How do you know?

I was reminded the other day, at a symposium our agency put on for HR staff across government, how important what I like to call “the epistemological challenge” can be. What do I mean by “the epistemological challenge”? Essentially, all the obstacles that exist to knowing, in a deep sense, what one wishes to know. Those obstacles could be with respect to the recency of some type of information, the comprehensiveness, integratedness, or scope of that information, the validity or reliability of that information, the clarity, parsimoniousness, or explicability of that information, or any of a host of other aspects. We can get so accustomed to the data-systems in place within our respective organizations, that we can neglect to stop and ask ourselves “Do I really know about X, or am I just fumbling around?”.

These are often obstacles to monitoring something. In our case, it happens to be monitoring staffing, and knowing that either: a) everything is copasetic, b) interventions one put in place to improve what was NOT copasetic are having the intended effect, or c) both. In some respects, I suppose one can equate a lot of this with simple performance monitoring and performance management, but I think it’s more than that. And in this era of what I cynically like to refer to as “accountabilism” – the cult of running around frantically measuring everything, under the mistaken belief that tagging everything with numbers = “accountability” – we can lose sight that it is more than simple performance monitoring/management. The information we need to have knowledge of something should also allow us to think productively about it, not merely have something to report to superiors.

I was also reminded that organizations can vary substantially in size, with the result that they can also vary in the analytic capacity they might have to tackle that epistemological challenge. Some organizations may be blessed with teams of analysts who have the skill, the knowledge, the time, the authority, AND the data systems, to stay on top of something, and have a firm grasp of its status; they’re in an enviable position to have clear, current, and useful knowledge about X. Others may have a capable team, but not the time or the data sources, or perhaps the sense of direction from on top about what it is that needs to be known. At the other end of the spectrum, some smaller, and micro-agencies, may have the data systems in place, and simply lack the analytic capacity, needing to outsource to consulting firms that may lack the familiarity and insight into the data sources, and what they do or do not mean.

Of course, it could be that being smaller is the blessing, and being larger is the curse, for some areas. For example, “talent management” is a hot buzz-phrase. How does your organization know who is capable at what? Each regional/district office might have some sense of what capabilities are situated with who, but does your overall agency know what is available to them across the entire agency? Do they have their finger on “feeder groups” for succession planning? If they have some database, is it up to date? Is it meaningful or something you can work with? Is it truthful? Does it tell you what you need to know? A micro-agency that exists essentially on one floor of one office building is much better-positioned to know what their talent situation is, and what’s missing. The relationship between organizational size and its mandate and geographical size/distribution will sometimes determine how easy it is to know X vs Y.

So, how do YOU “know”? What aspects are critical for you to know whatever it is that your job/role requires you to know? What sorts of general aspects interfere with you knowing what you need to know? Is it data systems? Is it knowledge-hoarding and/or silos? Is it the quality (or its lack) of the information sources you have available?

What allows or allowed you to take on the epistemological challenges in your role or organization, and overcome them?

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