Thursday, 25 June 2015

The curse of prior knowledge (why bullet points don't work for knowledge transfer)

The Curse of Prior 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 lesson management systems are full of mushy motherhoods and useless bullet points.

The curse of prior knowledge refers to the fact that when we know something, it seems 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 prio 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 prior knowledge will strike, and you will be "foiled again"

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