Knowing What You Know – and Doing Something About It

“If HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times as profitable” Lew Platt, HP

I love that quotation, and wish I could thank Lew Platt for saying it.

This blog covers some of that ground, but also gives an historical example to use as reflection on two basic problems in making use of what you know or even being in that position at all .

As I wrote in a different blog, science advances pretty much inexorably overall and so indeed does business, but delays in diffusion or acceptance of knowledge may be pretty devastating to those directly involved, and the happy recipient of the value of knowledge may not be you, even though technically, you might “own” it.

Take Ignatz Semmelweis for example.

In 1847 Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor, concluded after ruling out other causes that contagion was responsible for the high death rate due puerperal fever in the obstetrics ward, and he reduced the untimely deaths from nearly a third of deliveries, to less than 1% – simply by requiring doctors to wash their hands in a chlorinated lime solution.

Unfortunately it was decades before other scientists and doctors came to the same conclusion, and improved sanitation became the standard.

In the mean time a great many women and infants died, and Semelweiss himself had a nervous breakdown, according to some, as a result of stress and despondency at the unnecessary deaths.

So while science as a whole got to the right conclusion in the end, it came too late for the women who died or were injured by puerperal fever.

Part of the problem was an “Old Guard” of physicians who simply didn’t want to accept what was published by Semmelweiss, and had to retire or die before younger physicians without the baggage replaced them.

Another part of the problem was that many doctors never got the message – the publication was not global, it was only in German (His book “Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever” wasn’t available in English until the early 1980’s), and no mechanism existed at the time for indexing it in other countries or even advertising it within Germanic countries – this was after all 160 years ago and The Lancet was yet to come into existence and email was far over the horizon.

So the problem seems to naturally separate into two distinct areas

  • A cultural resistance to change and to novel ideas
  • A problem of awareness, and of simply knowing that the knowledge existed

Cultural resistance can be addressed by leadership and building an attitude of mutual support and sharing, but may require stronger tactics – like moving people. Change management is also crucial to reduce the perceived and actual disruption, and ease people into accepting new ideas.

Improving awareness on the hand sounds easy but whereas in 1847 the potential audience was starved of information from peers, today we have the opposite situation – infoglut.

The idea ecosystem is already crammed with competition and they crowd each other out, so the challenge is to find ways to tunnel through the abundance of conflicting information and highlight the few that we want to use.

Oddly enough, this may come back to leadership again, but not the hierarchical corporate power structure. Instead what we want to leverage is the leadership of SMEs – people who are the recognized experts and thought-leaders in the organization.

By implementing a framework in which the approval or authorship of the acknowledged experts is visible to others, it is possible to build the leadership into the process itself.

This can range from leveraging the opinion of your SMEs to making sure you get your money’s worth from failures, but at the very least it implies knowing what your SME’s read and use, how they rate it, and what they say, is made visible so that people can follow their thinking.

Sitting around hoping that knowledge will naturally flow to where it is needed and be used by those who require it, is not a luxury that any business in a competitive market can afford. If you don’t take positive steps to get the knowledge to those who need it, and find ways to put knowledge to work more readily, your competition will.

Please contribute to my self-knowledge and take this 1-minute survey that tells me what my blog tells you about me. – Completely anonymous.

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Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management professional and holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra. Mr. Loxton has extensive international experience and is currently available as a Knowledge Management consultant or as a permanent employee at an organization that wishes to put knowledge to work.

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