…when we talk about knowledge

I can’t now find an online reference to it, so my memory will have to suffice. I recall reading many years ago about a study which suggested that waiting staff in restaurants tended to break more crockery when they were reminded to take care than when there was no such reminder. As I once washed dishes and made coffee in a wine bar, this made sense to me. There is a lack of trust implicit in a reminder, which might make one doubt one’s abilities and therefore lead to more breakages. An alternative explanation might be that the reminder causes people to concentrate on the wrong thing — a broken plate, rather than a plate conveyed safely to its destination.

I was reminded of this insight when reading Peter Bregman’s latest contribution to the HBR blog. His topic is diversity training.

Diversity training doesn’t extinguish prejudice. It promotes it.

At first glance, the first training — the one that outlined what people could and couldn’t say — didn’t seem to hurt. But on further inspection, it turns out it did.

The scenarios quickly became the butt of participant jokes. And, while the information was sound, it gave people a false sense of confidence since it couldn’t possibly cover every single situation.

The second training — the one that categorized people — was worse. Just like the first training, it was ridiculed, ironically in ways that clearly violated the recommendations from the first training. And rather than changing attitudes of prejudice and bias, it solidified them.

This organization’s experience is not an exception. It’s the norm.

A study of 829 companies over 31 years showed that diversity training had “no positive effects in the average workplace.” Millions of dollars a year were spent on the training resulting in, well, nothing. Attitudes — and the diversity of the organizations — remained the same.

Reflecting on this, and the psychology of broken crockery, I wonder if we have a similar problem in knowledge management.

At the heart of what we do is a desire to make sure people can work to the best of their abilities, making the most of what is around them — their colleagues, documented know-how, internal and external resources. We want people to be able to find answers to the questions that arise in the course of their work as easily as possible so that they can concentrate on the important stuff — making a difference for clients, customers, communities.

But that is what they want as well.

When we talk about knowledge sharing, are we hinting that we don’t trust people to do their jobs properly? Even if that is unintended, might it depress performance anyway? (“If they don’t trust me to do the work properly, i’ll just do the bare minimum…”)

When we turn the focus on knowledge activities, do we run the risk of distracting people from their primary task — getting the job done. By concentrating people’s attention on not breaking plates, are more likely to get broken?

Or will our efforts just be ignored? Last week, David Griffiths drew our attention to an audit report on Nasa’s lessons learned system (LLIS). Despite investing $750,000 every year in adding material to that system, the audit found that it did not appear to be making a difference.

We found that NASA project managers do not routinely use LLIS to search for lessons identified by other programs and projects or contribute information to LLIS. Project managers we surveyed said the system is not user friendly and that the information it contains is outdated and generally unhelpful. We also found that Agency policy requirements regarding when and how to input information into LLIS have been relaxed over time, policy direction has been inconsistent, LLIS-related funding was disparate across the Centers, and monitoring of the essential Center-level LLIS process was lacking.

Essentially, NASA was getting on with its work without reference to the system. Underlying the audit, though, there appears to be an unspoken concern that nothing equivalent is being done. That is where knowledge management (or diversity training) is different from advice not to break plates. Everyone knows not to break plates. Not everyone understands how to find and use the knowledge around them or the organisational implications of failing to treat people with respect.

When things get more complicated than not breaking plates, we still need to help people find the right way to work. Peter Bregman’s suggested alternative to diversity training is an interesting one.

We decided to put all managers through communication training. It still fulfilled the requirement of the lawsuit. But it did something more. People learned to listen and speak with each other — no matter the difference — which is the key to creating a vibrant and inclusive environment.

As it turns out, it’s also the key to preventing lawsuits. The communication trainings I led for Bedia were ten years ago and they haven’t been sued since.

A similar approach would improve knowledge work — find something that people need to do, and which they know they find difficult because it is different in the work context than elsewhere in life — defining and scoping work projects, for example. Work on improving that, and see what difference it makes to knowledge development and use.

(Apologies to the late Raymond Carver for bastardising his work in creating the title for this post. As a penance I will re-read “Cathedral”, which is one of the greatest things ever written.)


1 thought on “…when we talk about knowledge”

Comments are closed.