A little knowledge…

By Daragh O Brien
July 27, 2015
8min read

We have all heard the saying that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. It turns out that science shows this to be the case.

In a study conducted by Cornell University and Tulane University, researchers found that:

  1. Self-perceived financial knowledge positively predicted claiming knowledge of non-existent financial concepts independedent of of actual knowledge
  2. Self-perceived knowledge in specific domains is associated with over-claiming knowledge in those domains
  3. Even when participants were WARNED that some concepts were fictitious, there was no reduction in the relationship between self-perceived knowledge and overclaiming
  4. Where participants boosted their self-perceived level of knowledge, they asserted familiarity with fictitious things (in that case: ‘experts’ in geography recognised cities that didn’t exist).

Over the years, I’ve seen this phenomenon in organisations when it comes to data management, information quality, and data privacy. I’ve even coined the term “Exp-Hurts” to describe the people in organisations who absolutely, positively, 110% know that the data privacy policies say X and what code ABC123 in field Y of system Z means. Often this is in the face of evidence in the form of documentation or analysis of the data. Often the exp-hurts are respected by their peers and (sometimes) have been promoted to positions of responsiblity based on their expHurtise. In many cases, the ExpHurts derive their self-perceived knowledge, particularly in the context of technical issues or regulatory issues, from the fact that they went on a course on the topic at some point in the past and received some form of certification (usually just a certificate of attendance).

I’ve also coined the phrase “ExpHurt-ease” to describe the convoluted explanations and logic jujitsu that ExpHurts often go through to maintain their self-perceived level of expertise.

The only remedy for ExpHurtEase in an organisation is education.

  1. The organisation needs to educate itself as to its real metadata, business definitions, business rules, and the reality of legal or Regulatory rules.
  2. “In God we trust, everyone else must bring Data”, as W.Edwards Deming said. The organisation must support a culture of challenging ExpHurts with evidence.
  3. Invest in external ExPERTise to balance the ExpHurt-ese: bringing in external experts to challenge thinking, coach leaders, and train staff helps drive out the ExpHurtese and get everyone talking the same language. External advisors can also more easily describe the reality of the Emperor’s wardrobe when it comes to the accuracy of knowledge being relied on by the ExpHurts.
  4. Develop proper education and training plans to create Experts not ExpHurts

Exp-hurts are everywhere. The fact that people appear to know what they are doing can lead organisations to assume that the organisation knows what it is doing and is on the right path. Without experts to challenge their thinking, this can lead to costly errors.

Within my own team we have a simple philosophy of challenging each other’s knowledge and understanding in an evidence-based culture so that we can be sure we are being experts and not expHurts. So it was REALLY nice to find research that supports my hunch about ExpHurtease.

[A related topic: The Princess Bride Effect]

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