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It’s all becoming too complex!


Martine Joosten reflects on how today's 'knowledge economy' is creating a culture of confusion. Keep things simple, she says.

Within IT service support organisations, it is a fact of life that (third-party) technologies, internal processes and new features and artefacts are changing and getting more and more complex. You can´t keep up to date with all the latest developments any longer, due to the enormous speed of change. The knowledge within the support organisation is falling short. Is there a reason for panic? Based upon the responses I receive, you might think so.

That 'illusive' knowledge

‘Knowledge’ appears to be somewhat magical. The world is yours if you have the knowledge and it seems to eliminate all uncertainties in life. When I interviewed a number of people, as part of a selection process to become a process coach within their organisation, this need for knowledge appeared to be important.

"...knowledge on its own is not the key to all your problems."

One of the questions that I put forward was: what is your biggest concern in becoming a coach? In the most cases the answer was: lack of knowledge. They are not the only ones complaining about the lack of knowledge. People attending my troubleshooting workshops often see the lack of content knowledge about the particular bits and pieces of the product as the main barrier to solving the actual problem.

Would knowledge be giving you the real power? Or could it be possible that knowledge is hindering your work? Normally it has been said: 'the more we know, the more secure we feel'. Nothing gives more satisfaction than having knowledge of the world around you. We will be able to assess the situation better, we know how to respond, we know the solution to a problem; it has its advantages. Of course the danger exists of running away with the knowledge; you get carried away, you think you know the answer and in the end you completely miss the point. Strangely enough, it is still enriching your life, as you learn from the mistakes you have made.

Yet I discovered during my activities as a trainer in analytical trouble shooting (ATS) and problem solving and decision making (PSDM) programmes, that knowledge could work against you if you want to approach problems (and situations in general) in a clear and consistent manner. Apparently knowledge on its own is not the key to all your problems.

With most participants attending my workshops, mostly engineers with at long service in their company, the extensive knowledge they gained is blocking their way to solve the problem: they jump too quickly to conclusions and they think they know the answer already.

They only ask those questions that fit their current thinking pattern and, maybe even worse, they listen selectively as well! Only those things that fit in their map of the world will be recorded and registered. Of course, you have a backpack full of knowledge and experience, gained over the years, which makes it difficult to look to new situations in a totally objective (blank) manner: without assumptions and preconceptions. And maybe this is not the best way forward either, it is even undesirable.

But still... if there is so much emphasis and pressure on knowledge and (what we call in the Netherlands) 'knowledge economy' (investing in schools, universities etc.) what will happen if you don´t have any knowledge at all? Would you be able to provide a better (customer) service? (Would you be more open to listen to the customer voice?) If you lack the knowledge of a particular technology, the best way forward would be to ask a lot of questions to get a clear understanding of the situation.

"Asking questions is like painting a picture; you are more sensitive to the environment, more receptive to seeing new things."

Asking questions is like painting a picture; you are more sensitive to the environment, more receptive to seeing new things. Sometimes it is good to stand back and ask yourself the question: 'does knowing all these things, those bits and pieces make me really happy?'

Most things that we know have a rather negative connotation. Recently I watched an interesting video clip about ‘the value of not knowing', where the presenter quite strongly took a stand for 'not knowing' (making life more valuable). Not knowing when you do know is virtual impossible. It is of course impossible to just 'switch off' your brain, at least I haven´t found the switch yet.

The lesson learned from this 'not knowing' is the following: whenever you deal with a new situation, take a moment of reflection and ask yourself, again and again, which assumptions have I made, were these conclusions right? From which perspective or angle did I review the situation? What other perspectives might there be? Which presuppositions were leading my behaviour? Which interpretation or meaning did I already give to the presented data? To what extent is the presented information and data the conclusion from someone else?

I think that even without profound technical knowledge, situations can be assessed and reviewed and problems can be solved. It is a matter of making the right communication and making your thinking visible by documenting it. Ask open questions in a structured way and document those answers in a standard manner. By doing this, a clear picture arises of the situation at hand, nonsense information will be discarded and the important information will have been filtered and will be documented.

This way of working enables the solving of problems far better than numerous trial-and-error attempts. The cooperation of individuals and teams will benefit from a systematic and structured approach as well. Existing knowledge in our heads should not stand in the way for gathering new knowledge. Open up, think out of the box. Complexity will become something you should not be afraid of. It will become even more interesting and challenging!

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