The Distortion of Ideas LO22949

Fred Nickols (
Fri, 22 Oct 1999 06:24:55 -0400

Replying to Winfried Dressler in LO22928 --

(Subject changed to Distortion of Ideas)

Winfried, responding to John Zavacki in the Boundaryless Organization
thread, inquires...

>How is it possible that great
>accomplishments like that of Deming are not only not understood but
>thought to be understood while it is far away from the original thought?
>This is not only simplification but even worse, distortion and pervertion.
>And it happens every day.

It happens all the time, Winfried, and I have some thoughts as to why.
Let's take two examples: "scientific management" and "tacit knowledge."

Frederick Winslow Taylor certainly had his faults but he in no way
deserves the abuse that is regularly heaped upon him. I made it a point
to study Taylor and his work (Peter Drucker put me up to it almost 20
years ago) and what Taylor had to say about scientific management back in
1911 and earlier is a far cry from what others have to say about it as we
turn the corner into the year 2000. It seems that Taylor and scientific
management have become whipping boys. Too bad, because fewer still will
ever read what Taylor himself had to say -- and what he had to say lies at
the heart of most of what we know how to do in the way of improving
performance and productivity.

But, Taylor is old hat to some, so let's take a more recent instance:
Michael Polanyi's concept of tacit knowledge. Polanyi used the term to
refer to the things we know that we can't articulate (e.g., how we
recognize a particular person's face). By definition, then, tacit
knowledge is knowledge that can't be articulated. Yet, I regularly see
tacit knowledge defined simply as "knowledge that is in people's heads."
That is dead wrong. There is a vast difference between knowledge that
HASN'T been articulated and knowledge that CAN'T be articulated. This is
not to say that tacit knowledge can't be transferred, but it can't be
transferred by way of codification in text. Yet, there are lots of claims
being made about the benefits of capturing and distributing tacit
knowledge and lots of claims about knowing how to do that. Stripped of
their hype, they are the same old methods and techniques that we have used
for years to pick the brains of subject matter experts and master
performers. And, they are very good ways of capturing and codifying that
which can be captured and codified but hasn't; they are not ways of
capturing and codifying that which can't -- namely, tacit knowledge.

So why does all this distortion happen? Well, in part it stems from a
rush to jump on the bandwagon. At first, it's nothing more than hasty,
sloppy thinking. But, the rush to jump on the bandwagon also drains the
resource well pretty quickly; that is, truly qualified, knowledgeable
people are quickly used up and less qualified people are used to satisfy
the demand. Now, the work itself becomes sloppy or shoddy. Next, people
sour on the basic idea; the fad passes and those in search of quick fix
turn their gaze elsewhere. There is even a certain amount of blaming
(e.g., "That knowledge management or LO stuff doesn't work." or "We tried
reengineering and it didn't work" or "TQM is passe" and so on). Why the
blaming? To lay off the responsibility for failure, or so I think.

There is a real cost to organizations lurking in this morass. If you have
the right solution, and you blow it during implementation, the right
solution will be discarded and the search for a new one will begin.
Almost surely, the next solution will be of lower quality than the first.
And, if this second one is muffed at implementation time, yet another
search will begin and an even lower quality solution will be queued up.
There is, then, in faulty implementation, the potential for a downward
spiral in the quality of solutions or strategies to be implemented. At
the end of that spiral lies utter ruin. (I'm sure one of our system
dynamics devotees could even model this death spiral.)

A shorter, more direct answer to your question, Winfried, is that the
distortion of ideas happens because our rush to reap the benefits of new
ideas exceeds our ability and capacity to successfully deploy them.

Fred Nickols
The Distance Consulting Company
"Assistance at A Distance"
(609) 490-0095


Fred Nickols <>

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