The Perils of Trusting Too Much

Suppose that within your own company you hear about a great process improvement or a breakthrough in customer service. You will undoubtedly want to know how to achieve the same thing in your area. But how do you go about understanding what happened so that you can enjoy similar results? This question is at the core of organizational learning — how organizations create, retain and transfer knowledge to amplify the results.

It is likely that you will try to find a key player who has been involved in the project — preferably someone you know and trust — and you will listen carefully to understand what made the complex initiative work. Or perhaps you will hear this talented corporate citizen tell the tale at the annual President's Awards Dinner. In either case, you would be relying heavily on the most dependable source you can find, using personal connections or others' endorsements to get the story.

Who could argue with this approach? Intuitively, it seems obvious to go to the most trusted person. But a trio of researchers, comprised of assistant professor Gabriel Szulanski and doctoral candidate Robert Jensen of the Wharton School and doctoral candidate Rossella Cappetta of Bocconi University in Milan, relates in their white paper “When Credible Sources Share Complex Information” (http://jonescenter.wharton.upenn.edu/papers/2000.htm) that such an approach is fraught with peril. Contrary to our instincts, accepting the word of people whom we believe to be trustworthy can greatly hinder understanding of a complex situation to the extent that truly learning something of value from it becomes difficult. The account we hear might even compel us to take the wrong path.

The authors based their theory on primary and secondary evidence gathered from Intel, McDonald's Corp., Rank Xerox, Banc One Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores. The theory was then tested in a two-year study of 122 transfers of organizational practices within eight firms, including Rank Xerox, Castrol, Kaiser Permanente, AMP, AT&T, Chevron Corp., EDS and BP Amoco. Their conclusion: A credible source can be relied upon to tell you everything you need to know to replicate a success only in quite simple, easily understood situations — for example, how to flip a hamburger. When situations become more expansive and complicated, as they are in most high-impact endeavors in corporations, trusting a single source — regardless of how capable and well intentioned — will almost always result in misunderstanding and failure.

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