Physics envy & visiting your doctor

July 31, 2007

These days if I am traveling to Washington I tend to either route via Chicago or fly to New York and then get the train down to The Nation’s Capital. Since the Airtrain opened at JFK, with its connection via the Long Island Railway to Penn Street this routing has become very attractive. The journey time is comparable with a flight and far more comfortable than one of those small commuter planes that are so common on the East Coast. Generally it’s cheaper than flying, especially if you take the regional train option which adds about 25 minutes to the Acela at half the cost.

My task on this journey was to complete a much overdue article on Naturalising Knowledge Management. It’s going to take me until the weekend to complete it as I fell asleep on the flight but I am pleased with it so far. In the course of writing the introduction I wanted to set the scene for a savage and unprincipled attack on reasoned academic criticism of case based definitions of best practice. I remembered two great HBR articles that make the point well and decided to share them here by providing a quotation from the draft paper. The full references are at the end.

Paper Extract

It should be emphasised that this paper is not an attempt to draw a series of conclusions from interviews and case studies. Indeed it will argue the severe limitations of such approaches in general, but in knowledge management in particular. The confusion of correlation with causation represents a real issue for management science; indeed the whole issue of causation in social systems is problematic. Bennis & O’Tool(2005) attribute motivation by a not so subtle reference to physics envy which, while targeted at Business Schools, could equally well be applied to much of the social science. They accuse academics of writing increasingly obscure papers for increasing specialised audiences in order to achieve a pseudo comparison with colleagues in the the hard sciences. The extension of this pseudo-objectivity into the consultancy profession is endemic in the practice of knowledge management. The issue is well summarised in a delightful metaphor from Christensen & Raynor (2003) as follows:

Imagine going to your Doctor because you’re not feeling well. Before you’ve had a chance to describe your symptoms, the doctor writes out a prescription and says “take two of these three times and day, and call me in a week.”

“But – I haven’t told you what’s wrong,” you say. “How do I know this will help me?”

“Why wouldn’t it” says the doctor. “It worked for last two patients”

No competent doctors would ever practice medicine like this, nor would any sane patient accept it if they did. Yet professors and consultants routinely prescribe such generic advice, and managers routinely accept such therapy, in the naïve belief that if a particular course of action helped other companies to succeed, it ought to help theirs, too.

The metaphor represents a fundamental challenge to a case based, prescriptive approach using the benefits of hindsight (or retrospective coherence to use the appropriate CAS term). In particular it challenges one of the most common assumptions in knowledge management, namely that one of its purposes is to discover and disseminate best practice. One of the arguments in this paper is that avoidance of failure has had higher evolutionary value than imitation of success, and in consequence the human race is more inclined to learn from and distribute worst practice. Narrative forms of knowledge in all human traditions have developed story forms, in particular the use of archetypes, to distribute failure without attribution of blame. One of the best illustrations of this is the Sufi’s wise fool, the Mullah Nasrudin. (Shah 1985). Faced with personal failure, the approach is not to confess sin, but instead to create a Nasrudin story that will naturally spread the learning without traceability to source. One of the basic features of the naturalising approach to knowledge management is build on such natural human practices, rather than the more traditional content based approach to abstracting narrative into formal documents.”


Bennis, W G & O’Tool, J (2005) “How Business Schools Lost Their Way” Harvard Business Review May 2005

Christensen, C & Raynor, M (2003) “Why Hard-Nosed Executives Should Care About Management Theory.” Harvard Business Review September 2003

Shah, Idries The exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin & The subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudindouble volume Octagon Press, London 1985

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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