ORONO — Philosopher Eric Hoffer once observed that “in times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to inherit a world that no longer exists.” We are in the midst of extraordinary change, and knowledge is key to success in learning on both a personal and professional level. As trade wars heat up and intellectual property becomes even more valuable, knowledge and its management become an increasingly crucial organizational skill, and one on which future organizational survival (including that of governmental entities) depends.

In our recent book, “Knowledge Transfer and Innovation,” we address the challenges facing organizations in recognizing, disseminating and using knowledge. We draw on the experiences of the military, which are highly applicable to knowledge transfer under conditions of intense pressure and time constraints.

In the situations faced by the military in combat, the ability to recognize and disseminate knowledge quickly and accurately is crucial. The recent Supreme Court confirmation process of Brett Kavanaugh is an excellent example, we believe, of knowledge not being shared and disseminated quickly enough to affect results (e.g., Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s delay in sharing the allegations made against Kavanaugh in a letter from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford). The inability of organizations to share knowledge on a timely basis hinders success going forward – and this is true in our personal lives as well.

Even more pernicious is what we term “knowledge corruption,” which can take many forms. The simplest form is inadequate communications such that the knowledge being shared is not understood by the recipients. But knowledge can also be corrupted by inadvertent omission – for example, your neighbor accidentally leaves out a critical step or ingredient in a recipe. When you make the dish, it is not what was intended.

Knowledge can also be corrupted by deliberate omission, where the individual sharing the knowledge chooses to leave out critical information, facts or context that would shape the receiver’s understanding of the material received. In the military, this does sometimes occur in after-action reports. Information is deliberately omitted as it might embarrass the specific military unit or the military as a whole. The Gulf of Tonkin incident during the Vietnam War is just such an example. There were actually two such incidents reported, and there is credible information that one and possibly both reports were false. Based on this erroneous knowledge, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which granted President Lyndon B. Johnson legal justification for deploying U.S. troops to Vietnam and commencing open warfare.

The final form of corruption often found in academe and pharmaceutical research (among other areas) is called “knowledge hoarding.” In this instance, knowledge is held close and not shared with others. Pharmaceutical researchers tend to hold very close the results of new drug developments and applications that are not shared for competitive reasons. Academicians tend to hold data they gather very close and rarely release the raw data to others.

The hoarding of knowledge can also occur at the individual level. It is not uncommon for people to hoard knowledge about their customers or efficient ways to do things to keep others from achieving success or receiving praise.

As we begin a new year, we would like to thank veterans and those currently serving for the immense knowledge, wisdom and contributions they have made and continue to make to business and society and to our research. Knowledge truly is power, and those who can recognize new knowledge, transfer it to other organizational entities quickly and accurately will prosper in the developing new world order.


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