I3 UPDATE / Entovation International News

a free monthly briefing on the knowledge agenda

No. 45 November 2000





David J. Skyrme


David Skyrme Associates


Contents - Next Feature - Knowledge Digest


Ignorance Adds Excitement?

David J. Skyrme

This was the theme of BBC Radio 4's 'Thought for the Day' on the morning after the US Presidential Elections (around midnight West Coast time). The speaker commented that if people knew the result of the election beforehand (do we now??) they might not bother to vote. Similarly, that if the result of a football game is known there is less interest in the replay. It is the ignorance, the 'not knowing' that adds some excitement to life (tell that to American voters in this period of ignorance nearly two weeks after the event!). He does have a point, though. Have you seen managers in your organization get excited because they are kept in the dark about something, even more so if those around them who should know, don't know either. "No surprises" is how many managers want to run their organization. I recall well the comments of David Smith of Unilever, who is often asked about the cost and justification of knowledge management. His response: "The cost of knowledge management is high, but that of ignorance is higher."

Knowledge Adds Boredom?

The corollary of 'ignorance adds excitement' is that 'knowledge adds boredom'. We use knowledge to reduce risk, to avoid surprises and, through mechanisms such as opinion polls, to make better predictions (and yes, the US opinion pools did indicate a close race "too close to call".). Armed with this knowledge we can lead a more routine life. In organizations, it is usually the R&D departments and marketing departments that add some excitement (plus of course all the personal gossip that is shared better than most organizational knowledge!). Behind the exciting parts of the organization, it is the support departments who manage the processes and make things happen that are often far from exciting. They do their job meticulously and well, and often do not receive the gratitude that they deserve. The problem, as it is with much knowledge, is that it may not get the recognition it deserves unless it rises about the threshold of routine and breaks through the flow of information that daily causes information overload. In many 'surprises' for governments and military (e.g. The Iraqi's invasion of Kuwait), the information is there but its importance misinterpreted. It was just another piece of information.

Take another perspective. Good information management underpins good knowledge management. Yet many of the people with the best IM skills - librarians, information scientists, analysts - are people who adopt a methodical approach and do not want to exaggerate or hype their findings. Similarly, many information intensive websites are seen as "bland and boring". All examples that good knowledge may not be exciting. Should it be?

Adding Excitement

There are some positive things about making people excited:

  • it raises their attention level
  • it engages them (research indicates that making school lessons exciting increases involvement and help learning).
  • it can be motivating
  • it adds sense of urgency
  • it can be a taster of more to come (think of a movie trailer and how it adds interest and excitement)
  • it can raise the adrenalin level and keep the mind honed to the task in hand (ever been white water canoeing?).

There are, of course, negatives if too much excitement causes stress and carelessness.

But perhaps, providers of knowledge should occasionally add something above the ordinary that wraps knowledge into something more interesting. Even Reuters has recognized the need for the "wow factor" in some of its newer services on entertainment news. Perhaps knowledge managers should think of infotainment as a way of getting their knowledge across. Here are some example of how knowledge can be made more interesting and exciting:

  • On expertise directories, rather than the traditional CV mug-shots, add human interest pictures - on BP Amoco's personal ages you will see people driving 4 wheeled trucks over the desert to the oil well head.
  • Use multimedia (including streaming audio and video) - The META Group, among others, offers and audio-visual streaming of their analyst's presentations, ads well as Powerpoint slides (but don't put off those people who would rather scan a 20 page document in 5 minutes rather than sit listening to a 20 minutes presentation).
  • Add some human interest - pictures of the author, even a hotlink to the author's informal home page.
  • Add some intrigue to headings and subheadings on stodgy reports e.g. "Will China surpass the USA?" is more likely to attract reader's attention than "Internet Penetration Research Results" (For information on what captures news readers' attention see the Stanford Poynter Project at http://www.poynter.org).
  • Add discussion and chat facility to your intranet and Internet - often underestimated, special events that make use of these as an adjunct to a video presentation can engage the wider community of interest.
  • Give knowledge consumers something to play with (I like Drkoop's diabetes risk calculator and Searle's Drug Pipeline Game.)
  • Create some hype and marketing razzmatazz - several knowledge centre managers hold special events, with competitions, refreshments and other inducements to publicize new services or particular additions.

I'm sure you can think of many more - if you make it part of your daily working practice. Next time that you are about to write a report, add some new entries to your knowledge base, or create some new Web pages, just think for a moment; "How can I add some excitement to this knowledge?". Done in an effective way, you will not detract from the authority of content, but you will engage your readers more. Knowledge, after all, opens up new opportunities, gives new insights and can inspire us to achieve wondrous things.

If, as knowledge providers and managers, we use some of these techniques, then perhaps we won't need to rely on ignorance to add some excitement into our colleague's daily lives. Furthermore' the excitement will be of a positive motivating variety, rather than one of ignorance anxiety.

What excites you? Please share your ideas with readers, by sending me your comments to the email address below.

Email: david@skyrme.com.

P.S.: I know, I have got to take some of these lessons on board in my own writing and at our website.

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