Thursday 12 November 2009

The things that “everyone knows”

Monkey There is a highly amusing TV quiz here in the UK, called QI. Many of the questions on the program are about the things that “everyone knows”, but in fact knows incorrectly. The audience has great fun watching the participants answer with obvious, but totally wrong, answers.

I wrote a while ago about the maturity trajectory of knowledge – how knowledge passes through stages of maturity; from discovery, to exploration, to consolidation, to embedding. An exciting new idea passes through the stages, to become established knowledge; something “everybody knows”. Everyone knows the earth is just one planet in a solar system, everyone knows how an internal combustion engine works, and everyone knows that you need to wear a hat in the winter, because you lose most of your heat through your head. Except, in the last case, you don’t. You don’t lose any more heat through your head than you do through any other part of your body. That’s one of the things “everyone knows,” wrongly. This is knowledge that has got stuck somewhere on the Maturity chain, and has become common knowledge before it became truth.

In Knowledge Management, we need to beware of the things that “everyone knows”, and occasionally we need to challenge them. Maybe they are not correct, maybe they got stuck somewhere down the chain, or maybe the context has changed and the knowledge is out of date. For example, everyone knows you put the milk in the cup before the tea, but people used to do this to sterilise the milk, and all our milk is pasteurized. Similarly someone told me recently that you mustn’t pick blackberries near busy roads, for fear of lead poisoning, but who uses leaded petrol nowadays?

My friend Claude tells the story of the monkeys and the fire hose. The story is of a group of monkeys in a cage, with a bunch of bananas hanging from the ceiling out of reach. The researchers lower the bananas, the monkeys go to grab them, and the researchers turn on the firehose. Pretty soon none of those monkeys go for the bananas. The researchers introduce a new monkey, and lower the bananas. The new monkey goes for the bananas, and they turn on the firehose. Pretty soon the monkeys have learned not only not to move, but also to jump on any new monkeys who start to move before the fire hose can be brought into play. One by one the researchers swap out the monkeys, and any time a new monkey moves towards the bananas, it gets jumped on. Eventually they have a completely new set of monkeys in the cage, none of whom have seen the firehose, but none of whom will go for the bananas. As far as the monkeys are concerned – “everyone knows we don’t go for the bananas” – but nobody knows why any more!

We need occasionally to challenge the things “everyone knows” – and ask “Why?” Because, just maybe, we might be hiding from a firehose that doesn’t exist any more

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