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Counter-Knowledge and Why it is Such a Big Problem
Counter-knowledge is a bigger problem than organisations realise. Most organisations’ operational success and effectiveness relies on their knowledge base, knowledge management practices and innovation pipelines. However, one of the issues organisations face is how to deal with misinformation, errors, counterfactuals (known as counter-knowledge), misconceptions, exaggerations, fake news and information that is just wrong. Even supposedly reliable sources of information can produce incorrect and counter-knowledge information.
Counter-knowledge can also include information that was previously correct but has been superseded or updated, but which still remains in circulation.
Many knowledge sources
Organisations are continually receiving information and knowledge from many sources on a daily basis. Some of this knowledge will enter into the knowledge management structures of the organisation. Understanding the authenticity, quality, relevancy and currency of the knowledge being used across an organisation is an important aspect of knowledge management
The potential for counter-knowledge in an organisation
The potential for counter-knowledge to enter an organisation’s knowledge network or to be created within an organisation is high. Common examples include the various scientific, operational and industry myths and fallacies that commonly circulate within organisations.
What impact does counter-knowledge have on organisations and organisational performance?
Previous studies have identified that counter-knowledge in customer facing applications and communications can have a severely negative impact on customer relationships, trust and sales. Additionally, incorrect information can be dangerous, particularly in medical and critical applications such as the airline industry, for example.
The term counter-knowledge was initially used to describe conspiracy theories, however, in the last 20 years it has been used in an organisational context to incorporate obsolete knowledge, as well as misinformation, exaggerations, hoaxes and gossip.
A new study
A study by a team of researchers from universities in Spain has looked at the impact of counter-knowledge on knowledge management systems and organisational performance.
One of the main challenges that underpins the knowledge management systems and structures of any organisation is how to collect, share and use the correct knowledge at the right time in order to further the aims and objectives of the organisation.
The researchers were particularly interested in discovering that knowledge was being shared between workers that comprised:
- unreliable claims
- false assumptions
The study looked at the impact of counter-knowledge across 151 branches of banks within the Spanish financial industry.
… counter-knowledge tends to increase in situations where there is a heightened level of uncertainty and anxiety.
The researchers found that, when counter-knowledge enters the organisation’s formal and informal knowledge management processes and structures, it can have a significantly negative impact on a range of processes including:
- The absorptive capacity or learning capability of individuals, teams and the organisation as a whole.
- The application of knowledge both within people’s jobs and how they analyse situations.
The researchers also found that there is a marked distinction between:
- Spreading or sharing unverified information.
- Taking that information seriously.
This is important, because these are both points at which misinformation and counter-knowledge can be detected and challenged.
Interestingly, the study found that, in terms of banking at least, counter-knowledge does not have a significant impact on organisational financial performance.
The study also found that counter-knowledge tends to increase in situations where there is a heightened level of uncertainty and anxiety.
This is an important and unusual piece of research, as there are only a handful of studies looking at the effect of counter-knowledge on organisational systems such as knowledge management systems and structures. Whilst this study found that there was no significant impact on organisational performance, there are issues with the way they measured and identified performance. Clearly, misinformation in critical systems could have a potentially devastating impact.
This means that organisational knowledge management systems should be grading their information based on the level of verification of the knowledge. Developing a culture of challenging unsupported and verified information would be a useful step for any organisation.
Martelo-Landroguez, S., Cegarra Navarro, J. G., & Cepeda-Carrión, G. (2019). Uncontrolled counter-knowledge: its effects on knowledge management corridors. Knowledge Management Research & Practice, 17(2), 203-212.
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