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Knowledge Management Issues: Dealing with Failure.

March 13, 2010

Professionals often excel at dealing with expediencies, but perform quite poorly when it comes to deeper root-causes. This may be a side-effect of their expectations of success – having rarely failed throughout their educational and professional backgrounds and careers. When single-loop strategies do not perform as expected, these persons often become defensive and seek a ‘scapegoat’. This is discussed in relation to the broader concept of organisational learning.


Both Science and Business systematically pay more attention to successful outcomes than unsuccessful outcomes due to structural mechanisms which drive this behaviour. One particular author noting the bias towards success and who is cited across many domains of practice is Chris Argyris, whose depiction of “double-loop learning” involving learning about learning has had great influence.
Argyris details the psychological tendency for people to remain cemented in “single-loop” strategies and the risks that  poses.
A recent trend to correct the “winner” bias can be seen in various domains where efforts are underway to use failures as warning signals to trigger the double-loop learning and Model-II strategies as described by Argyris. The greatest benefits of this reflexive corrective action, and the focus on what does not work are perhaps less wasted effort, and a protection against systematically faulty reasoning.


Fulmer reports a study undertaken by the Dutch oil giant, Shell, which showed an average expected corporate lifespan of less than 40 years – caused in their view by corporate “learning disabilities” (Fulmer, 1998:8).

Among the common properties they discerned in those companies surviving beyond that average is the ability to tolerate novelty and innovation.

This creates a tension since with novelty and innovation comes a high risk of failure, and studies indicate that businesses are failure averse.

Aversion to failure

As a norm, we pay a lot of attention to success – we admire those who succeed, we publish those research projects which were successful, and those papers that describe successful experiments or findings. This amounts to a bias towards only documenting things that are successful.
An intolerance for failure (or admission of failure) may however prevent us from gaining new insights or saving us from future failure. This can become institutionalized and prevent leaders especially from seeing their own failing methods for what they are because they are unused to failure, and also because they are surrounded by people and structures that continue to obscure both the causes and results of maladaptive behaviour. (Burke, 2006)

This is not restricted to business, but is also present in science. For example The Royal Society of Chemistry which justifiably claims to be “the largest organisation in Europe for advancing the chemical sciences” states in its guide to authors that “In general there is no need to report unsuccessful experiments”[1].


In his earlier work on “Action Science”, Argyris noted a tendency of people for seeking out and selecting data to fit or confirm what they already believe, and are “predisposed to attribute the behavior of others (but not their own) to dispositional traits[2] (Argyris, 1985:96), this he tied to what he coined as embedded “Single Loop Learning” strategies.

In this Model-I archetype, he lists what he perceives as the operant rules or “theory-in-use” vs “espoused theory”:

–          Remain in unilateral control

–          Win, don’t lose

–          Suppress negative feelings

–          Act as rationally as possible

He describes the “Single Loop” process in terms of a thermostat in a heating system. Information is not solicited, nor is the system capable of self-awareness or of changing the control inputs or norms. If the temperature drops below a set threshold, action is initiated to return the temperature to nominal, but the nominal setting itself is persistent and the heating mechanism unchangeable.

In this sense, objections or errors in Model-I actions operating under single-loop learning processes “create defensiveness, self-fulfilling prophecies, self-sealing processes, and escalating error” (Argyris, 2000:5).

Not only are the errors unmentionable, but the very un-mentionability is unmentionable also, hence “self-sealing”. (Argyris, 1999:58)

Argyris poses this as a defense mechanism against embarrassment and feelings of threat (Argyris, 1990:10) which is deeply entrenched, finely practiced, and in which the individual is highly skilled to the degree that the mechanisms are automatic, instantaneous, and spontaneous. (Argyris, 1990 ch2)

When people are challenged about these self-sealing actions or an unmentionable is mentioned, they “become defensive , screen out criticism, and put the ‘blame’ on anyone and everyone but themselves” (Argyris, 1999:127), and thus inclined to scapegoat rather than engage in either self-reflection or analysis of the “tried and true” methods of  received wisdom.

This externalization of blame or “an enemy out there” attitude is echoed in a parallel view given by Senge in his description of management teams and how disagreement with expectations it is usually demonstrated in a fashion that “lays blame, polarizes opinion, and fails to reveal the underlying differences …” (Senge, 1990:24).

To address these second-order problems where the norms or approaches need to be changed, Argyris proposes his Model-II “Double Loop Learning” in which he lists a new set of governing values (Argyris, 2000:98) :

–          Valid Information Seeking

–          Free and Informed Choice

–          Internal Commitment

This would seem like the solution and the end of the process, but drawing on his concept of “System Domain Defenses” Bain speaks of how organizations “… avoid change wherever possible…” and have a tendency for regression over time back to faulty operant behaviour even after corrective changes had been put into place. He attributes this to the fact that organizations are typically part of bigger communities of practice that support the original behavioural models, and that like organizations, they too are averse to change. (Bain, 1998:416).

This reluctance to change brings us back to the “Learning Disabilities” that de Geus of Royal Dutch Shell articulated with regard to failed companies.

If the first-order actions of Model-I Single Loop Learning are thus unable to solve second-order problems, and we require second-order Model-II “Double Loop Learning” but are also averse to the change and the effort cost, then clearly we would need a mechanism to trigger Double Loop Learning when needed, and cultural attitude to act on it.

This discussion suggests an approach using external informational input to break through the organizational system domain fabric and to embrace failure as a “signal from nature” that the mechanism itself is in error. This approach is already mature in the sciences under the framework of theoretical falsifiability and critical tests

The Sciences

One of the foundations of modern science is the concept of falsifiability as articulated by Sir Karl Popper and embodied by the logical form of modus tollens (Kemerling, 2002).
In this form we discover a truth from the combination of a critical test (Thornton, 2006) and the failure of an assertion.

If my car is white, then no number of white objects in my parking bay can enable me to conclude that what is there must be my car, however if what is parked in my spot is not white, then I am sure that it cannot be my car.[3]


This allows nature to dictate and to break theories that are in error by providing information external to our system domain.

Looking for false outcomes is thus foundational to science, but we may ask if it is common amongst the scientists themselves?

In an experimental study, Kerns, Mirels, and Hinshaw demonstrated that a large proportion of career scientists were unable to identify valid propositional logic statements. (Kerns 1983) and were frequently unable to use modus tollens correctly.

We can see therefore how science itself is structured to combat this conformational bias and how it seeks external information and has an operant culture of reacting to falsification as suggested earlier, but that Bain’s regression process described earlier is driving this back into Model-I “skilled incompetence” (Argyris, 2006:41).

Several attempts are being made to address this by organizations in many different communities of practice ranging from Oncology (Kern, 2007), Biomedicine (Olsen, 2007), Computer Science (Prechelt, 2006), ecology and evolutionary biology (Blank et al, 2007), Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning (Dale et al, 2007), and Qualitative and Quantitative Results in the Social Sciences (Biesma et al, 2007).


Model-I behaviour is our natural highly learned and skilled state, and it may be difficult or impossible to maintain Model-II behaviour over long periods of time. When confronted with evidence of Model-I failures, our natural reaction will be defensive and to seek external agents to blame in order to maintain systemic homeostasis and avoid embarrassment and feelings of loss of control. It is however possible to use Double-Loop Learning to make systematic changes to address Model-I problems that Single-Loop Learning simply entrenches. One mechanism to engage Model-II activity is to place deliberate triggers in our processes either with quality procedures or with exposure to external thinking.

Further study is necessary into how effort-reduction may play a role in regression to Model-I behaviour archetypes and to bring neuropsychology and behavioural models into synch with Argyris’s views on Single Loop Learning, and with Bain’s observations that organizational changes tend to regress in time back to the dysfunctional but protective Domain Fabric.[1]

Further Reading

1.       “Does double loop learning create reliable knowledge?” 
Author(s):Deborah Blackman, James Connelly, Steven Henderson
The Learning Organization; Volume: 11   Issue: 1; 2004 Research paper

2.       “Transcending organisational autism in the UN system response to HIV/AIDS
in Africa”
Author(s):John G.I. Clarke
Kybernetes; Volume: 35   Issue: 1/2; 2006 Conceptual paper

3.       “The effect of downsizing strategy and reorientation strategy on a
learning orientation”
Author(s):Mark Farrell, Felix T. Mavondo
Personnel Review; Volume: 33   Issue: 4; 2004 Research paper

4.       “Towards a new approach to understanding service encounters: establishing,
 learning from and reconciling different views” 
Author(s):Mark N.K. Saunders, Christine S. Williams
Journal of European Industrial Training; Volume: 24   Issue: 2/3/4; 2000 

5.       “Circular organizing and triple loop learning”
Author(s):A. Georges L. Romme, Arjen van Witteloostuijn
Journal of Organizational Change Management; Volume: 12   Issue: 5; 1999 

6.       “A supplier development programme: the SME experience”
Author(s):Sharon Williams
Journal of Small Business and Enterprise Development; Volume: 14   Issue: 1;

7.       “We will teach you the steps but you will never learn to dance”
Author(s):Jane Turner, Sharon Mavin, Sonal Minocha
The Learning Organization; Volume: 13   Issue: 4; 2006 Case study

8.       “Narratives in ERP systems evaluation”
Author(s):Jonas Hedman, Andreas Borell
Journal of Enterprise Information Management; Volume: 17   Issue: 4;
2004 General review

9.       “Grief and educative leadership” 
Author(s):R.J.S. Macpherson, Barbara Vann
Journal of Educational Administration; Volume: 34   Issue: 2;
1996 Case study


  1. Argyris, 1985 “Action Science”, Chris Argyris, Robert Putnam, Diana McLain-Smith, Published 1985 Jossey Bass.
  2. Argyris, 1990 “Overcoming Organizational Defenses”, Chris Argyris, Prentice Hall 1990.
  3. Argyris, 1999, “On Organizational Learning”, 2nd edition, Chris Argyris, Blackwell 1999
  4. Argyris, 2000, “Flawed Advice and the Management Trap”, Oxford Press 2000
  5. Argyris, 2004 “Reasons and Rationalizations: The Limits to Organizational Knowledge”, Chris Argyris, Oxford Press 2004
  6. Bain, 1998 “Social defenses against organizational learning”, Human Relations, vol 51, no. 3, pp. 413-429
  7. Biesma et al, 2007 : Biesma, Regien et al website “The Journal of Spurious Correlations last accessed 5 Apr 07
  8. Blank et al, 2007 : Jochen Blank, Michael J. Stauss, Jurgen Tomiuk, Joanna Fietz and Gernot Segelbacher  “Journal of Negative Results” last accessed 5 Apr 07
  9. Burke, 2006, “Why leaders fail: exploring the darkside”, Ronald J. Burke
  10. Dale et al, 2007 : Dale, Robert  website “Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning last accessed 5 Apr 07
  11. Fulmer, 1998 “The second generation learning organizations: new tools for sustaining competing advantage”, Fulmer RM, Gibbs P, Keys JB, Organizational Dynamics, vol. 27, no.2, pp. 7-20
  12. Gough, 2006, “Women See Friends, Men See Foes”,Nancy Gough
  13. International Journal of Manpower; Volume: 27   Issue: 1; 2006
  14. Kemerling, 2002,  “Philosophy Pages Last accessed 5 Apr 07
  15. Kern 2007, Website “Journal of Negative Observations in Genetic Oncology” at last accessed 5 Apr 07
  16. Kern, 1993, “Scientists’ Understanding of Propositional Logic: An Experimental Investigation “ Leslie H. Kern, Herbert L. Mirels, Virgil G. Hinshaw
  17. Olsen, 2007 : Olsen, Bjorn Website “Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine” last accessed 5 Apr 07
  18. Prechelt, 2006 : Prechelt, Lutz Website “Forum for Negative Results” last accessed 5 Apr 07
  19. Sabrina M. Tom, Craig R. Fox, Christopher Trepel, and Russell A. Poldrack Science 26 January 2007 315: 515-518 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1134239]
  20. Science 2 June 2006 312: 1281 [DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5778.1281c]
  21. Senge, 1990 “The Fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization”, Doubleday 1990, pp. 19-25
  22. Social Studies of Science, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Feb., 1983), pp. 131-146
  23. Thornton , 2006, “Karl Popper”, Thornton, Stephen, In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2006 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), At, accessed last April 20, 2007.
  24. Tom et al, 2007 “The Neural Basis of Loss Aversion in Decision-Making Under Risk



  It may be interesting to examine why gossip or “informal social communication” is mostly about negative outcomes, and why traffic accidents get our attention. This is perhaps an evolutionary byproduct of attention to danger since ignoring one true danger can be fatal, whereas running away from a false alarm is usually not. This is evident by the asymmetry in the neurology of risk evaluation (Tom et al, 2007).

[1] See RCS author’s guidelines at Last accessed 7 March 2010

[2] This is also known as the “fundamental attribution bias”

[3] Sadly, Popper was undone in part by the Duhem-Quine thesis which showed that rejecting an hypothesis in this way was not foolproof, since other reasons may exist why it failed. In this case, perhaps somebody painted my car!


Matthew Loxton is the director of Knowledge Management & Change Management at Mincom, and blogs on Knowledge Management. Matthew’s LinkedIn profile is on the web, and has an aggregation website at
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by Mincom, but they should be.

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Knowledge Management: The Disease Model of Knowledge Transfer.

March 11, 2010

Suppose you wanted very much to contract a really good disease – how would you go about it?

Time is fleeting and money is tight, so you wouldn’t want to blow your budget and time only to contract an insignificant disease and wind up out of circulation with something mundane, –  you want a prize illness, something to enjoy and treasure.
No mere case of sniffles, and as entertaining as a dose of pink-eye might be, it would prevent you from mixing with people and getting one of the really champion diseases.

Obviously then you need to be a bit selective and therefore know a bit about which diseases are likely to meet your expectations and budget. – Maybe not a Miss Universe of diseases like necrotizing fasciitis or Ebola, but not Miss Ditchwater either.

Perhaps a trip to the doctor and local library or travel clinic would be in order for a good recon, and then do exactly the opposite of what they tell you to do – Don’t wash your hands, do put your fingers in your nose, mouth, and eyes after touching other people or biological material, don’t avoid certain foods, and do drink the local water whenever possible.

It is probably fruitless for most of us to stay at home and hope wistfully for a really solid dose of cholera, so you would need to go to where the disease is endemic or has a reliable reservoir

Once there, staying hidden in your hotel room will make disease procurement difficult, so you will want to mix with a lot of people – join the Mardi-gras, participate in local weddings, wakes, and sports, and especially where people breathe on you a lot, some body fluids might be in evidence, or you might encounter the odd needle-stick.

Tarry awhile – it won’t help if you whiz in and flit out again, people won’t invite you into their homes, let you pet their livestock, or drink their home-brewed beverages if you don’t stay around long enough for them to meet you and become acquainted enough with you to share.  (this is where the selection of location comes into play, and why it was important to do a bit of homework)

You also need to be careful at this level of granularity to be selective of exactly who you hang out with – it isn’t going to do you any good if you picked the local doctor or cleanliness fiend to hang out with, and you aren’t going to pick up anything remotely interesting from their pets if they keep them clean and free of parasites. Also it will profit you not if they are the sort of cold-fish touch-me-not types who sit at opposite ends of a 16-setting dinner table.

No, what you want are the gregarious types – people that swig from your glass and offer you morsels from their well-sampled plates, or are likely to kiss you on the mouth and cough a lot.

You not only need to pick the right kinds of people, but also know what signs to look out for. Fowl and livestock running about in the house is a good sign, a dog that scratches itself a lot is promising, and symptoms of actual infection is a very strong signal to embrace them and spend the night.

But then what of the mechanism of transmission – should you kiss a lot of people, share a comb, swap clothes, use each other’s needles, trade parasites, …?

Obviously knowing something about the pathogen itself and the routes it prefers to use for infection would be helpful and save a lot of time. Exchanging body fluids with somebody with a dose of schistosomiasis just won’t get you anywhere, and going through a painful exercise of swapping skin-grafts with somebody with pneumonic plague on offer is just wasteful – why go through a whole lot of bother when a simple cough would do?

Once you contract a satisfactory disease, you want to let it incubate a bit, and pay attention to all its intricacies and nuances. It doesn’t help getting blotto on vodka and missing a whole phase of it.
Reflecting on what you have is an important part of the experience, so don’t just rush headlong into seeking the next adventure – otherwise why spend all this effort getting something if you aren’t going to pay attention to it?

The final part is of course to make sure you have adequately documented and recorded how you obtained it, and what you got in case you (or somebody else) want to repeat the experience.
Which brings me to another very important part – in the spirit of the thing, you have somewhat of a duty to share not only the details of how you procured your prize disease, but also in passing this information and the disease itself on to as many people as are interested or who might benefit from it.

Knowledge Management

Back to knowledge, the same basic steps apply:

  • Know something about the knowledge you want to acquire and why
  •  Find out where it is to be found and go there
  •  Seek out experts and people who already know something about it or how to get it, and most importantly, what methods to use.
  • Locate people and places where it is found and engage with them, don’t hurry it – part of knowledge acquisition is entirely social
  • Learn how to recognise the signs of its presence and who will be helpful in providing it
  • Know something about the best medium of transmission – is this a face-to-face deal done orally, or do you get a pdf, or download something, or get photocopies.
  • Know how long it is going to take to learn
  • Revise and review and reflect so the knowledge adheres
  • Document
  • Share

Finally, importing mature ideas from other disciplines and adapting them to novel use is a good knowledge management practice, and one of the prime drivers of scientific and technological innovation – and it saves a whole bunch of money and time by using ideas that are already paid for (probably by somebody else).

That’s my story and I am sticking to it


Matthew Loxton is the director of Knowledge Management & Change Management at Mincom, and blogs on Knowledge Management.

Matthew’s LinkedIn profile is on the web, and has an aggregation website at
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by
Mincom, but they should be.

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Knowledge Management issues: Trust and Information.

March 6, 2010

I was recently asked something that related to information-foraging behaviours of people seeking answers to problems – surely a typical situation of both private and work life. This blog deals with the topic of trust and positions it in the terrain of Knowledge Management.

Because of the question, I am departing briefly from the typical blog format and dealing with this in a more academic fashion, so please excuse the slightly more formal tone.


The issue of trust spans many diverse dimensions, and ranges in subject matter from psychologists trying to gauge the reliability of experiments conducted across the web (McGraw 2000) to firms that provide tools and methods to swiftly access sensitive information in times of emergencies such as natural disasters (Trembly 2006).

In this discussion, a broad selection of illustrative situations will be explored in which trust is a salient factor, and specific attention will be given to trust and the web in context of medical information as an example.

Dimensions and facets

Trust spans a multiplicity of facets, not only across different industries, but also in terms of granularity. For example, at a very technical level it involves how Webservices and inter-agent dynamic trust frameworks have to be constructed (Skogsrud 2004), so that different computer systems can interoperate reliably without loss of data.

At a less transactional level, trust also involves how providers of information get information they trust in order to confidently serve that to end users – for example: teachers need to go about evaluating sources for building a curriculum and choosing materials (Vasko 2007).

Back at a technical level there is the matter of Web spoofing, and how to identify if a user is who they claim to be (Herzberg 2005), which obviously is a source of concern to organizations not just in terms of risks to themselves, but taking into consideration that poor access control would degrade the information-esteem in which they are held by their user community. As a client, we would surely be less inclined to use an organization that let somebody pretend to be us.

Trust is also not one-sided, for example firms need to trust what respondents say (Gosling 2004) and therefore some thought is dedicated to proposing a model focused on commitment-loyalty relationships that exist between customer and provider in order to gain customer loyalty (Thatcher 2004)

There are thus several transactional types:

  1. Machine to Machine
  2. User to Organisation
  3. Organisation to user
  4. Organisation to Organisation
  5. User to User

With the advent of peer-to-peer networks and sharing of information in chat rooms, newsgroups, and the like, there are issues of trust involved in taking advice or buying something from somebody who is not representing an organization whose credentials might be widely known.

An example of how community-based trust evolves is eBay, in which user-ratings are displayed for any seller and which all potential buyers can view.

Web2.0 approaches are thus likely to evolve towards a user-driven trust model.

All of these classes seem to require different approaches, but could they all fall under a single unifying structure that deals with trust?

 There is some work on describing “trust frameworks” as such a unifying basis for interaction between agents (Sillence 2006)

Engendering trust

What steps are users and organizations taking to increase or even to use, trust?

Some amount of trust is engendered by the use of secure protocols built into websites. It is commonplace for banks to provide the “https” type pages for transactions, and some libraries are doing the same to encourage trust in their patrons that their information, and information-seeking activities are private and secure (Breeding 2005)

There is also a great deal of use of national or regional “better business” accreditations or “seals” on a website as a way to improve user trust, and it seems that users feel a sense of  relief when these are displayed (Paul 2002).

However, trust also resides simply in the web site appeal and usability, and on the initial “trust beliefs” of new customers (Hampton-Sosa 2005). This hints both at how users come with preconceptions about what a trustworthy site looks like and works like, and raises the question of “appeal”. Are “Smart-looking” sites more trusted? – The suggestion is that they might be, since perceived quality is seen as a strong factor (Hwang 2007)

Morville portrays the market as a “conversation” (Morville and Rosenfeld 2006) in which the relatively static presentation, content, and architecture of a website is engaged in a discourse with the user, and thus communication characteristics between e-vendors and customers in building trust becomes important, and the use and display of policies and “seals” is in fact part of this interplay (Metzger 2006)

Further, customers and users are trying to discern key characteristics gleaned from the web presence that would reveal the organisation’s ability, benevolence, and integrity, and they will use these factors to gauge trust in order to differentiate a firm from less trustworthy alternatives (Lee 2005)

Part of the disclosure that users are foraging for are privacy policy statements on websites, and trust is in  part being built merely on the belief that a firm displaying a privacy policy is more trustworthy (Manon 2007)

Returning to the example of eBay, online communities and other Web 2.0 environments pose new interaction types that must be addressed when considering how to build trust (Swaine 2007), and there is a need for marketing in the new Web2.0 terrain to be handled in a manner that demonstrates authenticity, consistency,  and trustworthiness at a different level than before (Goldie 2006)

“Trust-management” thus becomes a necessary dimension to address when approaching interaction on the Semantic Web (Thuraisingham 2007)

State of trust

So how are things going?

In contradiction to findings that seals and membership of business bureaus engendered trust, McKnight finds that

“…neither a noticeable […] privacy seal nor a noticeable professional association seal had any significant impact on trust” (McKnight 2004)

Costanzo suggests that all the talk about trust, and especially the two-way trust in internet banking might actually engender more uncertainty and doubt, and that simply by drawing attention to the topic of trust, less trust is actually built (Costanzo 2005)

The efforts to create “Trust Building Models” and open discussion of the cognitive cues that users employ in initial trust formation (Wakefield 2004) might then simply engender  a form of “arms race” in which sites compete in “trustability” and untrustworthy providers strive to improve the façade of trustworthiness, and increase use of symbols in order to make people trust them more rather than actually trying to become more trustworthy. The semiotic artifacts of trustworthiness then become the unit of exchange in judging trustworthiness rather than being evidence of actual trustworthiness.

There is some evidence for this – US Newswire reports that users have less trust than previously with regards the web, and advertises a conference on web security (2005) where these disappointing facts would be explored.

At the same time, online drug purchases still lag other products perhaps due to issues of trust (Dubie 2007)

However, it is amply clear that users value trust in both brick and click environments. In a medical context, studies reveal that users express a need to be able to trust a hospital and its website, and are highly interested in both physician credibility, and institutional reputation (Gallant 2007)

However, people are conflicted about this, and while they express a desire to see evidence of trustworthiness, in practice it seems that they seldom look for the evidence.

In the publication Child Health Alert (2006) for example, attention is drawn to the results of a Pew Research finding that 75% of people failed to check the date and source of online health information “sometimes, hardly ever, or never”, and that only 2% of  popularly used health websites include such basic information as publication date and source.

If users were simply avoiding the web in the face of lack of trust it would perhaps be less of a concern, but in spite of wanting and not using evidence, users nevertheless go to the web for medical information viz. 75% of respondents (n=800) report that they consider the web as their “most trusted source for drug information” (McGuire 2007)

This is further borne out in the publication American Nurse where an URAC survey on web user’s trust is discussed with regard health-related and health-insurance websites, and reveals a high level of respondent trust (2001).

Clearly then some conflicting perspectives how users look for signs of trustworthiness, but plainly users desire it, and in many areas do in fact trust web sources.

Information scent and Trust

If we were to lay out some salients of a “Trust Model” based on what has been covered in this discussion, the scent of information-trustworthiness would be engendered inter alia by

  • Use of secure technologies where appropriate, such as secure hypertext transfer protocol.
  • An appealing but appropriate style suited to an already existing institutional reputation for credibility, ability, benevolence, and integrity
  • Display of  tokens and accreditations or seals (even though they may be ignored)
  • Usability based on consistent presentation, content, and architecture that support authenticity, and consistency.
  • Display of policies, especially privacy policy
  • No discussion of trust itself


With regards documents or information itself

  • The date of the article is clearly noted
  • The author and credentials are noted
  • Conflicts of interest and memberships are disclosed
  • Sources are correctly attributed


Epilogue : The scent of scent

It is notable that in practice many authoritative sources are not much better (if at all) than non-authoritative sources as far as scent markers and signs go. Many official factsheets are undated or have no named author or fail to identify the credentials of an author, make no statements of any conflict of interest, or tokens, or privacy statements.

Likewise, many large and reputable banks outsource credit-card sales to third parties, and this practice effectively teaches consumers to ignore facts that should otherwise make them suspicious – such as different web addresses, different IP domains, and different vocabularies or headings. These are all things that should warn us not to trust the source, but here we have the very people who warn us to be vigilant, encouraging blindness.

The poor maintenance of information-scent by the true authoritative organizations thus undermines the use of scent to warn the user when something is amiss.

It is the duty of organizations and people in positions of authority to make sure that the information they make public coheres to standards of integrity, and that includes ensuring that basic rules are followed that distinguishes their information from mere opinion. By not doing so, they attenuate and confuse the “reference scent” to which other information is compared.

If bad information is to be distinguished from good, it is necessary that the good be a clear and consistent reference point against which we can measure. When authoritative information sources fail to provide a strong scent of authenticity, the non-authoritative sources seem more credible –with potentially devastating results.



(2001). “In Web we trust–with some reservations.” American Nurse 33(4): 6.

(2003). “Gastrointestinal diseases.” Communicable Diseases Intelligence 27(1).

(2005). “Consumers Trust Web Sites Less Than Ever, Consumer Reports Webwatch Finds.” US Newswire: NA.

(2006). “Putting Too Much Trust In Health Information On The Web.” Child Health Alert: 3.

Breeding, M. (2005). “Building Trust Through Secure Web Sites.” Computers in Libraries 25(6): 24.

Costanzo, C. (2005). “Does Touting Web Safety Build Trust or Fear?” American Banker 170(118): 14.

Dubie, D. (2007). “Consumers just say no to drugs online; Forrester Research survey shows U.S. consumers don’t trust Web when filling prescriptions.” Network World: NA.

Gallant, L. (2007). “User-centric hospital Web sites: a case for trust and personalization.(Report).” E-Service Journal 5(2): 5.

Goldie, L. (2006). “Brands looking to exploit Web 2.0 need to build up user trust.” New Media Age: 15.

Gosling, S. O. (2004). “Should We Trust Web-Based Studies?” American Psychologist 59(2): 93.

Hampton-Sosa, W. (2005). “The Effect of Web Site Perceptions on Initial Trust in the Owner Company.” International Journal of Electronic Commerce 10(1): 55.

Herzberg, A. (2005). “Reestablishing Trust In the Web.” Dr. Dobb’s Journal: Software Tools for the Professional Programmer 30(10): 28.

Hwang, Y. (2007). “Customer self-service systems: The effects of perceived Web quality with service contents on enjoyment, anxiety, and e-trust.” Decision Support Systems 43(3): r2007.

Izenberg, N. and L. Hirsch. (2007). “Can I Feed My Baby Honey?”   Retrieved 8 April 2008, 2008, from

Lee, B.-C. (2005). “Lemons on the web: a signaling approach to the problem of trust in Internet commerce.” Journal of Economic Psychology 26(5): 607.

Manon, A. (2007). “The impact of reading a web site’s privacy statement on perceived control over privacy and perceived trust.” Online Information Review 31(5): 661.

McGraw, K. O. (2000). “The Integrity of Web-Delivered Experiments: Can You Trust the Data?” Psychological Science 11.

McGuire, S. (2007). “Consumers trust Web for drug info.(E-MARKETING).” Medical Marketing & Media 42(9): 26.

McKnight, D. H. (2004). “Shifting Factors and the Ineffectiveness of Third Party Assurance Seals: A Two-Stage Model of Initial Trust in a Web Business.” Electronic Markets 14(3): 2004.

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Paul, N. C. (2002). “Labels slowly build trust in the Web.” Christian Science Monitor 94(118): 18.

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Matthew Loxton is the director of Knowledge Management & Change Management at Mincom, and blogs on Knowledge Management. Matthew’s LinkedIn profile is on the web, and has an aggregation website at
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by Mincom, but they should be.

AIIA eLearning breakfast

February 27, 2010


I attended the AIIA eLearning breakfast session this week, and came away with a small list of action items, one or two new contacts, and one of those “d’oh” feelings.

Firstly, thank you to Jill Price from SkillSoft for MCing the event and for undertaking to find out who that person was from a university who asked if universities could play a role in eLearning for companies, but vanished before I had a chance to tell her “Hell yes, when do we start”.

Mark Cook, Senior Business Partner at Suncorp Human Resources covered Suncorp’s “Agile academy” and how senior execs took eLearning as a personal challenge. One notable snippet was how execs at Suncorp advertise internally what eLearning they are busy with, and announce a monthly book title.

Cost avoidance was also high on the agenda as a means of describing the value of eLearning, and one of the more interesting metrics was Carbon footprint and reduction due to eLearning.

Lindy MacPherson, National Manager – Organisational Development and Human Resources at Data#3 Limited emphasized the competitive employment market and how skills shortage was a critical success factor for businesses.

Lindy emphasized the need to set specific learning goals: in Data#3 employees are set a target of 5 days learning per employee per year. On joining, all staff are given an eLearning license and are expected to demonstrate continuous use.

Key to this are the managers who are not just accountable for this target, but also participate actively in mentorship.

Besides some impressive metrics on course usage and hours spent on learning, Lindy also described how the business units have learning programs set up for staff, and how blended learning is used to tailor their career development or migration .

I was impressed by the use of eLearning as part of induction in the service centre – it is surprising how many organisations still do only ILT that repeats easily-recorded learning material for every session – often with a small number of attendees. To balance the costs, some companies wind up delaying induction in an attempt to fill seats rather than taking the plunge and using eLearning – which would deliver a far more satisfactory outcome at lower cost.

To keep staff interest up, Lindy described monthly info sessions and various competitions – haven’t we all tried variations of these?

By far the biggest item for me personally, and a current pet project of mine is use of eLearning as Pre and post ILT augmentation.

Materials can be provided pre-course to prepare the learner and have them properly prepared for (expensive) ILT courses, whilst post-course eLearning can cement the concepts, give practice, and greatly extend retention.

Why this isn’t a no-brainer in all organisations mystifies me.

Sandra Smith, Executive Director, Strategy and Development at CITEC emphasized the importance of having senior staff act as “Learning Evangelists” to drive a spirit of ongoing professional development. Like Mark, Sandra also has a kind of corporate college environment in the form of a “School of Excellence”.

Big on Sandra’s agenda is the need to align learning programs with strategic KPIs and to make sure that eLearning is relayed to business outcomes. This ensures that the cost of training delivery is justified (and more importantly of pulling people from their day job).
This is where pre and post eLearning augments and improves ILT outcomes.

Sandra also boasted some impressive utilization figures, this time focused on hours per person and total hours spent on eLearning

Other topics that came up during the sessions were the need to blend eLearning with Coaching and Mentoring, and professional and vendor certification needs.

All in all a really worthwhile Friday morning.

My to-do list:

–          Look into establishing a Corporate College based on a zero-budget volunteer model

–          Get the certification module for Moodle up and running with forum activities included as part of new-hire induction framework

–          Go to the mat to get a policy minted that there be no attendance of or delivery of ILT or external training without pre and post course elearning

–          Push hard for a policy that anyone attending external courses or events should create eLearning artefacts to share the knowledge

–          Do more marketing of eLearning

Open slot for pro bono Knowledge Management work.

February 21, 2010

I am inviting applications for prospective organisations to fill a vacant slot in my calendar of pro bono work.

Interested parties should contact me via LinkedIn and submit a brief explanative text that details the organisation’s mission, social value, and culture.

What is in it for you?

You get up to 10 hrs of free expert time per month from a pretty hot KM expert to cover issues of knowledge management, organisational learning, and intellectual asset management. You gain access to knowledge and opinion that would otherwise require stress to your budget, and you are under no obligation to use my opinions if you care not to.

You may unlock hundreds of millions of dollars of intellectual assets, or increase productivity significantly, or even just get a shoulder to cry on about how frustrating life is when you don’t know who knows what and what knowledge is crucial to your organisation’s survival.

… or maybe not.

You may find that I have nothing of value for your organisation – but then you didn’t have to fork out several thousand dollars to find that out, and we can go our separate ways with no harm to either.

What is in it for me?

I wish I could say this was all entirely altruistic, but that isn’t what this is about.
What I get out of this is working on problems or issues that I find interesting and in market areas far from my home ground. I get to add a good affiliation to my portfolio, and puff up my resume by one more breath.
Something else I get is to try out my ideas on a wider audience, and to get feedback that can be used for my own ongoing professional development.

Finally, I get that dual kick of neurotransmitters in my central nervous system that one has when doing something that one is passionate about, do well, and which has socially-beneficial outcomes.

I like feeding my passion.

What you need to look like

You need to have social value, first and foremost, and you cannot be in the same domain as my employer.
If I don’t like what you do, or how you behave in the social commons, then I am not interested in helping you be better at that. Typically you are a healthcare institution, a research organisation, or something else that works to the benefit of the environment, society, and so on.

You need to have an interesting problem regarding Knowledge Management in its broadest sense.
If I can’t find an interesting problem then I can’t be of any help and neither of us will benefit.

You can be pretty much anywhere on the planet, but it helps if you can pay for travel once in a while so we can read each other’s body language and interact like the real humans we are. I don’t need first-class tickets or five-star accommodation.

How this works

You contact me via LinkedIn and send me details of your organisation’s mission, what social benefit it provides, its culture, and what problems you think you have.

There is only one slot open, but I will keep the other applicants in order of interest in case more hours are added to the day, other workload drops off, or I get serious about personal KM and improve my efficiency.

Please show some dignity and respect, don’t send a recruiter, and come prepared.
Look at my online profile and my electronic footprints out there on the net, and qualify yourself out if we aren’t going to be a good match.

We will then need to agree on issues of non-disclosure, what we may make public about the relationship, and how often to be in contact and how.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Matthew Loxton is the director of Knowledge Management & Change Management at Mincom, and blogs on Knowledge Management. Matthew’s LinkedIn profile is on the web, and has an aggregation website at
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by Mincom, but they should be.

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