There are many great Questions and Answers on this site that deal with the question of whether or not to share valuable knowledge/skills with others:

What is wrong with sharing knowledge with colleagues at work?

Should I help others or keep my knowledge to myself?

Should I reveal productivity tricks to peers, or keep them to myself in order to be more productive than the others?

Should I stay irreplaceable in the company by keeping all skills to myself?

If I did a good job delegating all my work to a team I built, and there is no work left, am I redundant?

The arguments are obviously made in support of sharing one's knowledge/skills at the workplace, in the Answers and Comments. While most arguments are pertaining to the workplace environment or corporate culture or employer-employee relationship, many of them are either kind of universal/philosophical or give way to one if some thought is given. Some examples:

  • What goes around comes around. (by Kent A. in the second Question in the list)
  • Corporate environment(or the World at large) is not a Zero Sum Game. Your colleagues are your coworkers, and not rivals for some scarce resource like promotion or job security. (by EleventhDoctor in the first Question in the list)
  • By teaching others, you organize your own knowledge. By teaching others, you will solidify what you already know. (by JessieArr in the second Question in the list)
  • Knowledge is the only thing that increases when you share it. (by Fixed Point in the first Question in the list)
  • You should take, the fact that the people around you are getting to be as good as you, as a challenge for you to keep getting better than they are. (by Vietnhi Phuvan in the last Question in the list)
  • If you're the only person that knows how to do X, you will be the only person that will ever do X, whenever X is needed. (by Kent A. in the second Question in the list)

All the arguments(not just the ones mentioned above) are counterintuitive but very compelling and convincing to make one believe that there is indeed an universal argument for sharing valuable knowledge/skills. Yet, when I see world/life around me, I see several cases where such arguments/advice, is not followed and seems impractical/unwise. Some examples:

  • Take the case of trade/business/recipe formula secrets, which the companies like Pepsi, Coca Cola, McDonalds, etc. take extra ordinary measures from becoming exposed. And the stocks of most of these companies are still rising.
  • The cooks who claim their lineage to some royal cook to Kings/Nawabs/Mughals, pre 18th century India, and never share their food recipes with anyone and carefully pass it down from generation to generation.
  • Global Warming and Climate Change has shown as that Earth resources are indeed a Zero Sum Game. It's not just good enough for the poor and developing world to raise their standards of living, but also for the rich and developed world to bring down theirs.

All this raises doubt in me. One can counter argue that all this is still short term - that Pepsi, Coca Cola are doing themselves great long term harm by creating circumstances whereby they are stuck doing just one thing, and that the World will move on and is still moving on; that rising stocks are not a very good measure in this regard, and we should be comparing their growth with comparable sized companies over a long period of time(I have not done that much research); that food recipes are created every other day all over the World, and one who remains stuck with centuries old recipes and becomes complacent and therefore doesn't innovate, will see his/her worth going down.

But I am still not confident enough to arrive at a conclusion. Can an universal argument, indeed be made for sharing one's valuable knowledge/skills? And if not, broadly, what would be the cases in workplace environment/setting, to not do so?


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    There is no universal argument for anything, and you can see from the variety of answers to the linked questions that there isn't universal agreement on this. – DJClayworth Jan 22 at 21:25
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    I think there is one flaw in your counterarguments: those are between companies/entities/individuals that are in competition, while the questions and responses in the first part are mostly about sharing knowledge within the same team/company/whatever group of people that are working towards a common goal. – AsheraH Jan 22 at 21:57
  • @AsheraH That is why I pointed out only those arguments from the Questions, which seem to be kind of universal. – amsquareb Jan 23 at 0:24
  • Why do you say the arguments for sharing knowledge are counterintuitive? For example, the argument that if you are the only one who knows how to do X, you will be doing X forever seems pretty compelling for sharing that knowledge. – DaveG Jan 23 at 16:53

In a lot of cases the value of a company/individual is not dependent on a super-secret thing that has to be guarded at all costs. Regarding the examples you mention, I doubt that the real secret behind their succes is a super-special-secret ingredient in their hamburgers, cola or sauces. The recipes of their products being in a highly guarded safe is probably just a marketing ploy. Those companies are successful because of a lot things together, efficient factories, good logistics, skilled sales/marketing professionals, etc.

Likewise the value of a highly skilled/valued employee is not into one or two secret tricks he/she knows but lies in years of accumulated knowledge.


I think you're approaching the question too narrowly.

The first thing to note is that companies like Coke do not merely conceal their recipes. The law also grants them rights to penalise anyone disclosing or making use of their "trade secrets". They also have marketing budgets that are capable of creating hype around such secrets, or indeed creating a widespread consumer taste for whatever they are selling, so not all of their success is attributable to the use value of the secret information itself.

That is not the situation in which most people with knowledge to share find themselves.

Another thing is that the situations you illustrate largely involve one person keeping something from another, rather than a general situation in which everyone is attempting to keep information from everyone else. Would Coke be so valuable, if every employee had the same legal rights to protect their trade secrets from the company's use?

There are two different stereotypical strategies at play. One is based on extracting rents for possession of some sort of existing informational capital.

The other is based on earning wages for performing intellectual labour, and continually creating more information or finding new applications of it.

We could call these intellectual capitalists and intellectual labourers, respectively.

The real danger for intellectual capitalists is not only that others may detect it and thus start behaving the same way in return - which would be as ruinous to the intellectual capitalist as if Coke's employees each controlled their own trade secrets - but that an intellectual labourer is also present in the same milieu, and who knows and is willing to disclose the same secrets as the capitalist is attempting to leverage.

Without the asymmetrical protection of the law, which protects his own rights but denies those of others, and which protects his information even when disseminated but does not protect that of others, the intellectual capitalist usually has no working strategy.

It may appear that the intellectual labourer is constantly giving away things for free, but often he is paid precisely to perform such labour and sharing.

The intellectual labourer also benefits from information he takes and receives from others (a taking which is promoted when those others are off-guard and acting in a spirit of cooperation), and from the examination and criticism that others make of what he gives out (criticism which is taken back in again).

And by being engaged regularly in such labour, the brain of the intellectual labourer develops in overall productivity like the brawn of the occupational blacksmith.

Yes, people can make new knowledge for themselves like they can make ironwork for themselves, but the person accustomed to it may make in 5 minutes what takes another all day or more, so the intellectual labourer is rarely at risk of being utterly outdone in future by sharing what already exists, only matched or joined by a collaborator, which itself is often mutually beneficial.

Ultimately the argument for sharing knowledge is simply that it is the only strategy that works under natural conditions - it is the reciprocation of what the intellectual labourer receives from others, it is the output which justifies their keep, and there are significant proceeds of cooperation that accrue to the intellectual labourer.

Outside of specific circumstances created and protected by law, the conditions under which intellectual capitalism are seen to work for the individual are few. It arises most often in workplaces where there is poor management, and contractual or financial insecurity reigns, so expert workers retrench into keeping secrets and ensuring there is significant distance between themselves and anyone who could take over their role. A significant part of their own intellectual resources may also become engaged in calculating such withholding, so that less is spent on other areas of value.

They are better off than continuing to cooperate with predatory management which they have no individual control over, but nobody is better off than if their de facto importance and job security were simply formally acknowledged by management, and the intellectual sharing continued to occur freely between the expert workers and their colleagues or successors.

  • Coca-Cola is a bad example. I have not the slightest doubt that PepsiCo could create a drink that is indistinguishable from Coca-Cola (and that would be perfectly legal, since they only have to go to the nearest supermarket to buy a bottle of Coca-Cola for reference). They are not doing is because people wanting Coca Cola won't buy it from PepsiCo, so they would lose all their customers and not gain any new ones. – gnasher729 Jan 23 at 19:56

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