Tuesday, 29 January 2019

7 failure modes for knowledge transfer failure

There are at least 7 ways in which Knowledge Transfer can fail. Here are 7 of the most common. I am sure you can suggest others.


This post is inspired by this article by John F. Mahon and Nory B. Jones, authors of the book "Knowledge Transfer and Innovation". They identify 5 failure modes of knowledge transfer. I have added two more

1) Knowledge is transferred, but too slowly to make a difference. This is a failure in the efficiency of the knowledge management process - your "KM clock speed" is too low

2) Knowledge is shared, but in an inadequate way so that the user cannot understand it. Maybe it is written in fuzzy statements, or statements of the blindingly obvious. These are both byproducts of the curse of knowledge, whereby an expert assumes that if something is obvious to them  it is obvious to everyone else They underestimate the difficulty of transferring that knowledge to a non-expert
 and so write the knowledge in the form of bullet points or aphorisms. This is a failure of a) km training, b) KM facilitation and c) KM quality control.

3) Knowledge is corrupted by inadvertent omission – for example, as Mahon and Jones say, "your neighbor accidentally leaves out a critical step or ingredient in a recipe. When you make the dish, it is not what was intended". This is difficult to guard against, and you need to make sure your KM system is self-correcting, so that inadvertent omissions are corrected later.

4) Knowledge is corrupted by deliberate omission – for example if it is not politically comfortable to transfer the whole truth. Mahon and Jones give the example of the Gulf of Tonkin incident - "There were actually two such incidents reported, and there is credible information that one and possibly both reports were false. Based on this erroneous knowledge, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which granted President Lyndon B. Johnson legal justification for deploying U.S. troops to Vietnam and commencing open warfare". This is a failure of culture and therefore of leadership.

5) Knowledge doesn't get shared at all. This is the problem of knowledge hoarding, which affects many organisations. People hold on to their knowledge, largely through fear that it will leak to competitors - either to industrial competitors, or to people within the same job who are competing for the knowledge holders budget or job.  This is also a failure of culture and therefore of leadership.

Now my two

6) Knowledge gets shared, but not used.  This is the re-use barrier - potentially the most difficult barrier in KM, and there are several reasons why people may be unwilling to re-use knowledge - it's difficult to find, difficult to understand, they don't trust it, or they can get away with not using it. This is a failure of many things - the KM system, the culture, the incentive system - and often comes from treating KM as a supply problem rather than a demand problem.

7) Knowledge is not co-created. We often have a simple view of knowledge transfer; that it leaves one head and enters the other. In reality knowledge is often co-created through conversation and through collaboration. Knowledge is more often co-created than it is transferred in a one-way direction.  Ignoring co-creation is a failure in the KM philosophy as much as anything else. 

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