Thursday 3 December 2015

Hitler, Stalin and Knowledge Bubbles

I blogged a while ago about the phenomenon of Knowledge Bubbles - how leadership of an organisation can be convinced of a situation so strongly that they reject any real knowledge to the contrary.  You can see this in exaggerated form in the behaviours of Hitler and Stalin.

The knowledge bubble is a form of "Not Invented Here", or of extreme "Knower" behaviour, where new and contradictory knowledge is treated as a threat.  And if we want to see extreme behaviours, where better to look that at two of the worst dictators in recent history.

Max Hasting's book "The secret war" is a description of intelligence and espionage activity during the second world war. Each of the great powers had good espionage networks, and the problem was not primarily the lack of knowledge gathering, but the unwillingness to act on it, or even (in many cases) to believe it, if it contradicted the leaders' views.

According to Hastings:

"Reports on the condition and prospects of the enemy were permitted to reach conclusions only within parameters acceptable to Hitler."

Tolerance to ideas that deviated from the party line were seen as personal cruiticism. In one case, where intelligence provided vital knowledge of Russian agricultural conditions, Hitler personally annotated the report "This cannot be".

The same was true in Russia

"Those in Moscow who received and processed the reports from the field were far too fearful of offending the only audience that mattered - Joseph Stalin - to forward any intelligence that was likely to prove unwelcome ....The Soviet capacity to understand the intelligence never approached its ability to collect the intelligence in the first place. Stalin acted as his own analyst, preferring to drill endless wells of espionage in search of imagined conspiracies rather than to use intelligence to inform policy-making"

The self-imposed blindness of this knowledge bubble came to a head with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in  1941.  Russian intelligence services were flooded with information about the German "Barbarossa" attack on Russia, which Stalin refused to accept. Hastings tells a story of two senior intelligence analysts who had prepared a report on the imminent attack, being called in (in a state of terror) to brief Stalin.

"Stalin fired a string of contemptuous questions about the (intelligence) sources .... then followed a silence that seemed to the visitors interminable before Stalin once more looked up, gazed hard at them, and barked "Misinformation! You may go"

The strange thing is that such conviction from such a powerful figure caused the analysts to begin to doubt the truth of their own reports.

"Once alone together, Zhuravlev said to Rybkina, with the parade of conviction indispensable to survival in the Soviet universe: 'Stalin can see further from his belltower'. Rybkina professed to agree, but added 'This means that our agents, who have been tested over the years, must be considered untrustworthy'. Zhuravlev shrugged, with authentic Russian fatalism; 'We shall live, we shall see"

The business equivalent

Few if any business leaders have the single-mindedness, or command the same levels of fear, as Stalin and Hitler, but these two demonic figures are merely demonstrating in exaggerated form, the phenomenon of the Knowledge Bubble;

  • Leaders develop a model of "the truth"
  • They do not accept knowledge that does not fit "this truth"
  • Followers begin to massage the "facts" that they present
  • Followers may even begin to mistrust knowledge that does not fit
 Thus are knowledge bubbles formed, and considerable integrrity and challenge is needed to burst them.  As Hastings concludes,

"Stalin's deafness during the overture to Barbarossa emphasised the indissolubility of the links between intelligence, diplomacy and governance. Unless all three did their parts, each one was useless"

If you are concerned that such a knowledge-bubble "knower culture" is at work in your organisation,  consider a cultural survey to map out the scale of the problem.

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