Daily Archives: 31 March 2009

Why are we doing this KM thing?

I was reading Strategic Intuition (there will be more on this fascinating book at a later date) on the train home yesterday, and was prompted to ask myself an odd question: “why are we doing knowledge management? What will be different, and for whom?”

The passage that made me ask this question was a description of a firefighter’s decision-making process.

Never once did he set a goal, list options, weigh the options, and decide among them. First he applied pressure, then he picked the strongest but newest crew member to bear the greatest weight of the stretcher, and then in the truck they put the victim into the inflatable pants. Formal protocol or normal procedure certainly gave him other options — examine the victim for other wounds before moving him, put the victim into the inflatable pants right away, and assign someone experienced to bear the greatest weight of the stretcher — but Lieutenant M never considered them.

The researcher whose work is described here (Gary Klein) started out with the hypothesis that the decision-making process would conform to the model of a defined goal, followed by iterative consideration of a series of options. However, he rapidly discovered that this model was wrong. Instead, what he saw in the experts that he studied (not only firefighters, but soldiers in battle, nurses, and other professionals) was overwhelmingly intuitive weighing of single options. (There is more in the book about why this is.)

We often talk about decision-making processes, and one of the goals of knowledge management is often to improve those processes by, for example, ensuring better access to information, or by honing the processes themselves (the HBR article by Dave Snowden and Mary Boone on “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making” is an excellent example of the latter). Although these activities may well improve decision-making, those decisions are ultimately made by people — not processes. The question I posed for myself, then, was: what impact does KM have on people? Exactly how will they be better at decision-making as a result of our work?

My instinctive answer is that I want them to become experts (and therefore able to act swiftly and correctly in an emergency) in whatever field they work in. That means that we should always return our focus to the people in our organisations, and respond to their needs (taking into account the organisation’s direction and focus), rather than thinking solely about building organisational edifices. The more time that is spent on repositories, processes, structures, or documentation, the less is available for working with people. In becoming experts in our own field, we also need to be more instinctive.

Coincidentally, I read two blog posts about experts over the weekend. The first was Arnold Zwicky bringing some linguistic sanity to counter fevered journalistic criticism of ‘experts’ and ‘expertise’.

Kristof is undercutting one set of “experts”, people who propose to predict the future. Lord knows, such people are sitting ducks, especially in financial matters (though I believe they do better in some other domains), and it’s scarcely a surprise that so many of them get it wrong.

Other “experts” offer aesthetic judgments… and still others exhibit competence in diagnosis and treatment…, and stlll others simply possess extensive knowledge about some domain…

The links between these different sorts of expert/expertise are tenuous, though not negligible. Meanings radiate in different directions from earlier meanings, but the (phonological/orthographic shapes of the) words remain. The result is the mildly Whorfian one that people are inclined to view the different meanings as subtypes of a single meaning, just because they are manifested in the same phonological/orthographic shapes. So experts of one sort are tainted with the misdeeds of another.

Expertise that results from real experience, study, insight, rationality and knowledge does not deserve to be shunned as mere pontification. It can save lives.

The other blog post, by Duncan Work, is a commentary on a New Scientist report about how people react to advice they believe to be expert. It appears that key areas in their brains simply turn off — they surrender the decision-making process to the expert.

This phenomenon has both adaptive and non-adaptive effects.

It is evolutionarily adaptive by being a “conformity-enforcing” phenomenon that can kick in when a large group needs to quickly move in the same direction in order to survive a big threat.   It’s also adaptive when the issues are extremely complex and most members of the population don’t have the knowledge or experience to really evaluate the risks and make a good decision.

It is evolutionarily non-adaptive when there is still a lot of confusion around the issue, when the experts themselves don’t agree, and when many experts are guided by narrow interests that don’t serve the group (like increasing and protecting their own personal prestige and wealth).

The real problem is not just that many of the crises now facing businesses are founded in actions, decisions and behaviours that few people understand. It is that we make no distinction between different categories of expert, and so we follow them all blindly. At the same time, as the New York Times op-ed piece critiqued by Zwicky illustrates, many of us do not actually respect experts. In fact, what we don’t respect are people who style themselves experts, but who are actually driven by other interests (as Work points out).

So if our KM work is at least in part to make people into experts, we probably need to rescue the word from the clutches of people who profess expertise without actually having any.