If Knowledge is Power, Does it Corrupt?

Posted on November 1, 2012 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion
Knowledge is Power

Does knowledge corrupt?

The phrase “Knowledge is Power” has been around since biblical times, and is no doubt well founded. The phrase “Power Corrupts” is newer, and just as true. But what if we put these two together? Does it follow that “Knowledge Corrupts”?

More specifically: does knowledge, in excess, corrupt personal or organizational effectiveness? I can see a number of mechanisms that may make it so.

Hoarding of knowledge to secure power

One way that knowledge corrupts is when its owners fight to retain the power it represents. This is well known as a concern when you try to implement knowledge sharing systems in an enterprise. Every organization has those experts who are focal points of knowledge, and as long as they’re there they serve the group well; but nobody is there forever, and sharing the knowledge with others – by training successors, or by uploading the knowledge to some KM system – is highly desirable. From the organization’s point of view it makes perfect sense to have these people share their knowledge; but the individuals in question may perceive an opposite interest – the selfish desire to hoard their hard-earned know-how and ration it out in person, thereby securing recognition, reward and indispensability.

Unnecessary knowledge intake

If knowledge is power, it follows that more knowledge is more power. This may mislead some people to try and collect as much “knowledge” as they can by subscribing to every knowledge stream they can find, whether they need it or not. In a work environment inundated with messaging, this can seriously add to their Social Media and Email Overload. I already wrote about one manager who took this to extreme, and can add another case I’d witnessed years ago.

This story involves an engineer who asked his supervisor to copy him on certain messages handed down from above – he wanted to be in the know!… The supervisor accommodated him and set up a rule in his email client to transfer certain messages from the big boss to the subordinate; everyone was now happy. Except that I found that in defining the rule he had misspelled the boss’s name; no messages were getting through at all! The subordinate, not realizing this, was happy nonetheless – clearly he had no need for the added message load. Which means that, if it weren’t for a typo, he’d be overloading himself with unneeded “knowledge”.

Hidden knowledge

You must’ve run into the saying “If Only HP Knew What HP Knows” – you hear it for many different company names. The point is, companies with an imperfect culture and infrastructure for exploring, finding, sharing and applying their accumulated knowledge can get paralyzed by the excess, which makes it harder to find what they “know”. Arguably a company like that would be better off knowing less, but having that knowledge more accessible. Or perhaps this simply means that knowledge is power only if you can access it, and is just so much dead weight if you can’t…

What can you do about this?

The mechanisms noted above are grounded in organizational culture, and therefore difficult to change. If you perceive them in your group I’d suggest addressing them at first priority before trying to add knowledge management systems that facilitate ever more knowledge acquisition. You want to disable the corrupting mechanism, or the new knowledge may corrupt things even more!

So – have you seen any more ways that knowledge can corrupt effectiveness?