Understanding knowledge leakage: a review of previous studies

Date09 November 2015
Publication Date09 November 2015
AuthorSusanne Durst,Lena Aggestam,Helio Aisenberg Ferenhof
SubjectInformation & knowledge management,Knowledge management,Knowledge management systems
Understanding knowledge
leakage: a review of
previous studies
Susanne Durst and Lena Aggestam
School of Business, University of Skövde, Skövde, Sweden, and
Helio Aisenberg Ferenhof
Department of Production Engineering and Systems,
Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), Florianópolis,
Santa Catarina, Brazil
Purpose – This paper aims to review research on the topic of knowledge leakage to establish the
current body of knowledge and, on this basis, to suggest some promising avenues for future research.
Design/methodology/approach The study consists of a systematic review of 57 refereed
empirical articles on knowledge leakage.
Findings – The ndings contribute to a more holistic view of the topic and complement the study of
knowledge management. Additionally, a conceptual framework is proposed that aims at guiding and
informing future research activities.
Research limitations/implications – This study may not have enabled a complete coverage of all
empirical articles in the eld of knowledge leakage. Yet, based on the chosen research methodology, it
seems reasonable to assume that the review process covered a large share of studies available.
Originality/value To the best of the authors’ knowledge, no systematic literature review on
knowledge leakage has previously been published in academic journals.
Keywords Knowledge management, Knowledge retention, Knowledge leakage, Knowledge
preservation, Knowledge risk management, Systematic literature review
Paper type Literature review
1. Introduction
This article reviews research on knowledge leakage to establish the current body of
knowledge and to suggest some avenues for future research activities. Knowledge
leakage is closely related to knowledge sharing, which is about an individual’s
willingness to share with others his/her created or acquired knowledge (Bock et al.,
2005). Knowledge sharing, for example, is needed for transforming individual
knowledge into organizational knowledge (Foss et al., 2010). Additionally, given today’s
business environment, collaborations with other actors have become a necessity for
companies to remain competitive. Thus, knowledge sharing is needed to increase the
positive effects of those collaborations, e.g. to achieve the goals associated with the
collaboration (Ritala et al., 2015), and can have different outcomes, which brings us back
to knowledge leakage. Knowledge leakage is “the loss of knowledge intended to stay
within a rm’s boundaries” (Frishammar et al., 2015, p. 85). This denition suggests that
knowledge leakage can comprise both core knowledge and non-core knowledge of a
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Received 30 January 2015
Revised 3 June 2015
30 July 2015
Accepted 30 July 2015
Vol.45 No. 4, 2015
©Emerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/VINE-01-2015-0009
rm. The majority of the literature seems to identify core knowledge as the focal type of
knowledge in the context of knowledge leakage. For example, Jiang et al. (2013, p. 984)
dene knowledge leakage as “the extent to which the focal rm’s private knowledge is
intentionally appropriated by or unintentionally transferred to partners”. According to
the authors, private knowledge comprises those knowledge assets, competences and
skills that provide the basis for the companies’ competitive advantage, so we are talking
about the core resources of a rm. Similarly, Lau et al. (2010, p. 966) talk about
technological knowledge leakage, which they dene as “the risk of loss of proprietary
technology owned by the case company”. Anand and Goyal (2009) stress that the
difference between knowledge leakage and information leakage is primarily that the
former puts a stronger emphasis on companies’ core resources. Critical knowledge,
however, is in the eye of the beholder, i.e. what might be considered as core knowledge
by one rm might be considered as non-core by another rm and vice versa, and still this
knowledge could be of greatest interest to business operations. Furthermore, this
relevance changes over time.
As mentioned above, knowledge leakage, in the meaning of knowledge leaking away
from its origin, can occur in different situations and be positive, when the organization
benets from it, or negative, when it is detrimental to the organization (Mohamed et al.,
2007). This claries that knowledge leakage does not necessarily have a negative
connotation. In collaboration, for instance, a positive knowledge leakage can occur in the
form of knowledge spillover between cooperation partners (Ferdinand and Simm, 2007).
On the other hand, a negative example of knowledge leakage can be when an actor,
consciously or not, leaks knowledge about the local rm to another rm/another actor.
Despite the serious consequences knowledge leakage can have on rms in either
direction and the fact that knowledge management (KM) practices, such as knowledge
transfer or knowledge acquisition have intensively been studied, the study of
knowledge leakage appears to be underdeveloped (Parker, 2012;Ahmad et al., 2014).
This can be assessed as unsatisfactory. If organizations, be they private or public, fail to
address the challenge of knowledge leakage, their organizational productivity and
competitive advantage (Ahmad et al., 2014) is at risk. This is particularly true in
situations where critical organization members are leaving (Hall, 1992), when external
partners misappropriate information and knowledge from the organizations in question
(Currie et al., 2008), or when organizations alone are no longer able to catch up with the
newest developments (Dyer and Singh, 1998), to name just three examples. Therefore,
this paper’s aim is to draw attention to an under researched but from a strategic point of
view important issue of KM. Indeed, the authors of this paper stress that when
formulating knowledge strategies, one must take into account that organizational
knowledge can best be exploited, when it is looked at from a holistic perspective. Thus,
insights into the issue of knowledge leakage will help organizations to develop
improved knowledge strategies, which, in turn, enable a more efcient resource
allocation (Zack, 1999). Based on a systematic review, this paper proposes a conceptual
framework that can be used to organize knowledge leakage research. This framework
together with the determination of the current body of knowledge concerning
knowledge leakage is considered the main contribution of this paper.
The next section provides more detailed insights into the exact procedure of the
methodology chosen for identifying extant research in knowledge leakage. After that,

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