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Telling truth to power and its importance in business intelligence

"If we cannot realize the value of business intelligence because it cannot be transmitted upward to the leadership who must act on it, then we are in the worst of all possible worlds. It is critical for BI practitioners to learn how to tell truth to power."

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

What if we managed to obtain all this great business intelligence giving our side clear knowledge superiority, but the results suggested that our current strategy was not working? What if when we brought this information to the leadership they either dismissed it, or worse still, told us to go back and redo the analysis because it must be wrong? What if when we went back and reviewed all of our work, it was clear that it was sound and we returned to the boss with the same message, that we need to change our course of action? What if we were then dismissed from our job and assigned to do something else?

What I’ve described sounds like a clear case of shooting the messenger. Because that happens frequently enough, it makes many people shy away from being the bearers of bad news. Yet, situations of this type are such an important aspect of daily life in any workplace.

In the intelligence community, the provision of information to management that they don't want to hear is generally referred to as “telling truth to power,” and it is lately the subject of much thought after having been the cause of substantial grief over the years. Now, Nancy Dixon, a highly respected knowledge management expert, is attempting to tackle the problem with some research and training.

Dr. Dixon provided much food for thought on the topic when she spoke at the 8th E-Gov Knowledge Management Conference in Washington, DC, April 3-5. As the first keynote speaker of the conference she held the audience’s attention and had their heads nodding in the right direction while doing some practice exercises.

It is not always the fear of being shot for bringing the “wrong” news that causes the problem. It is often the conflict between clashing values. Our desire to tell the truth may be blunted by our inner mandate to be polite or our need to be seen as a team player.

Nancy Dixon has ample experience dealing with these difficult and weighty topics in knowledge management. After doing great work on the British Petroleum experience of transferring knowledge between teams on their offshore oil rigs to the tune of about $1 billion in savings, she wrote the book, Common Knowledge: How Companies Thrive by Sharing What They Know. Later, she delved into the fascinating experience of communities of practice in the military and wrote CompanyCommand: Unleashing the Power of the Army Profession. Now she’s assisting the intelligence community with this difficult issue. 

She recognizes that the knowledge management discipline has made substantial progress over the last few years in addressing lateral knowledge sharing across the organization and improving the downward flow of knowledge, or knowledge dissemination, in the organization. However, it is the upward transmission of knowledge – telling truth to power – that still lags substantially. And it does so often at great risk to the enterprise.

The solution starts, she says, by understanding the fact that very often, significant harm occurs because of the leadership not being told the undistorted truth, given the full set of facts. She cites passages from Watergate and the Columbia shuttle disaster as examples where middle managers often refrained from telling truth to power and inadvertently doomed their organizations to resulting dire consequences.

Dr. Dixon believes that there are ways to learn how to tell truth to power.
She is currently working with groups in their own settings and following four basic steps: 1) Building awareness of the patterns that prevent knowledge from
moving upward, 2) Unlearning those patterns, 3) Learning new patterns and language that both maintain values that are important to people and provide accurate knowledge upward, and 4) Practicing the new patterns until they become automatic.

From the point of view of the business intelligence practitioner, especially in the public sector, this work is extremely important. As we have often noted, not doing it right may have significant consequences for very many people and there is ample proof throughout history of this fact. Watergate and the Columbia shuttle are two examples, but we can go back and review the “O-ring” chapter of the Challenger shuttle or the more recent episode with weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Business intelligence is about analyzing data and extracting meaning that will be of value to the enterprise. If we cannot realize the value of the work because it cannot be transmitted upwards to the leadership who must act on it, then we are in the worst of all possible worlds. It is critical for business intelligence practitioners to learn how to tell truth to power.

Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

Dr. Barquin is a member of the E-Gov (Electronic Government) Advisory Board, and chair of its knowledge management conference series; member of the Digital Government Institute Advisory Board; and has been the Program Chair for E-Government and Knowledge Management programs at the Brookings Institution. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. Dr. Barquin can be reached at

Editor's note: More government articles, resources, news and events are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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