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Pluralistic Ignorance

May 13, 2013 Leave a comment

How often have you heard something – and not questioned it, as you don’t want to appear stupid, foolish or ignorant?

Too often people accept what they are told and don’t question information. In educational environments this leads to a failure to learn. In business environments, it leads to bad decisions and bad strategy. Received wisdom becomes the operating principle rather than reality – especially when things have changed or are changing.

The reason people don’t question is that they don’t want to look foolish in front of peers, bosses or employees. Rather than highlight something that doesn’t make sense, they prefer to keep quiet so as not to appear stupid. The term for this is “pluralistic ignorance“. It is especially a problem in cultures where “losing face” is an issue. (I wrote about this almost two years ago -see  Competitive Intelligence & Culture). In such cultures, employees find it difficult to question superiors – there is almost a belief that superiors are in their position as they know more and are better.

Pluralistic Ignorance” is a phenomenon that prevents people questioning, when they fail to understand something or when they disagree with an issue, because they feel that they are the only ones not understanding or agreeing. It leads to “group-think” whereby a group of people fail to face up to their lack of knowledge or address false/inaccurate information because they don’t wish to appear foolish by questioning it.

In business it is important to emphasise communication and openness at all levels – and encourage questioning. This is especially key for effective competitive intelligence, but can be just as much a problem in CI as in other corporate areas if CI people aren’t looking out for it. For example, in CI there is the risk that a key piece of intelligence is missed because the person (perhaps a sales rep) doesn’t pass it on. They are sure that the CI team will already know this / that senior management is sure to know this – and so they don’t want to look stupid by passing it on.

The solution appears easy – build a corporate culture that rewards those who share information, even if it is already known. The difficulty is that such openness often contradicts other aspects of the corporation including hierarchical aspects – where one needs to address chains of command to pass on information. This leads to problems where the person at the bottom passes on information to their superior. This person then qualifies the information (exaggerating good news and softening bad news) when they pass it up – and by the time it reaches the actual decision-maker the information has been so transformed as to become meaningless and often false.

An example of how pluralistic ignorance works can be seen in this video of a college lecture. This brief (5 minute) video is the first in a course on behavioural economics. The lecturer, Dan Ariely of Duke University Business School (and TED speaker), is aware of the problem and halfway through this lecture shows how it works.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9wHttUayMo

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Communication

September 17, 2007 Leave a comment
Most CI professionals are familiar with the standard competitive intelligence cycle (although you will often see variations). Typically the steps are given as:
  1. planning & direction i.e. the boss – also known as the end-user 🙂 tells you what is needed and you or they work out how to get it;
  2. collection – you follow your plan;
  3. processing & analysis – you integrate the gathered information with other information to convert the information into something usable i.e. intelligence;
  4. dissemination – you pass back the intelligence to the end-user and hope that they act on it.
Those who know me will know that I disagree with this cycle. There are a number of things wrong with the model – for example:
  • the model lacks feedback steps;
  • it doesn’t integrate with other business processes adequately, such as the strategic/business planning cycles;
  • it doesn’t allow for serendipitous intelligence gathering crucial for effective early warning systems.
There are others, and when I teach CI I always highlight the problems, and also present alternatives. (For example the 4Cs model described in AWARE’s brief guide to competitive intelligence)

My focus in this item however is the use of the word dissemination. The Encarta® World English Dictionary defines disseminate as “to distribute or spread something, especially information…“. Most other dictionaries give similar definitions. The problem with this word is that it implies that information flows one way – from the collector to the end-user. There is no mention of information – feedback – flowing the other way or laterally throughout the organisation. Effective competitive intelligence needs an information sharing culture where information flows between those who have the intelligence and those who need it – each informing the other. The English word to describe this process is not dissemination, but communication.

The Encarta dictionary has a number of definitions for communication and the verb communicate. Communication is defined as “the exchange of information between individuals, for example, by means of speaking, writing, or using a common system of signs or behavior” while the second definition for communicate is “to transmit or reveal a feeling or thought by speech, writing, or gesture so that it is clearly understood“.

Isn’t this what we aim to do in competitive intelligence: not to disseminate intelligence without any feedback or even knowing if the intelligence is usable, useful or understood but to communicate it so that both parties clearly understand its impact and importance?

The problem is how to communicate intelligence so that it is understood, and used. That, however, will have to be a topic for a future blog entry.

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