Saturday 31 July 2010

The illusion of Knowledge

Optical Illusion ??
Originally uploaded by C.P.Storm
This is blog post 3 in a series of 3.

The last of the illusions from The Invisible Gorilla, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, that I would like to cover is the Illusion of Knowledge.

The Illusion of Knowledge is behind the way we overestimate how much we know. The authors refer, for example, to how people think they know how long a project will take, and how much it will cost, despite the fact that projects almost always overrun in both cost and time. "We all experience this sort of illusory knowledge, even for the simplest projects" they write. "We underestimate how long they will take or how much they will cost, because what seems simple and straightforward in our mind typically turns out to be more complex when our plans encounter reality. The problem is that we never take this limitation into account. Over and over, the illusion of knowledge convinces us that we have a deep understanding of what a project will entail, when all we really have is a rough and optimistic guess based on shallow familiarity"

People think they know what to do. So they never ask for help, and they never look for knowledge in the first place. They think (mistakenly) they have all the knowledge they need.

So how do we deal with this problem? The authors propose a solution which is very familiar to those of us in the KM world.

"To avoid this illusion of knowledge, start by admitting that your personal views of how expensive and time-consuming your own seemingly unique project will be, are probably wrong. If instead, seek out similar projects that others have completed (the more similar to yours the better, of course), you can use the actual time and cost of these projects to understand how long yours will take. Taking such an outside view of what we normally keep in our own minds dramatically changes how we see our plans"

In other words, Peer Assist.

Peer Assist is the best way to avoid the illusion of knowledge. If you want to promote better decisions in your organisation, promote Peer Assist. Obviously if people have an overconfident view of their own knowledge, they may not ask for a Peer Assist in the first place, which is where Management comes in. If they can mandate (or at least strongly recommend) Peer Assist for every project, then at least they are ensuring a mechanism whereby the illusion of knowledge can be challenged, and where people can find that, in fact, they don't know everything, and that there are useful lessons from the past that can be Incorporated.

So in summary, those three illusions - the illusions of memory, confidence and knowledge - need to be borne in mind as part of KM.

If we are unaware of these illusions, we can feel confident in our knowledge, based on our memories of the past, without realising that the confidence is false, the knowledge is poor, and the memories are unreliable and partially fictitious. Awareness of these illusions allows us also to challenge the individual who confidently declares "I know how to do this. I remember how we did it 5 years ago", because we recognise the shaky nature of confidence, knowledge and memory.

Awareness of these three illusions allows us to build a knowledge management framework based on a firm foundation, and not a foundation of illusion.

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