The focus of Knowledge Management is usually on the folks with all the Knowledge and Experience, the people who have been with the company for years and in the industry for decades – and this is hardly surprising, since they are the ones who have most of the good ideas, know how to do stuff, and have all the tips, tricks, and war-stories.
We are focused on the Experts because that’s where the goodies are for the most part.
However, experts are also those who have best learned to put up with stuff and the Jerry-rigged quick-fixes that were put into place as a short-term stop-gap five years ago but just blended into the stream of history at some point. They have also forgotten many of the things that initially bugged them, and have accumulated a host of bad habits and habits to protect them from the embarrassment of all those bad habits.
This is one of the ways that “ single-loop” learning mechanisms start up, and how we wind up protecting ourselves from evidence that things are wrong. As Chris Argyris explains it, not only does the problem itself become unmentionable, but the very fact that it is unmentionable is unmentionable!
It is simply bad manners to even hint about it, so over time people learn to unconsciously avoid certain subjects, issues, and facts.
A second problem with expertise is that we no longer notice how we do things – much of what we do is autopilot and runs fast and smooth on well-oiled rails. We effortlessly and unconsciously glide over shortcuts, detours, and work-arounds that are so well practiced that they are all but invisible.
Expertise and its learned-behavior hides problems that more expertise is almost powerless to break and to whom the problems are as invisible as a vampire’s reflection.
This is where the Novice’s Mirror enters the picture.
A new-hire presents a perfect opportunity to make invisible reflections show up again briefly – until they are assimilated and acculturated and the images fade from their consciousness.
A novice can reflect to us things that have become invisible in two ways
Where they do not yet know how things are done and will be able to question things that have no apparent reason. It is this “why” that can fleetingly bring something back into view, and if we keep our natural instinct to defend or distract under control, we will get a brief opportunity to snare a bad habit.
Secondly, we can learn a great deal from what a new-comer gets wrong. When they stumble over a task step, or can’t find something, or something doesn’t make sense, it is a red flag that we may have built an invisibility shield around something that was wrong but for which had we evolved ‘tricks” to get past.
Quite often the original reason for the tricks might have resolved itself or simply become irrelevant, but the “tricks” to circumvent it may still be in operation long after their need had gone. – A novice often shows us a reflection of ourselves by what they trip over or what they do wrong.
In the choices they make that strike the expert as wrong, they in fact articulate the shape of the expert’s assumptions in all three areas of tacit, explicit, and cultural knowledge.
I have used this notion of the Novice’s Mirror in varying degrees of success in several different organizations over the years.
For example, in one case customers following the download and installation instructions of software components and fixes would often interpret the instructions “incorrectly” and perform steps out of sequence.
The customers had come to believe that our fixes were fragile, and they often needed to call on us to manually assist them in loading the fixes. If the fixes worked fine when we loaded them, they wrote this off as being just another example of the mysterious and unpredictable nature of our fixes.
To us of course it was clear that customers were just lazy or unqualified and didn’t follow instructions.
It took a newbie to point out that in many cases the order of steps to fit a fix was important, but that we didn’t say so in the instructions. The instructions were in fact quite unclear on this point and many others once you looked at them from the novice point of view. Some steps required a strict order, others not, some steps were seemingly trivial, but weren’t.
The newbie had tried to fit a patch themselves as part of training and had skipped a step that was unclear with the idea that they would find out later what it meant.
The resulting failure made them wonder if we had meant that the steps were strictly sequential and were all necessary.
Luckily the experts caught the implication and examined what had gone wrong rather than simply laughing it off as newbie stupidity, and from then on we had far fewer calls for “bad fixes” because we henceforth clearly stated if steps were to be taken as sequential or not, and which were crucial and which were there for comfort or cosmetics.
The opportunity to glimpse in the Novice’s Mirror was very brief, and could have just as easily been dismissed and lost. If the newbie had been taunted rather than really listened to, they would simply have learned to do it “our way”, and also have “learned” that pointing out faults was not welcome in that organization.
I apply this idea to any new-hire or visitor, requesting them to take notes whenever they are unsure of an instruction or document, cannot find something, or don’t know who to ask for assistance – the “novices mirror” shows us assumptions and inbuilt problems or obstacles that are invisible to the experts.
A very effective way to use the Novice’s Mirror, is to build it into a constant-improvement philosophy such as the Japanese quality control concept of Kaizen. In this way workers and management are made curious about failure and become more likely to seek causes, rather than simply assign blame or to ignore the problem.
That is my story, and I am sticking to it.