The illusion of knowledge is the tendency to think we know more about something than we really do. Today, with almost limitless information at our fingertips, this is more relevant than ever before.
The illusion of knowledge is prominent in business today. The higher that individuals rank within the company, the more susceptible they are. A great way to test this when speaking to a so-called expert in a particular field is to make up a term pertaining to the “expert’s” field of knowledge. More than likely, the expert will try to explain the term, all the while making a fool of themselves.
What’s even worse is that many of those who suffer from the illusion of knowledge can’t even properly explain the things that are real and relevant to their position. For example, I had a boss who was a maintenance director for the organization I was working for. At the time, I was a maintenance manager. This director wanted our planners to be at every failure that occurred on the floor and document what had happened. I had just started with the company, which was close to 100% reactive. The maintenance team had five planners, but the director couldn’t seem to put his finger on why they weren’t effective. They were running around to get parts for breakdowns, answering questions about equipment, etc., and now they needed to be at every breakdown to document the failure? These five planners also spent a day every week trying to put together a presentation for the team’s weekly meeting, which seemed to last about 4 hours.
I asked the maintenance director what the function of a planner is and he told me exactly what the planners were currently doing. At this point I understood that the organization was where it was because of individuals like him. These people who are susceptible to the illusion of knowledge often are leading our organizations in some form or another. They tend to be closed-minded, not interested in doing anything unless it is their idea, and willing to sabotage any effort made that contradicts what they believe to be true. These individuals typically have a good amount of political savvy, however, which is what gets them hired or promoted into their positions. The problem is that an organization will never reach its full potential with these types of individuals leading them. My concern is that many organizations seem to be headed down this path.
When it comes to understanding reliability as a holistic function, the situation is worse yet. Top management believes that responsibility for reliability can be delegated. But reliability cannot be delegated, just as ethics cannot be delegated. It has to be ingrained in the culture, and it starts with the CEO. Many top executives are content with maintaining an illusion of knowledge. The Peter Principle – that in an organizational hierarchy, employees will get promoted to their level of incompetence – is in full effect.
How do you overcome the illusion of knowledge? Here are a few pointers. First, put what you think you know into action. Implement what you know to develop a successful system. Was it successful? What did you learn? What could you do better? The “knowledge” you have put into action creates experience, good or bad. What is your experience with successful implementations? Many people I’ve talked to who think they understand various aspects of maintenance and reliability truly do not have an understanding of them at all. When I ask for their sources as to why they believe something, they cannot name any, or they will throw out a popular book on the subject. When I press a bit on the answer, I end up meeting a wall of resistance and defensiveness. That is when ego takes over, and you lose that argument every time. The problem in today’s world of technological advancement is that there is a belief that losses can be engineered out or IT’d out through new equipment, new software, sensors for live analytics, etc. But most losses in most organizations are people-related issues. So to get around not having to put in the work of training, mentoring, and coaching employees and to avoid confrontation and accountability, we take the project approach.
The second way to overcome the illusion of knowledge is to do some self-reflection and to educate oneself through training, reading, and executing on your newfound knowledge. When done right, this creates experiences that can never be taken from you and will allow you to grow beyond anything you have ever imagined.
Third, educate in all directions within the company. Bring awareness to everyone through your new learnings.
Lastly, truly learn the business side of what you do. Why is your organization in business? What are the business priorities? What are the gaps that the organization has? Where are the business’s true losses? How can you provide true value back to the business? Do your goals and objectives align with that answer; are you focused on the right things? These questions can inform your overall strategy to provide the value back to the organization from the monies (budgets and salaries) they invest in you year after year.
Put in the work. Show your true value and bring others with you on your journey.