Re: How would you describe this knowledge failure? #question #strategy #culture

Ninez Piezas-Jerbi

Hi Stephen,

Just by reading your description below made me think of what we’ve been advocating to my colleagues about getting our act together about innovation, particularly given current demand from our Member States for WTO Reform.  I called the attitude we currently have the «What got us here will get us there » syndrome.  Of course what we really wanted to say was to replace the « WILL » with « WON’T ».

Hope you find the right name you’re looking for!

Best wishes for 2022 to all!
WTO Geneva

On 13 Jan 2022, at 02:51, Stephen Bounds <km@...> wrote:


I am hoping to draw on your hivemind to see if there's a good term out there for a very particular phenomena that I am observing.

Most of us would be familiar with the "sunk cost fallacy", the idea that any decision should ignore past costs (either time or money) when making a future decision. It is common to stick with initiatives long past any rational reason to do so, typically for reasons of commitment bias and loss aversion.

 The phenomenon I am seeking to explain is one rooted in a knowledge failure. It occurs when an organisation implements solutions in response to a problem, but then sustains those solution long past their useful life. I suspect that this is especially common after an extended period of process optimisation that is built on base knowledge which then becomes outdated.

After some reflection, I have reminded myself that the "double loop learning" process proposed by Argyris can be a solution to this problem. But I don't think this helpfully describes the failure. "Failure to engage in double loop learning" is gobbledygook to anyone outside of KM. "Retaining bad assumptions" is too vague for the situation.

The scenario I am particularly thinking of is:

  1. The solution made sense and worked when it was devised
  2. The environment changes, making some prior knowledge invalid and the previous solution ineffective or an outright failure (generally the failure must be partial or subtle, excusable as an "outlier" or "temporary" aberration)
  3. The organisation is biased towards keeping the practice in place despite rising evidence to the contrary since everyone "knows it works"

A high-profile example of this failure was the shift to digital downloads at the turn of the millennium. The music industry lost nearly half its revenue during a consumer-led revolt against the traditional model of album-based, physical CD sales.

The problem is that while in a competitive marketplace such flawed reasoning gets exposed relatively quickly, in a monopolistic situation (particularly in government) there is less pressure to fix these issues. It is generally only after a significant number of patently absurd outcomes get publicised that serious reform is considered -- and until then, lots of unnecessary human suffering can occur.

So: I need a snappy name to describe this knowledge failure. Got any good ideas?


Stephen Bounds
Executive, Information Management
E: stephen.bounds@...
M: 0401 829 096

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