Monday, 13 September 2010

the curse of knowledge

Curses!!! Foiled Again.
Originally uploaded by Joe Shlabotnik
The Curse of Knowledge is a real problem when it comes to knowledge sharing, or trying to transfer knowledge to the Unknown User. It's also one of the reasons why lessons learned systems are full of mushy motherhoods and useless bullet points.

The curse of knowledge refers to the fact that when we know something, its obvious to us, so we assume its obvious to everyone else. Therefore we underestimate the difficulty of transferring that knowledge to someone else; to whom it is not obvious.

Chip and Dan Heath, in their book "Made to Stick", describe an experiment where one person taps the rhythm of a popular song, and another person has to guess the song (it might be Happy Birthday to You, or The Star Spangled Banner, or something equally familiar). This is actually very difficult to do, and the success rate turns out to be about 2.5% for a successful guess. However the tappers estimated that the success rate would be 50%. They had the knowledge - they knew what tune it was - and they underestimated the difficulty of transferring that knowledge to someone else.

They underestimated it by a factor of 20!

When people put lessons into databases, or write PowerPoints with bulleted "learnings", the curse of knowledge strikes again. They assume that the knowledge will be obvious to the reader, and write down little shorthand koans such as "get the right team in place from the start", "plan properly", or "do not underestimate the complexity of this task" (as if anyone ever sets out to put the wrong team in place, to plan improperly, or to underestimate the complexity). These bullet points are, to be frank, completely worthless. They underestimate by at least a factor of 20 the difficulty of transferring to someone else what you have learned.

A lesson needs context, it needs explanation, and above all it needs concrete recommendations that others can follow, and can take action. To avoid the curse of knowledge, and get to a quality result, requires facilitation. A facilitator can challenge the curse, can ask "will that really be obvious to the reader, who has no prior context"?

Without facilitation, without quality control of the lessons, and without awareness of the difficulty of transferring learning, the curse of knowledge will strike, and you will be "foiled again"


Alan O'Neill said...

I think this is an extremely valid point Nick, and it is one I encountered working with Westfield Sportscars. I found that I had to draw out more contextual knowledge from the group to give their 'points' a more wider understanding.

Md Santo said...

The curse of Knowledge or the curse of Ignorance?

Dear Nick,

For human being, knowledge is enlightenment agent considering knowledge itself as human knowing tools essentially is human consciousness. Therefore, knowledge as consciousness never giving us a curse unless knowledge itself becoming ignorance as the antonym of knowledge.

The problem come up here is about the balance in between making someone “well informed” vs making someone “knowledgeable”. It is a matter of learning process or learning transfer outputting knowledge transfer resulting someone being “knowledgeable” person

Of course we could mention many (critical success) factors in learning process deriving from knowledge components or knowledge cultures. From my point of view, in KM those cultures comprising of KM Tools, KM Process Framework (Tacit Mind) and KM Standard Culture & Value (Organizational Knowledge) ( Visit and ) In knowledge sharing process, those three components should get adapted to each other through mainly Organizational Learning efforts driven by contextual learning approach e.g. frequent (social) networking, interaction as well as collaboration to prevent ‘curse-driven knowledge’ incl. facilitating process toward sensitization state, through reiteration activities in the border (‘edge of chaos’) between ‘well informed’ into ‘knowledgeable’ state. Care should be taken to the relationship factor between Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning related with KM model of learning mechanism ( Visit - Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Related with Human System Biology-based Knowledge Management). In brief, all those mentioned is the matter of learning strategies we preferred to make unknown users becoming known users

Ref K-base :

Md Santo

Nick Milton said...

I think it really is the curse of knowledge, Mohammed. The knowledge that people have, leads them to underestimate the difficulty of transferring that knowledge to someone else.

It's not about the nature of the knowledge, its about the difficulty of imagining what its like not to have it. In that sense, its a curse, as it foils the attempts to teach others.

Md Santo said...

So, its about our exercise to have empathy from someone else in knowledge sharing process

Nick, BTW my first name Md stands for Moesdar. See my profile at Linkedin

Nick Milton said...

Sorry Moesdar! My mistake

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