Information Sharing Focus of Research at OHSU OGI School of Science and Engineering

08/05/02    Portland, Ore.

Past negative reactions or consequences may influence people's willingness to share information

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist knows something that could protect an endangered species of fish. But instead of telling a U.S. Forest Service ranger, he keeps the information within his own department. Later, the Forest Service is criticized by environmental groups for failing to protect the fish.

What kept the biologist from sharing what he knew? Perhaps he suffered negative consequences for sharing information in the past. He might have been criticized for not clearing the sharing of information with his supervisor, for example. Or, information he had shared in the past might have led to negative outcomes for wildlife.

That's the preliminary finding of a $100,000, one-year National Science Foundation (NSF) study conducted by researchers at OHSU's OGI School of Science & Engineering in Hillsboro, Ore.

The ongoing research has broad implications for information sharing and is particularly timely given the recent debate over what various agencies knew prior to the attacks on Sept. 11, and whether sharing information could have thwarted them.

"Sharing information is really a huge challenge for some government agencies because of their top-down approach to management and a culture that lends itself to secrecy," said Niki Steckler, Ph.D., an associate professor in the school's department of management in science and technology, who is the lead investigator of the study.

Social and organization dynamics affect information sharing Both social and organizational dynamics, such as office politics and hierarchy, play a role in people's willingness to share information, Steckler said.

To better understand the dynamics related to information sharing, Steckler and colleague Marianne Koch, Ph.D., are interviewing individual federal agency employees as part of NSF's Digital Government Initiative. The work dovetails with a larger Digital Government Initiative research project, "Harvesting Information to Sustain Our Forests," in which computer science and engineering professor Lois Delcambre, Ph.D., is working with individuals from the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas to build an advanced cross-agency Internet portal for U.S. Government Adaptive Management areas.

"We are examining what leads people to share information," said Steckler, a Harvard-trained psychologist who specializes in organizational behavior. "For instance, the type of education a person has can make a difference in information sharing, such as when a biologist is more comfortable sharing information with another biologist, even in a different agency. But it also depends on the individual's experience within the organization's culture." An employee who has been rewarded for sharing information -- say, given a promotion -- is more likely to share information in the future. Conversely, if an employee has been punished by the boss for information sharing, he or she is unlikely to share information in the future.

Despite the common cultural assumption that it is always better to have more information than less, said Steckler, there are, in fact, times when it is appropriate not to share information.

"The human brain can only process so much information at any one time or it becomes overloaded," she said. "The trick is to build in ways for people to reliably share the right kind of information in a form that can quickly be analyzed and used to make accurate and informed decisions."

The OGI School of Science & Engineering (formerly the Oregon Graduate Institute of Science and Technology) became one of four specialty schools of Oregon Health & Science University in 2001. OHSU's OGI School of Science and Engineering has 63 faculty and more than 300 master's and doctoral students in five academic departments. For more information about the Department of Management in Science and Technology at OHSU's OGI School of Science & Engineering, check out