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January 23, 2006

Organizational Knowledge and “Higher Modesty”

I recently had a conversation with Bob Sutton of Stanford about Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management, the new book he and Jeffrey Pfeffer have written. Among the reasons Bob gave for why leaders and managers make decisions contrary to available evidence is what he calls “confirmation bias.” That’s the tendency to notice and believe information that supports your existing beliefs and ignore or discredit information that contradicts them. James March makes a similar point when he notes how frequently managers make decisions first and ask questions later, doing analysis to “prove” that the decision makes sense.

It’s a common, powerful human behavior: most of us pay more attention to news, events, and opinions that seem to confirm our ideas than to evidence that those ideas may be wrong; most of us look for reasons to justify what we’ve already decided we want to do. And we live in a culture that values certainty more than doubt, especially in our leaders.

But the dangers are obvious. We all knows stories of leaders who confidently drive their organizations over a cliff, ignoring warnings and evidence of the dangers ahead. “SSW”—Swift, Sure, and Wrong—is an acronym used in some medical schools to describe confident, disastrous decisions in medicine. Less dramatically, organizations miss opportunities and are surprised by challenges because confirmation bias keep them from seeing important information. In a knowledge economy, being blind to essential knowledge is clearly a problem.

It is difficult but possible to do something about it. Bob Sutton cites IDEO, an industrial design firm that, he says, acts with knowledge while doubting what they know. I’m aware of one CEO who asked a knowledgeable outsider to send him an email whenever he saw him doing something stupid. We can make conscious efforts to be skeptical about confirming evidence and open to evidence that tells us we may be wrong. We can listen to the people on the fringes of our groups and organizations, rather than dismiss them because they are “different.” We can try to have a bit of what the early 20th century writer Edmund Gosse calls “higher modesty”—the willingness to question one’s own deepest beliefs that Gosse considers an essential characteristic of great scientists.

Posted by Don Cohen at 05:46 PM | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBacks (1)

January 09, 2006

The Knowledge Technology Trap

Again and again during the two dozen interviews I’ve conducted to figure out what we’ve learned from a decade of knowledge management experiences, practitioners said, “Knowledge management projects focused mainly on technology will fail,” or words to that effect. No surprise there. From the early days of KM, thoughtful commentators talked about the human and organizational elements of knowledge work and the need to balance technology, process, and culture. Everyone heard stories of failed technology-driven projects—“knowledge bases” ignored by intended users, unreliable and abandoned expertise locators.

But some of the same practitioners who expressed this supposedly obvious truth said that the point had to be made again and again to prevent their organizations from falling back into the mistake of depending on technology to make knowledge sharing happen. Companies still invest in mainly technological fixes to knowledge problems and, when those fail, they do it again, pinning their hopes on some improvement or other in the software.


Part of the answer is that the human element is complicated and subtle. When you buy hardware and software, you at least know what you’re getting for your money. Investments in relationships and behaviors are harder to see and measure. Also, and despite all the talk about the old factory-model of the organization dying away and the importance of “our people” in the knowledge age, I think many leaders still want to think of their organizations as efficient machines and people as part of the equipment who “should” adjust themselves to the rest of the mechanism without pampering or a lot of talk about “culture.”

In the U.S. at least, a sheer love of technology may be an even more important factor. We have a long history of believing that the next technological marvel will eliminate drudgery or hunger, cure disease, make us happy. The social, political, and environmental problems of the last half century may have weakened our faith in redemption by technology, but the longing for simple, mechanical solutions remains strong. It’s reflected not just in the love of technology, but in the belief underlying the whole self-help industry—the idea that a pill, a mantra, or a machine can make us slim, beautiful, rich, and happy.

This persistent search for the silver bullet (or the silver bullet point) is a kind of tribute to American optimism, the belief that we can make ourselves, our companies, and the world better if we find the magic formula. Too bad it’s not true.

Posted by Don Cohen at 11:19 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBacks (0)

January 05, 2006

Lesser-Known, Must-Read KM Books for 2006

There are quite a few good books about KM and related practices that never receive much publicity and consequently are rarely seen by practitioners and have little impact on practice.

For those of you with a taste for theory and a little patience, however, there is much of value in these academic tomes. Here are some recent ones, all read by yours truly (I don’t watch TV or talk too much on planes so I get some reading done).

Knowledge, Institutions and Evolution in Economics by Brian Loasby. This is a very well written book by an economist(yes, some of them can write and even write well about knowledge). Loasby' lectures are focused on how knowledge as embedded in organizations can best be understood as an evolutionary phenomenon. He is right, too.

Architectures of Knowledge : Firms, Capabilities, and Communities by Ash Amin(an economic geographer, and Patrick Cohendet, an economist). This is a very good book, original and full of insights on the spaces of knowledge and learning to be found in society and in organizations. The chapter on "The Spaces of Knowing" is worth the price of the paperback edition, by itself. The book is very "cross-disciplinary" and rewards frequent reading (especially if you fly often).

Complex Knowledge : Studies in Organizational Epistemology by Haridimos Tsoukas. He is an abstract thinker and organizational theorist and these are his collected essays on knoweldge and learning. Tsoukas is quite influenced by complexity theory (but not in a silly or superficial way) and is a great believer in sense-making a-la Karl Weick [Sensemaking in Organizations, Making Sense of the Organization, and Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity]. Don’t miss the chapter entitled "Do We Really Understand Tacit Knowledge." It’s the best one in the book.

Finally, for those of you with a taste for theory grounded in cases there is a very good introduction to KM by Donald Hislop entitled Knowledge Management in Organizations: A Critical Introduction. This is far more then just a text for MBAs, etc. It’s a critical synthesis based on much reading and observing. Not always sympathetic to our more simple practices, it’s a great text to give to someone new to the subject who is smart and can't stand most business books (Sue Newell's Managing Knowledge Work would be a great choice too).

All of these books are new and can easily be found on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. There are other such tomes around that I'd be happy to discuss if anyone is interested. Let me know and have a great 2006!

Posted by Larry Prusak at 02:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBacks (0)