Why Isolated Knowledge is a performance barrier.



Human organisations engage customers in the development of new products and services, unlock staff from being fragmented across their organisation, and diffuse the intense pressure that executives are often forced to handle. In short, they make the experience more human for everyone involved.

I believe there are three main barriers to an organisation becoming more human – firstly: disconnected plans (how misrepresenting reality disrupts execution), and divided minds (how fragmentation undermines good decision making).

The third main barrier to making an organisation human: isolated knowledge.

This issue occurs throughout an organisation, hampering the ability of people to work well with others. For years there has been a strong emphasis in management schools on the value of collaboration, but still, organisations struggle to make it actually work.

The barriers.

On the surface, isolated knowledge simply seems to be a matter of people’s lack of time, money or willingness to work with others. However, I think there is an underlying issue which dates back many centuries. The challenge with working together is that you have to work with different perspectives, not only about what solutions are needed, but what the actual problems are in any given situation. When you start to unpack the challenge of who has the ‘right perspective’ on what the actual problem is, you run into the question of what can actually be known? How do you determine between different perspectives what is reality? What are the real problems? What are the valuable solutions?

Throughout the development of Western history, there have been a number of key figures that have attempted to answer the question of ‘what can be known?’. Plato developed a mental model of an ‘ideal world’, which we construct in our minds and then move our current reality toward. On the other end of the philosophical scale are those like Rene Descartes (16th Century), who have built a mental model where ‘objective reality’ doesn’t exist, but is created by each individual. This idea (which has grown in popularity in recent decades) has affected the time horizon of planning from fifty-year plans, to twenty, ten, five, three and now one. If the future can’t be known as an ideal (as Plato would suggest), then it makes sense to be more tactical.

As I see isolated knowledge, there is a third option – that reality is known in experience and unlocked or accessed via relationships. This is an idea that came about in around 70AD through a Roman philosopher named Paul. He contended for the idea that we actually need to trust in others to know about reality, because we can’t get to the place where we individually hold absolute, ‘objective’ knowledge of all things. What we “know” we must hold as assumptions to be tested with the people, or the situations that the knowledge is about (and be updated based on these relationships).

In summary, for Plato, you aim for “Objectivity”, a reality that is static and held between individuals. For Descartes, you aim for “Subjectivity”, a reality that is dynamic and held inside individuals. For Paul, you aim for “Confidence”, reality that is dynamic and held between individuals 

My experience in design over the last ten years could be summarised as reintroducing organisations to their customers, creating relationships within organisations and (through the empathy from these relationships) building confidence in the development of products, services and systems that will better meet both organisational and customer needs.  

The benefits.

For one, involving customers (and other parts of the business) reduces the number of unknowns and the associated risks. A wider range of new concepts can be developed with more perspectives involved, grounded in the needs of the people that are being designed for, not limited by concepts typical to a particular perspective.

This relational approach (and underlying assumption about reality) has also seen a rise in recent decades through a range of different disciplines coming together. The social sciences of Anthropology and Ethnography have begun to interact with the fields of Design, Engineering, and Management. ‘Design Thinking’ is the name of one popular movement of the convergence of disciplines (in this case with Design getting naming rights). Social sciences have given disciplines like Design new ways of getting to know people, of codifying their experiences upon which to make decisions for products, services and systems. 

The human factor.

Despite the uncertainty of markets, the rapid changes in technology and the disruption prevalent in every sector - it is an exciting time to be growing organisations. Some of the ways in which we have built our organisations over the decades are now coming to be tested, and new approaches are already alive and well. The challenges of disconnected plans, divided minds, and isolated knowledge are coming to the surface. 

My hope is that with constant evolution and ever greater empathy for the needs of both customers and staff – we’ll see new ways to form and scale organisations and see the value in making them more human. In turn these organisations will be more adept at delivering with confidence, at speed and to delivering more value than ever.

Matt Ayers _ Experience Designer.