David Weinberger
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Random knowledge

07 August 2000

There's plenty of knowledge in your company. The problem is telling who has it. For example, you're at the big meeting to decide what to do about the coming Flannel Crisis that threatens the very marrow of your business. Maria says to lay in a supply. Germaine says to move to synthetic flannel. Oscar says to set fire to your competitors' warehouses. Frances excuses herself and goes to call her stock broker. Someone in the room undoubtedly is saying the truth. Someone has knowledge. But who?

This is, in fact, the conundrum that gave rise to the idea of knowledge. The ancient Greek philosophers heard lots of people mouthing off--Athens was a participatory democracy, after all ... so long as you were a man, with money. But how do you separate mere beliefs from knowledge? If you could do that reliably, you'd be on the road to Truth, Goodness and the Athenian Way.

In corporations, we generally do it in two related ways. First, we look at the person's track record. The fact that Maria was right about the the great Steel Wool crisis of '93 and the great Marmelite crisis of '97 gives her some credibility when it comes to the current flannel crisis. Second, we listen to those above us in the hierarchy. Not only do they have the authority to tell us what is knowledge and what just sounds like a good idea, but presumably they got there by having a track record like Maria's.

My friend Stowe Boyd compares this to a particular telephone scam. The way he tells it, you get a call one day from someone who says, "Next week, ABC stock is going to move up. I'm not asking you to buy any stock from me, but just take a look." Sure enough, ABC goes up. Next week the scam artist calls you back with another pick: "DEF is going to go down." Sure enough! For five weeks, this guy predicts the behavior of stocks. The sixth time he calls he says, "I've been right the past five times. This time I have a stock for you and I do want you to buy some shares through me. Waddya say?"

Here's the trick. This guy started in the first week by calling 100 people. He told half that ABC would go up and half would go down. When ABC went up, the next week he called the ones for whom he'd predicted accurately and he told half of them that DEF would go up and half that it would go down. At the end of five weeks, he has three people who think he is a stock market god.

Stowe's point, as I understand it, is that the ranks of management are filled with lucky people who believe they got where they are because they were smart enough to have made the right decisions. (By the way, be sure to check out Stowe's new 'zine, Message from Edge City.)

We can lower the odds of picking the wrong "knowledge" by considering who's saying it, including the person's track record but also all the other things we listen for: attitude, cynicism or optimism, self-interest, tendency to exaggerate, bravery, grasp of contexts, grasp of facts, sense of humor. But the fact is that the world is terribly complex, so thinking that we can make well-founded decisions is itself a type of denial. The truth is that knowledge is a lot closer to luck--or worse, a scam--than we generally like to believe.

David Weinberger is editor of The Journal of Hyperlinked Organization.