Knowledge Musings

Musings about knowledge management as I go about my daily life

Friday, May 9, 2008

Voting for Knowledge

We've recently had local elections in England. That got me thinking about voting and knowledge. In Britain's first 'past the post' system you weigh up what you know about the candidates, but since you can't vote on each issue, you consider them and their parties in the round. What do they stand for? What are their core principles? Forearmed with knowledge about voter intentions (opinion polls) you might resort to tactical voting, where you don't vote for the person whose views most closely match your own, but since they are unlikely to win, you cast your vote for someone else who with additional votes from people like yourself can beat an opponent whom you would rather lose.

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.
So should you vote on knowledge? You may feel the need to adopt voting so that if things go wrong there is collective blame. However, the smart manager will not offer colleagues such simplistic A or B choices (unlike political elections). He or she will work to explore why there are differences - probing more deeply to get from surface knowledge to fuller understanding and insights, suggesting other options, teasing out assumptions. He or she may stimulate further discussion and open up new opportunities by planting what seem like outrageous ideas (a good way of getting away from conventional complaceny and into innovation mode).

In other words, decisions based on consensus, deep knowledge, smarts and weight of argument, rather than on weight of ballot papers.