What Is True?: Looking at the Validity of Shared Knowledge

By Dixon, Nancy M. | Information Outlook, May 2001 | Go to article overview

What Is True?: Looking at the Validity of Shared Knowledge


Dixon, Nancy M., Information Outlook


MORE AND MORE TODAY, I FIND EMPLOYEES SEEKING THE KNOWLEDGE they need to do their jobs from their peers. They may Locate a "best practice" in the company database, or ask a question of an on-line network. New knowledge may result from a conversation with a colleague who is just down the hall, or from a phone call made to a contact who is halfway around the world. Organizations are encouraging this kind of knowledge sharing, even insisting upon it. Knowledge exchanges like these reveal a new appreciation for the knowledge that employees gain simply by doing their work, or what I call "Local knowledge." Today's employers increasingly regard this local knowledge as a valuable asset, and are trying to figure out ways to manage it for organizational advantage.

I have studied how employees share the local knowledge they develop, and documented the many ways this happens in my book, Common Knowledge. What also interests me, however, is how employees determine if this borrowed local knowledge is valid, i.e., how they make the decision to apply what someone else learned from experience to their own situations. It is an important issue, in my view, because we are now in the middle of a change in how we think about the validity of knowledge within our organizations.

When knowledge comes to us through the organizational hierarchy, the question of validity is somewhat less worrisome than when it comes directly from a peer. For example, when a manager gets a memo from the head office saying that managers need to function more like coaches, accompanied with a list of actions to be taken in order to accomplish that directive, there is some tacit assurance that the knowledge contained in that memo is valid. Or an engineer gets a note from the corporate technology group that says, "Here are the standards and tolerances to be used on the FCC unit -- implement them immediately so you can improve your yield." While we, as employees, may not agree with the knowledge--or find it particularly helpful--we are nevertheless freed from having to make a decision about its validity. The organization's "stamp of approval" handles that for us.

It can be a very different story, however, with the knowledge that employees obtain from their organizational peers. For example, an economist might receive an email from a colleague describing a better way to model the factors that influence costs and benefits in business development decisions. Although this colleague encourages the economist to employ the new model, the latter already uses a different model. Who is to say that this new approach is better? Or consider an engineer who, when visiting a sister plant, notices that the plant is using a very different process to repair converters than the one used at her plant. How is our engineer to know if this alternative process is more effective?

With technology and products changing rapidly in nearly every industry today, it is unlikely that either the engineer or the economist will be able to run every idea up the organizational ladder to see what the top-level experts think about them. And even if there was time, the people at top don't know about the all kinks in the machines that the engineer faces or which cost/benefit arguments will be most persuasive to the economist's management team. It is the engineer and the economist who have that knowledge, so it is they who will have to judge the worth of the knowledge they are receiving.

Of course, this phenomenon is not dissimilar from what happens when I search the Internet for information. If, for example, I look for information on "how to handle a lingering cough," I will receive a host of answers, through which I will need to sort for what is useful. Yet I have little concern that most of the responses are pure drivel! On the Web, there is no official source for determining validity. Anyone can write up and post their "knowledge." Still, I feel reasonably capable of determining what is and is not useful to me. …

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