The Psychology of Information, or Why We Don’t Share Stuff

KValueChainLately I’ve come to the realization that the problem of under-use and misuse of information has little to do with technology or ‘knowledge management’ and a great deal to do with human nature and culture.

I use the definitions of data, information and knowledge shown at right. Information means literally “to put form to” and knowledge comes from the same root as the word “cunning” which suggests application, not collection. So, for example, laboratory sample results are data, a theory of the cause of a disease stemming from that data is information, and a vaccine for the disease is knowledge. Another example: Test scores of grade three students are data, an analysis of the learning needs of those students is information, and the resultant learning curriculum is knowledge.

For the most part science and art are in the ‘sense-making’ business and their product is models, information, representations of reality, yielding products that are interesting and sometime useful. Most modern organizations are in the ‘application’ business, using information to create technologies (in the broad sense of the term) designed to improve people’s lives. Whether most technologies actually do make the lives of people better (other than their owners’ management and shareholders) is of course open to debate.

I spent much of my last year, as global Knowledge Innovation leader at a major professional services firm, looking at what I call ‘information behaviours’, and I concluded that what impedes the sharing of information in most organizations is our personal and shared culture, rather than inadequacies in technology, knowledge management, or learning programs. Here are the cultural factors that, I would hypothesize, cause most ‘knowledge failures’:

  1. Bad news rarely travels upwards in organizations: Everyone dreads telling the boss bad news, and the boss doesn’t really want to hear it unless a plan is already in place to deal with it. It also doesn’t travel down either — executives are famous for soft-pedalling bad news, or for living in denial until it’s too late to fix the problem.
  2. People share information generously peer-to-peer, but begrudgingly upwards, and sparingly downwards in organizational hierarchies: In hierarchical organizations, most people hate preparing reports for ‘superiors’, since at best they are paperwork that has no value to them personally, and at worst they are self-incriminating. And information in most organizations flows down only on a need-to-know basis, which is why the grapevine is generally a faster and more accurate source of information than the boss.
  3. People find it easier and more satisfying to reinvent the wheel: It’s interesting to see how people hate filling in forms, but quite enjoy designing them. And it’s easy to rationaliize why a standard organizational template or methodology just doesn’t apply, freeing the employee to create something new from scratch. Most people have little outlet for their creative skills, and often jump at the chance to make up something new.
  4. People only accept and internalize information that fits with their mental models and frames: Ask people after a presentation what they learned and what they thought was the central message, and you’ll find that most people will respond with something that reinforces what they already believed, which is often very different from, and sometimes even contradicts, what the speaker actually said.
  5. People cannot readily differentiate useful information from useless information: Most people are not very good at separating what’s important from what’s not. This is due to a combination of inability to process anywhere near the volume of data and information thrown at them, and an endemic poverty of imagination among adults in our culture. As a consequence, data and information stored ‘just in case’ tends to be underutilized, while data and information provided ‘just in time’ tends to be over-relied upon, since it is easier to see its value in the context of an urgent problem or deadline.
  6. The true cost of acquiring information and the cost of not knowing are both greatly underestimated in most organizations: The modern worker spends as much as 30% of their time acquiring and searching for information, at least half of it wasted. And as Katrina and 9/11 and the Iraq War and Walkerton and the Poultry Flu have shown, the cost of not knowing can be astronomical, and not knowing can lead to catastrophic and preventable results.
  7. People know more than they can tell, and tell more than they can write down: This is one of Dave Snowden’s famous heuristics. We all have expertise and understanding of things we cannot express in words, and what we can express is much more effectively expressed orally and iteratively than by capturing it in some database.
  8. People can internalize information presented graphically more easily and fully than information presented as text, and understand information conveyed through stories better than information presented analytically: Ultimately our brain can only process information by analogy to one or more of our senses. This is why we trust face-to-face conversations more than telephone conversations (we are, largely subconsciously, processing a huge amount of data from people’s facial expressions and body language). It is also why we like charts and photos much more than text and ‘bullet points’, which force us to create our own mental images before we can be informed by them. And of course, if you must use text, stories lay out the images and other sensory stimuli behind the information for you, much more effectively than other formats of information presentation.
  9. Most people want their friends, and even people they don’t know, to succeed, and people they dislike to fail and this has a bearing on their information-sharing behaviour: The more politics are at play in the office, the more likely the flow of information is likely to be impinged.
  10. People are averse to sharing information orally, and even more averse to sharing it in written form, if they perceive any risk of it being misused or misinterpreted: Experts and executives can be the worst bottlenecks for information in organizations, because they fear that if someone misuses some information that they originated, they will be held accountable for the miscommunication. So it’s safer not to share such information with anyone
  11. People are generally reluctant to admit they don’t know, or don’t understand, something: The higher in the hierarchy you are, the more this applies. So higher-ups tend to consult with other higher-ups, leading to groupthink, and to delegate searches for information to underlings somewhat cryptically. And often executives who are ‘too busy’ to use the technology tools they expect their subordinates to use are just too embarrassed to admit they don’t know how to use them effectively.
  12. People don’t take care of shared information resources: The poor condition of many centralized repositories — obsolete, incomplete, and undecipherable content, and low use — attests to the fact that the Tragedy of the Commons also applies to information.
  13. In some organizations, internal competition mitigates against open sharing of information: Many organizations have internal performance evaluation systems that pit employees against each other for limited promotions or bonuses ‘marked on the curve’. In such organizations, information behaviour #2 above is mitigated by immediate peer-to-peer distrust, and, especially in such organizations, there is often more open sharing of information with people outside the organization than there is within.
  14. Some modest people underestimate the value of what they know: Many modern organizations effectively discourage unaggressive people from sharing what they know, by browbeating them, by not giving them the opportunity to communicate what they know, and even by stealing their ideas and information and claiming it as their own.
  15. We all learn differently: Some people internalize information better by hearing it, others prefer to learn by reading, and others (like me) learn best by writing things down. Whether it’s a formal training program, a group meeting to convey or capture information, or a database full of indexed (but probably context-poor) information, the format is likely to be suboptimal for most of the people involved.
  16. Rewards for sharing knowledge don’t work: They can produce short-term increases in contributions to databases, but the quality is often poor and the quantity falls off quickly.

What have I missed? What other ‘information behaviours’ are at work making it easier, or harder, for people to share what they know with others?

With all these psychological barriers to the sharing of information, sometimes it’s surprising that the people, especially in large organizations, are able to communicate with each other at all.

So what can we do? In a follow-up to this post I will explore some of the techniques that are, or might be, used by organizations to ‘work around’ these impediments to learning and sharing of knowledge. But we can’t expect technology to do the heavy lifting here. In fact, over-engineered tools can actually make the problems worse. And behaviour can be extremely difficult to change — people behave the way they do for a reason.

More effective workarounds might include:

  • personal productivity coaching (studying how each individual learns and uses information, and helping them work more effectively in the context of their personal work environment and style), 
  • flattening the organization (to make it more transparent, with fewer levels for news and information to navigate), 
  • providing staff with informal places to meet and exchange information with peers, 
  • providing more information in graphic, dynamic model, mindmap, single-frame and story formats, and in weblogs and other context-rich ‘containers’, 
  • studying complexity theory to understand why oversimplification can lead to disastrous decisions,
  • tapping the ‘wisdom of crowds’ and the wisdom of wallflowers whose voice is rarely heard in organizations, 
  • stamping out ‘learned helplessness’ in the workplace, 
  • developing better filters for data and information, and better ways of organizing, indexing and archiving it so it can be found when needed later, 
  • finding better ways of abstracting and canvassing for information, 
  • eliminating reward and performance evaluation processes that encourage people to hoard or fight over credit for information and ideas, or interfere with collaboration, 
  • keeping information tools simple and intuitive, and 
  • developing mechanisms to record, index and archive conversations, which can be the organization’s most valuable and context-rich sources of information and insight.

What other techniques have you found that help overcome the many behavioural obstacles to the sharing of information?

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20 Responses to The Psychology of Information, or Why We Don’t Share Stuff

  1. Nimmy says:

    Wonderful post, Dave. You’ve opened my eyes to a few things I was aware of but had not considered seriously, before reading your post. Esp. #3. I guess it depends on whether the person with access to the information is logical/creative. a logical and practical person might want to reuse while a creative person might want to do it herself despite the perceived loss of time and effort… I have a related post on my blog….

  2. Michelle P. says:

    One of your best Dave! This was a total eye-opener and I had lots of “Aha!” moments reading the various constricts to information sharing (and gathering).I’m not sure the people part of this dilemma can be really changed par se as we all operate from positions of protecting our tribal/individual status quo – that’s just human nature: but as the sheer volume of information grows exponentially, there will be some sort of paradigm shift in company strategies to make sifting the important information from the flotsam more efficient.Some companies will become militant and extremely focused in controlling access to their knowledge (large multi-national agri-chemical companies already are) these companies will be recalcitrant about ANY knowlege sharing, charging for the “privilege” of anyone wanting to understand anything etc.Other companies will appear to break-apart into smaller and more maleable sections of the same business which will then be more able to shift and change quickly to new data,information and knowlege growth. I also see the growth of the micro-mini business. That is, businesses made up of 1-6 people. These micro-businesses will stay small deliberately, not only to keep costs down but also to keep their structures super flat and the flow of information more immediate and effective and to maintain communal integrity in their relationship with the consumer public. Information Management may also become a new career option for many as the ability to assess, collect, define and maintain information that is relevant and USEFUL to a company will be a major asset to that company’s ability to be effective.GTD as a University Degree could well be on the cards!!!Mitch

  3. vincent says:

    Here is a suggested reading related to the possible solutions for knowledge sharing.It’s a David Weinberger’s article about KM at the BBC.

  4. Chris says:

    #’s 1, 2, 10 and maybe 11 might be addressable by some sort of anonymous information gathering/sharing systems (like an internal company message board, with polls, idea posts, etc.). If the system could assure anonymity and a level of decency (no “president sucks!” posts – maybe moderated), then people would feel free to mention certain problems which could in turn be viewed by all levels of the company and maybe its customers/vendors. as far as 13, 14 and 16, maybe this anonymous system could issue some sort of ID# for posting an idea/solution, etc. If the solution/idea works, then management can credit and reward whoever owns that ID# (or maybe a collection of id#’s) with a bonus (if they are willing to come forward). Just thinking out loud here. Great post.

  5. Chris says:

    OK, I swear I hadn’t read that article that Vincent posted before my previous comment. So yeah, basically what the BBC is doing, but anonymous and with a reward system. You must think me a hack!

  6. PaulSweeney says:

    I follow these posts every morning and the constant level of investment you make in this blog is astonishing. I’m just going to make a bit of “left-field comment” with regards getting people to share. In my experience the real “deep share” only occurs where people are “realy excited”, where there is an energy and excitement that yes, we are going for innovation that changes the way things work, not just around here, but anywhere. I have worked mostly in small, innovative high-tech environments, so that must kind of atmosphere has to be the air we breath. The “how to” is captured well in the points above, I guess I’m just saying that the “why” needs to be in there as well. Keep up the good work.

  7. step back says:

    You forgot to mention the instituting of a reward system for those who originate new ideas, disseminate the ideas to others, or educate others about the new ideas.”They who are in charge” of corporate America (or Canada or other Adam-Smithian societies) insist on getting rewards for their alleged “risk-taking” activities and their alleged “leadership” activities.In other words, the neo-BS men maniupulate others into always giving to “them who are in power” because they claim we live in an “ownership” society. So where is all this generous giving when the flow is the other way? An honest corporate society should instututionalize an internal patent rights and copyrights and educate-rights system that rewards those within the organization who engage in valuable originating of new ideas, disseminating of the ideas to others, and educating of others. If they refuse to do so, they are one way hypocrites.

  8. PBW says:

    We have an enormous problem with sharing information in the publishing industry, especially among writers. The average published author refuses to share data about income, contracts, approaches to self-promotion and publisher relations likely because they fear losing status, being dropped by a publisher or giving free advantage to the competition, which is basically every other writer out there.I’ve tried using humor and/or the direct approach to sharing info about all aspects of my seven years of experience working in the industry over the last year, and the results were a mixed bag. My candor has offended many pros and caused resentment among less-established writers, but I’ve gotten raves from unpublished writers who couldn’t find the information anywhere else.It doesn’t hurt that I’m an established writer, and my backlist gives me a certain amount of clout and protection. If you’re at a point in your career where you depend heavily on the goodwill of peers and superiors for your future success, I think it’s best to go carefully.

  9. Great post Dave, and thanks for it. I’ll add a few observations of my own about information sharing:1) The degree to which people share information corresponds to their awareness that power can derive from sharing rather than witholding.2) People are far more likely to act on conclusions that they draw from the information they receive, rather than on someone else’s conclusions. This is why executive PowerPoint presentations usually have no effect whatsoever.3) In the abscence of information about something important to a group of people, they will make up their own story. More often than not, the story that they make up is worse than the truth.

  10. A counterfactual to 12 “People don’t take care of shared information resources” is wikipedia.What is different about that project (which has some reputation points of Open Source projects, but none of the articles have lead authors, so it doesn’t track directly to OS projects)?There are some commons which are not tragic, and wikipeda and successful Open Source projects are an example.

  11. Wissbegieriger says:

    Vincent, thanks much for the BBC link. There are some good and subtle things there – and it sounds very real, having had the chance to consult there a while once.Clive

  12. Mike says:

    Damn, another fantastic post, deserving of a blog unto itself, and yet already there’s a new essay up.

  13. Scott says:

    >> eliminating reward and performance evaluation processes that encourage people to hoard or fight over credit for information and ideas, or interfere with collaborationWhat do you find makes a good reward process?

  14. tim says:

    This is an excellent article. Many times we confuse information with power, power in the sense that if we hold onto it, we’ll have greater power. Unfortunately, it is the sharing of information that leads to a greater influence on the world. One other interesting caveat of this is the fact that we’re living in a “remix” period. People are taking old things (even information) and remixing it with new ideas and new forms of communication. Within this period, the lines of information ownership are becoming blurred.

  15. Brett Moller says:

    This is a great article that really defines what I was talking through in my latest blog post on <ahref=”″> CMS V Blogging and the sharing of good information in relation to effective teaching practice. Thanks for the great insight into information sharing and colaboration!! Great stuff…..

  16. Thanks for your excellent post Dave. All your behaviours resonated with my experience. Your list prompted me to think of a few others you might like to consider:- people have no idea that someone else might be interested in what they know (they don’t value their own knowledge) and conversely they have no idea of what other people know that might interest them.- people feel busy and don’t feel they have the time to share their knowledge- people only absorb information which they need now while most information arrives when it is not needed.- information is typically only packaged in one way and the way it’s packaged don’t resonate with the receiver.- people stay in their discipline and just reinforce their current thinking.

  17. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, everyone. This post has generated a lot more buzz than I expected. Since I’m giving a speech on this next week, I really appreciate the feedback, additional ideas and links. More to come on this soon.

  18. you forgot the money dimension. turns out people will go with information they paid for even if they can get better information from their own people. tthus the existence of the consulting industry.

  19. This is an extremely well-thought out article. I’d just like to add the notion that people are more receptive to information if that information helps to confirm their belief in a predictable world. It’s extremely threatening to perceive the world as anything but predictable, which I tried to say in a succinct way in this song:Predictabilitywords and music by Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen, aka Dr. BLT (c)2006 Dr. BLTThe World’s First Blog n Roll Artist

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