Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…
Whenever I speak at conference or organisation events I often get asked for KM solutions; my favourite, ‘what’s the solution to KM?‘, which often leads to, ‘the problem is that we can’t sell it to top management‘.
The problem is that the the question is FUQed and we will never get the answer to it! What am I talking about? A Fundamentally Unidentified Question; think about this, how do we stop global warming? The response is far too complex to be framed within a short intelligible answer; for me, answers to these monolithic questions are governed by the Law of Requisite Variety and, as such, are FUQed:
Take a look at the external world (KM), then look at the cues that require response, then look at the conditions required to respond to the cues, and then we can understand the variation required in the solution – or, “Only variety can destroy variety” (Ashby)
Now, bringing it back to KM, too often we miss the cues and the required conditions; I’ll explain…
I’ve been reading a book by Daniel Kahneman lately, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow‘, and it signposts some of the fundamental flaws in our way of thinking that, when you reflect on it, could be contributing to the challenges we face in developing KM solutions. First, let me start with a question and response from his book:
An individual [in the United States] has been described by a neighbor as follows: ‘Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in people or the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail.’ Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or a farmer?
Kahneman’s argument is that the vast majority of us would say that Steve would best be suited to becoming a librarian. However, the ‘facts’ behind the question suggest otherwise: Apparently farmers in the US outnumber librarians 20:1 and therefore, though Steve might well be better suited to becoming a librarian, the data suggests that there is more of a likelihood that he will become a farmer.
Now, I realise that we can be critical of the question, discussing the cultural issues, motivation or capability that will ultimately guide Steve’s vocation, but what is being suggested is that our decision-making process suffers from the ‘availability heuristic’. We are not given the whole picture and too often we give focus to the choices of others. The questions we pose for ourselves, or, in this case, our field, are developed against a set of biases that are often informed by the information that is made available to us; think about what you consider to be the biggest challenges to world stability today and your decision-making bias will probably be informed by media focus and the choice of topic that is broadcast to us.
Back to KM…The same could be said for our field. Look through the literature, explore it thoroughly. Solutions and problems are abound, but all too often, as in the case with Steve, we don’t look at what sits behind the problem – we see the presenting issue, but, perhaps, we don’t really understand the problem. How much of the literature out there actually talks about the drivers for the concept? Where is the ‘down and dirty’ discussion on the drivers for organisational KM strategy? What I am talking about here are the discussions on the environment, the Knowledge Economy and its related complexity. That literature, I would suggest, is too few and far between. Yet if we don’t understand this then we are missing the cue that requires a response; we then have a gap in our thinking; we missed one of the preconditions for the ‘solution’, that Holy Grail for conference goers all over the world.
Why does this happen? Not only that, why, given this apparent gap in our thinking, do we decide to engage with KM in the first place? Why do we fight the good fight to get senior management to engage with the concept, only for someone ‘up there’ to make a decision against our KM projects based on what, a feeling in his or her water on that particular day? Welcome to the ‘affect heuristic’! The argument being that ultimately decisions are taken with little sound reasoning at times, purely driven by a feeling of ‘like’ or ‘dislike’.
Where am I going with this? Put the three points of discussion together. We too often ask the wrong questions, questions that fundamentally cannot be answered. We need to understand the preconditions in the environment in order to combat the variety associated with complexity (variety destroys variety). KM literature appears to impact the decision-making process through the availability heuristic; we don’t often talk about the variety or environmental complexity that can really guide the solution. This all comes together for the ultimate decision makers, who, perhaps lacking information, get a ‘feel’ for KM and decide they don’t like it; the affect heuristic.
Do we just give up? No!
If you want to understand the solution to KM, then you have to understand the drivers for KM; from there you can begin to grasp the variety required in your response (take a look at the KM M-Model). From there, hone your question, provide the right information for the decision-makers (combat the availability heuristic). Next, hone your argument; align your thinking to sell the concept in such a way that it aligns with organisational needs – speak to need and demand and impact the affect heuristic.
Good decisions need to be informed decisions…hmmm, sound like one of the objectives of KM, to improve the decision making process…maybe we need to practice what we preach. Perhaps then we wont find KM to be so FUQed.