Voting for Knowledge
Voting in some respects is like other decisions that individuals and managers make day-in day-out. You assess the situation, pooling knowledge from many perspectives, then go through a mental process of evaluating the plusses and minusses of various options. Sometimes this can be a lonely decision: I have to reduce headcount, so who do I fire? If I bid too high a price, I lose the opportunity to make money. If I bid too low, I lose money anyway.
Within organisations, there is often something akin to collective decision-making. Although the chairman may make the final choice, he or she may ask for a show of hands on how to tackle an issue. There are groupware decision support systems that let users vote on various options. When prioritising options in a KM action plan, I often give a group of senior executives 3 votes each which they allocate however they please to the 10 or so options available. In these situations you are not just averaging knowledge, you are assessing the collective will and commitment to one choice or another.
Now consider the case of where the choice of decision should be factual rather than judgemental. A party of three people on a trek come to a junction. One way leads down to base, the other into a wilderness. They decide to vote which direction to take. The person who actually knows the way out is outvoted 2:1. There is also the classic case in recent British history where prime minister Margaret Thatcher was accused of being out of step with her 12 European counterparts. Her response was that she was going in the right direction and that they were all wrong. Only in hindsight or with a deeper delving into the situation is the right choice finally clear - even then you can rationalise your original choice based on the knowledge available to you at the time.
What conclusions can we draw from these situations?
- decisions may improve with better knowledge but a vote is not necessarily a reflection of the validity of the knowledge on which it is based
- collective decisions provide a greater pooling of knowledge - however, in many situations they tend to converge on the most conservative and conventional thinking - not too good for breakthrough innovations
- voting for something is a demonstration of your commitment; therefore even if the resultant decision is not necessarily the best, it may well do better because more people are committed to its succeed
- on the other hand those whose votes were not for the resultant decision might feel overriden or their views ignored and therefore not fully committed to something they did not vote for
- voting may provide the initial direction of travel, but every good practitioner should continually review progress, make micro-decisions along the way, and - although painful - perhaps admit that the wrong initial decision was made, go back and take an alternative course.
In other words, decisions based on consensus, deep knowledge, smarts and weight of argument, rather than on weight of ballot papers.