When designing information and knowledge management systems, many believe that the main focus should be on information technology (IT). While IT undoubtedly plays a significant supporting role in such systems, it is people that are often the primary nodes through which information is disseminated within an organisation. We ask one another questions, discuss issues in meetings, share documents and carry out many other activities that distribute information. Unfortunately, being the complex creatures that we are, our search for missing pieces of information and knowledge can be swayed by factors beyond the purely rational.
In 2005 a study was carried out by Dr Maureen L. Mackenzie on twenty-two managers in a large company (among the largest publicly-traded companies in the insurance industry). The primary research question for this study was: What influences a manager to seek and select an information source? Eighteen of the managers were male and four were female. The group had an average service with the company of fifteen years (sd=4.94) with a minimum of five years and a maximum of twenty-five years of service.
The surprising result was that for managers the most important factor in selecting an individual as an information source was not knowledge itself (18%), but rather personal relationships (40%). While senior managers held relationships in the highest regard, lower level managers stressed relationships somewhat less. Front line sales managers were the only group to rate knowledge above relationships.
Managers prefer to seek out individuals they know, like, or trust more often than individuals who are the foremost subject experts.
In all, there were five reasons why certain individuals were selected as information sources:
Relationship: an individual is selected as an information source because of the relationship he or she has with the manager as well as with others in the organization. Confidentiality is a valued attribute of a good relationship.
Knowledge: an individual is selected as a source because of the knowledge they possess. The information received from this individual can be trusted to be accurate.
Communication behaviour: an individual is selected because his or her behaviour reflects a willingness to share information. The individual may be helpful, respond promptly as well as appear to be approachable, easy to talk to and willing to listen.
Communication style: an individual is selected because his or her communication style is candid and practical. He or she may be able to make complex issues easy to understand and then able concisely to articulate good advice. This individual may respond as the voice of reason in difficult situations.
Cognitive ability: an individual is selected because of his or her cognitive ability. The individual has a well-developed intuition and displays strong insight. Also, the individual may be viewed as intelligent with a cognitive approach to problems that is global in nature.
In a look at how gender might still further influence individual selection, the research found that when comparing female to male managers, relationships once again emerged as the primary reason, but that the secondary influence for men was knowledge, while the secondary influence for women was communication behaviour.
The economic or rational assumption that a manager will seek out a colleague as an information source because he or she values the individual's level of knowledge is not always the correct assumption. The results support that relationship, more than knowledge, is the reason an individual is sought as an information source. A plausible explanation for such an insight is that seeking information under pressure is an uncomfortable behaviour for managers; they prefer to be the source, solution, and providers of information. Also, because of perceptions defining their role, managers are expected to have answers on demand. Therefore, when a manager must reach out, a trusting relationship is preferred despite the apparent opportunity cost.
While different company cultures, information architecture and other factors might certainly shape outcomes, the study highlights the importance of recognising and adapting to how these human factors are affecting information and knowledge awareness within organisations:
Insights can help corporate leadership and information architects to develop training, orientation and enculturation processes that will maximize manager effectiveness rather than developing systems that may not align with manager tendencies. The results of this study offer organizational leaders a perspective of how closely integrated the flow of information is with the relationships among interacting managers.
What is further interesting here is that in looking at our early development we also find that children are more apt to believe a nice, non-expert than a mean expert. Perhaps then, our behaviour as adults is simply a mature manifestation of this desire to hold relationships in higher regard than knowledge itself.
We need to find the conditions under which children and adults are susceptible to accepting inaccurate information as true.
Of course, our preference for choosing other factors over pure expertise, might also explain how misinformation can more easily spread within social networks. As such, making managers and others aware of such biases might also lead to more accurate information being distributed.
Given that so much of an organisation's information gathering and sharing occurs between individuals, building successful information and knowledge management systems requires adapting to the realities of social psychology alongside IT. Whether there are enough information architects capable of recognising, understanding and addressing both issues remains to be seen.
For more on the above referenced study, please see:
McKenzie, M.L. (2005). "Managers look to the social network to seek information " Information Research, 10(2) paper 216 [Available at http://InformationR.net/ir/10-2/paper216.html]
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial 1.0 Generic License.