On Knowing, together
Sharing knowledge publicly, as a concerned citizen in a codesign workshop or as a professional expert in a multidisciplinary team, seems to be an unarguable good. However, there are multiple ways in which the way in which we share our knowledge can go wrong. This post is about ways of Knowing, Common Knowledges, 3 bad consequences of knowledge sharing and 1 helpful technique. It’s mostly aimed at people who think that affinity mapping and big walls of Post It Notes are good ideas because sharing knowledge publicly and openly is always a good idea. It is not. How we share our own knowledge, and how we perceive knowledge formed by the opinions of others, have deep effects on our ability to think clearly and critically. Common Knowledge can have damaging effects on project outputs.
I’ve just finished another series of Design for Dissent workshops and the book No!: The Power of Disagreement by Charlan Nemeth came up a few times.
What I’m interested in is how we think of what we know ourselves, how we share our knowledge with other people and how that pooled knowledge affects us all. This seems relevant because of the way in which we use consensus-based design thinking and product management systems. We think the way we are open and professionally ethical about sharing knowledge but there may well be negative effects we are not aware of. We need dissent to break those effects.
Dissent is not breaking the harmony of consensus thinking but mitigating the harm of it.
How we know, how we learn is a huge subject. I will talk only of three ways of knowing here. I know…because…
I lived this experience (the core sense of being a sentient being with a personal perspective and opinion: embodied knowledge living)
I learnt to do this (the sense of doing things that can come from school, from hobbies and from work: enacted knowledge making)
I was told about this (the sense of being in a family or community that tells each other what they know: social knowledge sharing)
How we individually learn and how we remember differs and there are many, many ways of discussing that. I am not going to do that here. We need to accept that everyone can and does learn (tho we live in societies that create many hierarchies of how valid and valuable that individual knowledge is).
What I am interested in is how we pool knowledge within ourselves, personally and socially, because the way that the individual and the group behave around information has many negative effects that we do not discuss enough.
We may learn in many ways but we embody that knowledge. We are what we know: what we have done, what we have tried, where we have been, who we have known. The swirl of sentience, of experiencing and of learning. Each part is valid and valuable because they are experienced by us as individuals.
Finally, we embody that knowledge, from so many ways of knowing, into our individual sense of knowing what we know. You cannot separate out knowledge because it makes up your sense of being you. The source and the method of knowledge acquisition is not relevant to you. You apply skills learnt and knowledge acquired as necessary to that place and time.
Experience gained applied to experience creation. Life lived, living life.
This is being human and is not the problem of pooling knowledge. Drawing knowledge into ourselves; to become the person that we are and will be is entirely typical. How we extend that knowledge outwards and pool it into shared knowledge for projects is however, a problem with multiple consequences.
I just want you to rest for a moment on the value of your ways of knowing and your sense of self that has developed thru what you have learnt and how you learnt it. This is your power as a human. You are extraordinary.
Humans are deeply social and it is adaption thru social connection that underlies our success. We can solve complex problems as we can use diversity to find solutions already explored and discovered by other humans. Individual intelligence is less relevant than the society around a person.
This is why how we view the pooling of knowledge as a social act is so important. There are effects upon the group, upon the members of the group and on ourselves.
The knowledge pool is a social entity with its own sense of power over us.
We depend upon the shared problem-solving capability of the knowledge pool. It is often described as Common Knowledge.
This is the majoritarian entity that is described in books like The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. Humans, en masse, can be right about solving problems because their massed ways of knowing create a shared answer that is sorted by the crowd to provide the optimal solution.
In Charlan Nemeth’s book, there is a proviso.
The wisdom of the crowd is only true if every member of the crowd has got some form of lived, learnt or social knowledge of the problem and solution. I can have an opinion on some subjects (and, as a man, I am often drawn to mansplain things) but I do not really have any knowledge on them (as they are beyond my lived experience, my education experience and my experiences of hearing knowledge from others). I can guess and I can opine but I’m not right.
The wisdom of the crowd presumes relevant knowledge thruout the crowd.
This is why I divide the Common Knowledge pool into Common Knowledge and Pseudo-Common Knowledge.
There is true Common Knowledge that can be used to solve problems and, more importantly, can be criticised and changed by anyone as circumstances and contexts change. It is meaningfully shared knowledge, by individuals. A pool that is open to use and to change.
There is also Pseudo-Common Knowledge. This is shared by individuals, from their own homogenised sense of knowing, into the pool. Others can hear it and use it in their lives. It may be useful, it may not be. More importantly, there will be many, many fewer people who can usefully critique the validity of that knowledge. The wisdom is not with the crowd as the crowd cannot possibly know certain specific lived experience, or pieces of advanced research or have heard from some minority group.
Yet, in user research and in multidisciplinary teams, there is a bias to lump Pseudo- and real Common Knowledge into the same pool. It all comes from people, each person has their own sense of the validity of their ways of knowing and everyone understands that overwhelming social sense that group knowledge is more true than individual knowledge.
When working in a team what we see is the homogenised individuals (they have knowledge but how they know is hidden within them in ways they themselves may not be able to differentiate or describe) and the pools of research (the wall of Post It Notes in Agile product development teams comes to mind). Those pools; those walls of Post It Notes, those PowerPoints and reports are what concern me.
Between personal homogenising of knowledge and pooling of personal to Common Knowledge there are so many possibilities of things going terribly wrong. We need to maintain an awareness of how knowledge is held within us and between us: that it is (within the constraints I set earlier) embodied, enacted and socially shared. This changes how we consider information when it publicly shared. There are opportunities for asking for more detail and for applying more critical thinking.
I will discuss three consequences of not being aware of how knowledge changes as it moves and shifts. I’ll also share one practical way of approaching the problems.
Charlan Nemeth writes about how President Kennedy changed his way of leading between the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The first was a disaster as no one was willing to share their concerns and critique the thinking of others. The second was resolved, on the edge of a nuclear war, as multiple teams offered differing perspectives and options that could be further analysed and criticised.
He learnt that as a Directed Leader he had the power to constrain how his people thought about problems because they thought they needed to deliver a solution that matched the leader’s known public opinion. One person can weigh heavily upon how we think. We see what they know, in its homogenised sense, come into the Common Knowledge and that has power over us. Not merely our desire to agree with the wisdom of the crowd but our desire to be approved of by the powerful.
When we share knowledge, we presume that the group will use it wisely. If we have shared what we know into the Common Knowledge then, as the crowd is wise, it will use that knowledge well.
This is a particular problem in professional teams. Everyone is an expert and they share what they know from their perspective. The presumption is the whole will be better.
But what happens if the whole team doesn’t know what is important? What if a truly crucial piece of knowledge is not recognised?
The individual needs to know that this has happened, what the consequences are of the failure to recognise it and (most importantly) be willing to speak up.
This is where the power of Common Knowledge as a social entity comes to the fore.
Most people are unwilling to dissent against the majority opinion and most people believe that Common Knowledge is the majority opinion. So, in this case, someone will not speak out when (/if) they know knowledge is being misapplied. They want to stay in the group, they want to belong, they believe in the majority (even when it is actually Pseudo-Common Knowledge).
There is another way in which things can go wrong in pooled knowledge. This comes up more in user research and codesign where individual knowledge is anonymised and de-attributed. A person may find themselves having their knowledge used against them and they do not know it.
A person may share a lived experience to researchers and this becomes part of the Common Knowledge system as a user or citizen opinion. A system may them be built around that experience (and others like it), as shared by one person, in one place and in one time. This system may not be beneficial to those individuals and yet its proof is a mis-applied version of their own knowledge.
Thus, both the power of the majority and the anonymising nature of research, can use a person’s experiences against them in a way that they cannot rebel against. The only person who could critique the application of Common Knowledge is themself but they are not aware that they have that power.
I think, differently…
There are a lot of issues raised in this post. Most of them are simply a matter of recognising our individuality of knowing in huge systems of Common Knowledge.
One bit of advice that came of the Charlan Nemeth book can be summarised as follows:
Be a skeptical generalist
Be a persistent specialist
Maintain a skeptical attitude to what is viewed as the majority opinion as shown in the Common Knowledge. Be aware of the dangerous difference between real and Pseudo-Common Knowledge: ask for more proof, apply critical thinking.
Continue to talk of your individual knowledge, as drawn from specialist education or lived experience, when people point at the huge wall of Post It Notes and the weight of Common Knowledge. Losing your voice is bad for you, bad for the team and bad for the project. We keep quiet too often. We need to keep breaking unanimity because when we speak up it influences others to think more and research more.
Skeptical and persistent because you are authentic.
This is the power and value of you, of the individual, within teams and within communities.
Support it in yourself and in the people you share a place with.