Sunday 31 May 2009

The weakness of the human brain as a long term knowledge store

Originally uploaded by dierk schaefer
We know that knowledge starts as tacit, and has to be used while tacit. in other words, people learn as individuals, and have to internalise knowledge before they can use it again. Also we know that knowledge is very difficult to externalise, and to turn from tacit to explicit. So perhaps the temptation is to leave knowledge in tacit mode. Why bother to try externalising, or capturing, knowledge? Why not leave it in people's memories, and connect up the people? That's partly the idea behind communities of practice, knowledge-focused social networks and crowdsourcing. Keep the knowledge tacit - connect up the people - leave the knowledge in the brains.

Let me give you a story which illustrates the risks involved with this.

You may have read my posts about the bird island exercise, and the link between knowledge and performance that it demonstrates. In this exercise, a team approaches a task with no knowledge, knowledge is bought into the room through an AAR, a Peer Assist, and a Knowledge Asset. With each introduction of knowledge, the team sees an increase in performance, as shown in the performance metrics.

One day, I was faced with a class where one member had already done the exercise a few months previously. I wondered what to do about this - whether to appoint him as umpire, let him sit out and observe, or let him join in and use what he could remember. I decided to let him join in.

He started the exercise with huge confidence. "I know how to do this" he said, and jumped into action, putting materials together according to his memory of the exercise. The problem was, his memory was not that great! Over those few months, he had forgotten many of the small details that were the key to success. He built one element of the construction beautifully, but could not remember how it was connected to the rest. As a result, his team design failed, and his team got the lowest score for their first construction, even though (in theory) they had more knowledge than anyone else.

You know the saying "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing"? It's more like "incomplete knowledge is a dangerous thing". He knew enough to disrupt the team process, and take over team design and innovation, but not enough to create a good product.

So why did this happen? If he had had the knowledge once, why did he not have it now? Basically, because the human brain is a poor long-term knowledge store. It is poor for three reasons

  • We forget. Over time we forget the small details that make the big difference. Sometimes it doesn't take a lot to help us remember, and for this guy, a photograph of the final tower, or a diagram, or a simple design checklist, would have been enough to help him remember.
  • We post-rationalise. Memories can become falsified. I have had memories which I would have sworn were factual, which on checking have turned out to be incorrect. We often remember the things we were involved with, and forget the roles of others, which was the case with the guy on the course - her remembered his part of the construction, but forgot how it was held together with other parts.
  • Human brains disappear. They are attached to legs. They leave the company as the people leave. They move to other countries, other departments, other companies. They retire. They become unavailable and inaccessible.

Heads leak, they reinvent, and they leave. Would you leave crucial assets in an insecure repository like this? Would you leave your money in a safe that had a hole in the back, renumbered or erased many of the banknotes, and one day would walk out through the front door? No you would not! So if you have crucial knowledge that must be kept safe, don't entrust it solely to the human brain!

Now I am not saying that everything must be written down, I am not saying that communities and networks are a waste of time, and I am not saying that we should not connect people. What I am saying is that Connect and Collect must be in balance, and that explicit knowledge supports and reinforces tacit knowledge. The photographs, the diagrams, the checklists, the processes and procedures, the knowledge embedded in structures and systems, all have a key role to play in ensuring long-term, reliable organisational memory.

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