Immunising Ourselves Against Knowledge Sharing

Edgar’s post “A Lamentation” of today reminded me of an old story about Mithridates the Great of Pontus, who ruled in Asia Minor just as the Roman empire was aggressively pushing eastwards. They were tough times, and Mithridates, by all accounts was a tough character. He succeeded to the throne at age eleven, but had to flee into hiding, because his mother was attempting to kill him. He returned several years later to do her in, along with several other family members, and scores of other enemies.

Mithridates was an aggressive opponent of the Roman expansion eastwards and resisted them successfully for decades, as well as expanding his hegemony over other neighbouring kingdoms and ruthlessly putting down opposition closer to home. In this dangerous climate, he was obsessively fearful of being poisoned, so the legend goes that he took a small amount of poison every day, increasing the doses over the years to immunise himself against lethal amounts.

Finally, in his old age, he was defeated by the Roman general Pompey, and desperate to avoid capture and humiliation, attempted to commit suicide by taking poison. Alas! his strategy of immunisation had worked only too well, and he suffered no more than severe stomach cramps. He was forced to get a slave to kill him with his sword.

We know why organisations like the one that Edgar described, do what they do. They want to immunise themselves against over-dependence on individual members of staff. That’s how all bureaucratic cultures work: depersonalise the job function, and then you will be able to work very much as though you are a machine with interchangeable parts. Charles Handy calls this a “role culture”.

The problem is, when you suddenly discover that knowledge sharing, trust and informal networks are critical elements to your adaptiveness and ability to survive as an organisation, you will find, like Mithridates, that you have effectively immunised yourself against the very thing you now want to do. As Edgar suggests, it’s really not at all easy to undo decades of immunisation built into the culture. Perhaps, like Mithridates, it takes a more radical solution to resolve the need.

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