A tweet this morning from my friend Stephanie stood out in my timeline because she’s talking about something I’ve seen happen over and over again in my lifetime:
How many times have we seen this in our organizations? People want to hoard knowledge because they feel like it’s power. Maybe they’re worried that if anyone knew what they know it would mean they could get fired. Perhaps they enjoy holding the keys to the kingdom and not allowing anyone else to do something or know something they know. It could even be that they like the idea of mystery in the air and not allowing people to know the whole truth keeps things alive, as the founders of Coca-Cola and Colonel Sanders will happily tell you.
Over the years I’ve figured out that hoarding knowledge leads to ruin. I’ve been involved in so many scenarios were a lack of knowledge sharing ended up causing the kinds of problems that were easily avoidable if someone had just committed what they knew to memory. It wasn’t always malicious either. There is a lot of information that people collect incidentally and just flat out forget to write down until it’s too late.
The first time I truly realized how important good documentation was happened on a sad day in my career. My mentor, Wes Williams, tragically passed away during an otherwise uneventful workday during lunch. I wasn’t there but our office got the news shortly thereafter and we were stunned. No one in the office was even thinking about anything other than how tragic it was and how we were going to miss him. Eventually, one of the other engineers stood up and asked, “Does anyone know the password to Wes’s laptop?” We realized that Wes had a ton of knowledge about his clients and other operational things saved on his laptop, which was sitting unlocked on his desk. We rushed to keep it from going to sleep and to make sure that we changed the password to something we all knew. After that, the tedious process of copying all his data to a shared location began. Wes didn’t think to save it all somewhere else because he didn’t know he would need to until it was too late.
Information Is Currency
Since then I’ve tried very hard to share the knowledge that I have so that everyone benefits. The cynics in the organization may see information as a kind of currency to trade power. If you have to come to them to get the answers then they are important in the grand scheme of things. Kind of like a power broker of sorts.
My outlook is different. Having the knowledge written down somewhere means someone can learn what they need and do the job without needing to get me involved. Maybe they have other questions or need further explanation. That’s a great time to engage me. But I don’t need to be a gatekeeper for the basics or feel like I have to hoard it all to myself.
If you think that hoarding knowledge makes you impervious to firing or reassignment, you need to be careful with your hubris. No one is immune from reductions. External factors can limit your involvement with your career or organization before you know it. We use the idea of the “hit by a bus” test to explain how knowledge needs to be shared in the event of a sudden thing like the issue I mentioned above. But what if the situation develops slowly and you get caught up before realizing it’s too late to share what you know?
If you’re the person in the company that always calls the ISP to report outages because you know exactly how to navigate the automated trouble ticket system you have value. However, if you never write that down for your team members you’re going to limit your mobility out of your job. No matter how high you climb it will always be your responsibility. Worse yet, if you find yourself in a place where you can’t communicate what you know and someone else has to figure it out on their own your so-called “power” is useless now.
Information is a strange form of power because it loses all it’s inherent value as soon as it’s shared. If I know who the next supervisor is going to be before anyone else then I only have power as long as no one else knows. As soon as someone finds out I no longer control that information and therefore it’s useless. Instead of hoarding knowledge and information to wield as a cudgel to lord over others you should share it freely to ensure it’s not lost. How many advances in human history have been lost because no one wrote them down?
Knowing how something works isn’t a tool you should use to extract further value at the expense of capability. Even if the knowledge is something that shouldn’t be shared for reasons related to secrecy you still need to let people know there is a purpose and they either don’t need to know right now or it’s something that will be available to others. There are many times when I’ve been told that a decision-making process exists and I don’t need to understand it right now. I’m fine with that just so long as it’s written down somewhere. If it’s not then we may all find ourselves recreating a process that was a solved issue simply because someone took the secrets of how it worked with them when they moved on to a different role or out of the organization entirely.
There are times when I have to keep things secret. I know something and it’s not time to reveal it. But processes or knowledge about basic things should never fall into that category. It’s one thing to know that your supervisor is being promoted to section leader next week. It’s entirely different to hoard the knowledge of how the factory wireless network is configured because you are afraid if you don’t you’ll get fired. Commit every piece of knowledge you can to paper, physical or virtual, while you can. You never know when someone will need to know what you know. Knowledge is only valuable as currency when it’s shared. And that’s the kind of power that makes you valuable to us all.