What We Know and How We Use It

Posted on July 20th, 2010 at 11:05 am by lmoulton

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Two weeks ago the Boston KM Forum held a breakfast forum to discuss the topic, Mis-spent Knowledge: Lessons Learned from Disasters. The theme was prompted by the BP Gulf of Mexico deep well event that continues after more than 80 days. You can check out the meeting notice to see more commentary surrounding the choice of the topic.

The meeting was one of the best morning round-tables in the past couple of years and I want to share some of the discussion outcomes. Attendees, about ten of us, took turns sharing a workplace situation or incident that involved making a decision whether to share some knowledge we held. Each participant related an anecdote about a choice made to share knowledge or not, the reasons for the choice and the resulting outcome. Because we routinely emphasize knowledge sharing behaviors and practices, and the need for workers to collaborate in organizations, we thought this format would help us better understand sharing behaviors and decision-making.

Among the knowledge sharing opportunities that our members spoke about were:
•    Revealing to executive management the certainty of failure (with reasons) of a multi-million dollar IT project in a major consulting firm.
•    Pointing out to leadership the flaws in methodology and staffing for a large scale information architecture design effort.
•    In a service operation, unauthorized sharing of methods and practices with other groups not specifically tasked to execute them.
•    Asserting knowledge about poor practices related to project management and taking a minority position regarding methods on a team.
•    Revealing, without authorization, decisions management was making regarding unit operations that would put the unit work in a weakened and compromised business position.
•    Exposing evidence of intra-agency collaboration to suppress politically inconvenient information that rightly should have been in the public domain.
•    Balancing knowledge about negative individual performance and behaviors that could undermine the operations of the company with clients and partners, with personal responsibility to ensure best practices for clients.
•    Revealing a flaw in computing software to government authorities that had the potential for catastrophic industrial breakdowns across major institutions, national and international.

A reader might look at any of these brief descriptions and make a personal call on the “correct” course of action. Wouldn’t we all like to believe that we will always make a choice that is morally and ethically sound? We have seen interviews with people staffing the Deepwater Horizon, describing mechanical and operational hazards that they observed, some of whom claimed to share their knowledge with someone in higher authority. We also believe we know what the outcome was because critical knowledge was then deliberately suppressed or was not taken seriously.

For most of our story-tellers at the round-table, discussion focused on events of many years ago. Thus, it was with the benefit of hindsight that we could easily share our decision to share or not, and to express why we made the choice we did. Here are my observations about individual decisions and circumstances:
•    The younger the individual or the person with the most personal independence (no dependents), the more likely the knowledge was shared, even in the face of personal risk.
•    “Speaking truth to power” was calculated and calibrated quite thoughtfully by our speakers.
•    Individuals reflected before deciding on the consequences to both themselves and others when making decisions about what to say and to whom.
•    Those who shared knowledge at personal professional risk, having calibrated the consequences, would take the same or similar action again. Some suffered direct professional setbacks in the process while others did not or gained professionally.
•    Those who held their counsel, having calibrated the consequences, would do the same again, even having predicted and seen a less than positive outcome. This was because, on balance, their attempts to share and influence could not have changed the outcome but would have had a very damaging effect on people around them.
•    In none of these cases were lives or physical injury a possibility if knowledge was not shared, but personal livelihoods were at stake if it was shared.

It is difficult to project the results of this round of story-telling onto situations encountered in each of the BP accidents of the past ten years, or the thousands of instances in which institutions’ actions result in damages to individuals and property on a large scale. However, I believe that it is worth examining our own use and sharing of knowledge on a regular basis to continually refine and clarify our own ethical and moral practices within any community where we operate.

Consider the movements that have turned the tides of corrupt institutions, governments and put evil beings out of action. Leadership of single individuals, even at very low functional levels, who have been able to accrue a following through their moral authority can make a difference. Think of Gandhi, Lech Walesa, non-Jews who created safe havens during WWII, and hundreds of whistle-blowers who have risked (and often have lost) everything to right wrong-doing.

Read this article and consider what the actions of some courageous individuals might have been able to do had they shared what they knew and found ways to leverage it to turn a tide. I would like to believe that knowledge, even when it is uncomfortable, can always be turned into an asset when thoughtfully and sometimes courageously shared.

[With thanks to Laurence Chait, my friend and professional colleague, whose conclusions about what was heard and learned from our KM Forum meeting were very similar to my own.]

Update 7/22/2010 – A new article today in the NY Times, Workers on Doomed Rig Voiced Concern About Safety is a fine continuation of the discussion, how we as handle our knowledge and balance risks.