Knowledge : Thinking about Knowledge Management and Decision Making

Oebele Bruinsma is a Partner in Synmind, a decision making approach and technology.  See

"In other words, how to deal with uncertainties"

Starting point: A basic finding of cognitive psychology is that people have no conscious experience of most of what happens in the human mind. Consequently what appears spontaneously in consciousness could be the result of thinking, but certainly not the process of thinking.

Most decisions made by individual human beings are made not by thinking but through intuïtion. Because of the thinking kicking in after a few milliseconds following the decision, our consciousness experiences thinking.

So far so good, because we like to think that we made the right decision.

Based on the way we are built or even better, wired, we have to accept our limits in mental capacity; the mind cannot cope directly with the complexity of the world ( Herbert Simon, Models of Man, 1957 ). We thus construct mental models within which we behave as rationally as possible. The drawback is that such models may not be well adapted to the requirements of the real world.

Fortunately, beyond this bounded rationality the human mind has the capacity to use emotion, in other words intuïtion or the power to “see, feel ahead or around the corner”. See for instance the popular book “Blink” in combination with another recent book  James Surowiecki’sThe Wisdom of Crowds.

This twin mental machine, of bounded rationality and intuition, is fully addressed through Synmind technology. It is approaching knowledge generation through the use of intuitive and rational pathways in equivalent and competitive ways. This appears to be important due to the fact that a mental filtering mechanism is activated.

The aim of this short note is to familiarize readers with  a) Synmind technology; b) the dynamics of the human mind in relation to decision making and c) self-awareness vis-a-vis uncertainties.

Ad a) The Synmind technology

is based on a goal-oriented and parallel decision making processes. Once a goal ( e.g. to solve a problem, to answer a question ) has been defined, the next step is to  address  the various aspects of the goal and set criteria for handling each of these aspects. This allows for rather precise and transparent argumentation. Given a number of contributors, diverging opinions are to be expected. These diverging opinions with argumentation are set in competition with each other. With the classical approach, such a divergence is often solved in a hierarchical like manner. This process is controlled by a leader, who may be right or wrong, with failure rubbing off to the supporting group or organisation.

In a Synmind setting diverging opinions or arguments are being invited and set in a “competitive arena”, gaining or loosing acceptance with peers by voting. This process is managed by argumentation. In short the quality of argumentation is setting the foundation of a future decision.

The initial discussion is based on intuitive reactions to the presented problem. The reason is that an intuitive reaction ( whether right or wrong ) encompasses the problem or goal as a whole.  Furthermore the tendency of people to perceive what they expect to perceive is more important than any tendency to perceive what they want to perceive. In fact, there may be no real tendency toward wishful thinking. The commonly cited evidence supporting the claim that people tend to perceive what they want to perceive can generally be explained equally well by the expectancy thesis ( Herbert Simon, 1957 ).

Anyway to solve this problem, Synmind starts with an intuïtive first reaction.

Subsequent discussions are based on the (moderated) reactions based on peer voting;  the first result often forms a basis for the formulation of the required aspects. Aspects are technical derivatives of the goal and therefore need technical knowledge and/or experience input; in other words rationality steps in. The experts or knowledgeable people must do “battle”, in order to have their arguments surviving.

The Synmind-imposed constraints (short communications, argumented opinions, results of calculations (but no reports), limited time and peer ratings) will stratify the discussions to such an extent that workable results appear. Workable results imply that the moderator is able to present a pattern of arguments pointing to (a) solution(s). This allows the “problem-owner” to make a considered decision. 

The pattern of rated arguments, its distribution, and the differences between key arguments, generates valuable information for the client. (see the section b).
We distinguish three “strata” of the brain: Intuïtion or hereditary knowledge, acquired or rational knowledge, and marketable knowledge. These three “strata” are in effect used independently from each other; a situation, difficult to achieve in live meetings.

Ad b) The dynamics of the human mind in relation to decision making

Most psychological research on perception, memory, attention span, reasoning capacity and intelligence, documents the limitations in our mental machinery. Much less attention is paid to the condition the mental machinery is in, when performing the above tasks.
The mind uses many diverse sources, including past experience, professional training, and cultural and organizational norms. All these influences predispose individuals to pay particular attention to certain kinds of information and to organize and interpret this information in specific ways. Perception is also influenced by the context in which it occurs. Different circumstances evoke different sets of expectations. People are more attuned to hearing footsteps behind them when walking in an alley at night than along a city street in daytime, and the meaning attributed to the sound of the footsteps will vary under these differing circumstances. ( Richards J. Heuer Jr, Studies in Intelligence, Vol 31, No 3, 1987; and in numerous novels )

In Synmind terms the mindset or mental modes are most likely influenced by the individual’s internal state of perception, designated as comfort; his/her external state of perception , designated as status; and his/her level of uncertainty.

In short, the combination of all these factors and variables leads to a variable output of the mind, given a fixed input. Group dynamics often restrict the mind set of group members. Therefore  e.g. innovation is very difficult when dealing with a group of people!

Mind-sets tend to be quick to form but resistant to change.

A corollary of this principle is that it takes more information, and especially more unambiguous information, to recognize an unexpected phenomenon than an expected one.

Initial exposure to blurred or ambiguous stimuli interferes with accurate perception even when in a later stage more and better information has become available.

The problems outlined here have implications for managers or leaders as well as for their conduct in the process of decision support or decision making. Given the difficulties inherent in the human processing of complex information, a prudent management system should:

  • Encourage discussions that clearly delineate assumptions and chains of inference and that specify the degree and source of uncertainty involved in the conclusions.
  • Support analyses that periodically re-examine key problems from the ground up in order to avoid the pitfalls of the incremental approach.
  • Emphasize procedures that expose and elaborate alternative points of view.
  • Set standards against which the analytical performance can be evaluated.
  • Enable argument priority setting and voting.
  • Ensure the generation of independent and diverse opinions

Ad c) Self-awareness vis-à-vis uncertainty

Imagine memory as a massive, multidimensional spider web. This image captures what is, for the purposes of this note, perhaps the most important property of memory-stored information -- its interconnectedness. One thought leads to another. It is possible to start at any one point in memory and follow a perhaps labyrinthic path to reach any other point. Information is retrieved by tracing through the network of interconnections to the place where it is stored.

One useful concept of memory organization is what some cognitive psychologists call a "scheme." A scheme is any pattern of relationships between data stored in memory. It is any set of nodes and links between them in the spider web of memory, interconnected so strongly that it can be retrieved and used more or less as a single unit. This may resemble intuïtive thinking.

Concepts and schemata stored in memory exercise a powerful influence on the formation of perceptions from sensory data. In other words, if information does not fit into what people already know, or think they know, they have great difficulty processing it. The moderator has to be skilled in recognising new schemata, often requiring critisizing existing ones. The difficulty here is that schemata in long-term memory, which are so essential to effective analysis, are also the principle source of inertia in recognizing and adapting to a changing environment.

In conclusion “Keeping an Open Mind” and the tools for dealing with this problem, are important. ( George Johnson: In the Palaces of Memory: Vintage Books, 1992 ).

© Copyright 2007 - Oebele Bruinsma

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