactive memory system, however, is far from easy - especially so for hybrid teams that are geographically dispersed.

Encourage Employee Development

Give employees the opportunity to share their knowledge and progress with each other.

Apart from their work experience and formal education, each and every one of your employees has skills and knowledge that they've acquired over the years, both in and out of work.

You'll need to find a way to identify these skills and knowledge, and then match them up with the people who have them.

This, again, is not easy because not all people feel comfortable broadcasting their skills and knowledge to the world.

How can you overcome this barrier?

The first step is to create a system for identifying the skills and knowledge of your employees.

This can be done through an annual review process, or simply by asking them to fill out a form listing their skills and knowledge.

But those tend not to give you the whole picture, because as we mentioned before, not all people feel comfortable sharing their skills and knowledge, or simply won't assess it properly out of modesty.

A more effective way to do this is to create opportunities for people to share their skills and knowledge with each other in a comfortable and informal setting.

This can be done through regular lunch-and-learns, social events, or by implementing a knowledge-sharing platform that allows employees to post articles, tips, or tutorials.

The key is to create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their skills and knowledge, and where they can see the value in doing so.

Barrier 6: Cultural Constraints on Information Sharing

The last barrier we want to talk about is the cultural constraints on information sharing.

This might not apply to every company, especially so if you are running a small local business. But in this day and age, it's more likely that your workforce is culturally diverse, and that can lead to some challenges when it comes to knowledge sharing.

The biggest challenge is that people from different cultures tend to have different approaches to communication, hierarchies and authority, and decision-making.

For example, the participants of the cited survey said that U.K. colleagues are very formal and document everything. U.S. team members, however, are much more informal and casual about how they communicate and what they document.

These different approaches can lead to misunderstandings and conflict, which in turn can lead to a reluctance to share knowledge.

How can you overcome this barrier?

To overcome this barrier, you'll need to find a way to bridge the cultural divide, and yes, that's easier said than done.

In order to be able to efficiently work together and share knowledge, you'll need to establish some common ground - a set of rules and norms that everyone can agree on.

This can be done by creating the right type of company culture.

Now, company culture is a huge topic, and we can't possibly do it justice in this article. But there are a few key things you need to keep in mind.

First, company culture starts from the top. So if you want to create a culture of learning, you need to be leading by example.

Share your own knowledge freely, and encourage others to do the same. Create opportunities for people to share their knowledge, and make it clear that it's valued and appreciated.

Second, company culture is about more than just knowledge sharing. It's also about the way you treat your employees, the way you make decisions, and the way you handle conflict.

All of these things need to be aligned in order for company culture to be effective.

And last but not least, company culture should be something that is actively cultivated and nurtured - it's not something that happens by accident.

In Conclusion

There are many barriers to knowledge sharing, but the good news is that there are ways to overcome them.

By investing in the right tools, training, and processes, and by creating the right type of company culture, you can make knowledge sharing a natural part of the way your business works.

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