Buddha’s Brain Meditation Research Reports

Buddha’s Brain

Back in March I wrote an article, Amidst the Cacophony, that touched on the power of silent meditation and attending to the “soft, still voices that come from the depths” in an age of sensory overload.

In that article I shared my experiences with the monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia and, many years later, the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For several years I have had a fascination with the concept of neuroplasticity, how the brain changes in response to experience. For most of my childhood and adolescence, it was assumed that our adult brains were immutable (that is unless subjected to external trauma or disease). I remember learning in school that each region of the brain was fixed, with a very specific job to do, that the brain was hard-wired, and that we were born with a set number of brain cells. But researchers, going back roughly to the mid 20th century, began to understand that experience does, indeed, alter brain structure.

Research & Reports

The study of what we now know as activity-dependent plasticity, the impact of thought and personal experience on brain structure, was pioneered, among others, by a neuroscientist at UCSD named Michael Merzenich and popularized by Jeffrey Schwartz, a UCLA-based research psychiatrist and Sharon Begley, now a science writer at the Boston Globe. Schwartz and Begley wrote a book several years ago, The Mind and The Brain, which explored the concept of self–directed neuroplasticity, the ability to use mental force and experience to literally change the structure of your brain. Begley, in fact, wrote a sequel to The Mind and The Brain, entitled, quite appropriately, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.

So what does all of this have to do with monks? Quite a lot, it seems. There is a tendency, especially in the fast-paced business community, to discount such “soft” practices as frivolous or, at best, of limited value and not worthy of significant time and attention. But the science clearly tells us otherwise.

Meditation And The Brain

In 2008, the Dalai Lama, in a speech in Washington, DC, presented the results of research on the relationship between meditation and the brain, conducted on Tibetan Buddhist monks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior. The findings of these studies are compelling. After tens of thousands of hours of meditating, the monks had actually altered the structure and function of their brains. And these results have been replicated by other researchers.

One of the key findings suggests that meditation is associated with a significant decrease in emotionally reactive behaviors that are incompatible with stability of concentration. In other words, a marked decrease in activation of the amygdala allows us to focus on issues without letting emotional reactions get in the way.

Another finding suggests that frequent meditators are able to “better attend moment-to-moment to the stream of stimuli to which they are exposed”. This seems particularly important in an age when we are bombarded with stimuli and distractions from all directions, some of them worthy of attention but much of them just noise.

Reports of these studies coming out of the University of Wisconsin also present other noteworthy benefits of meditation, including a significant increase in activity in the insula and the temporal parietal region of the brain, which are important for detecting and responding to emotions and processing empathy, “especially in perceiving the mental and emotional state of others.” These qualities are critical to the cultivation of Level 5 leadership.

Meditation And The Body

And, of course, there are the well-documented physical benefits, increased oxygen uptake, decreased heart rate, reduced blood pressure.

Meditation And The Mind

The ability to control emotions, particularly in times of stress. To concentrate on the things that really matter when bombarded with noise. To read the mental and emotional state of others and respond empathetically to them. And to live a physically healthier life. These are things that should be at the top of everyone’s agenda, but that often get pushed aside for the sake of seemingly more pressing issues.

As I think back on my weekends in Conyers with Father Francis and the directed, silent retreats in Cambridge, I recognized at that time the powerfully positive impact that they had on me, but I did not really understand why, and I had not developed a full appreciation of the impact of silent contemplation on all aspects of my life, especially my role as a business person.

Our challenge today is to be ever more mindful and intentional about seeking opportunities for reflection, for quiet contemplation, for sense-making in a noisy, information-saturated world. We can’t afford not to.

Mike Cobb


Attention is the Rarest and Purest Form of Generosity


Lyndon Johnson is reputed to have said of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (I have intentionally omitted aspects of LBJ’s famously effusive language): “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent … than outside …” [1]

While I have never been a big fan of LBJ, I have always found this quote both amusing and emblematic of his ability to accomplish his objectives by bringing his seeming adversaries “into the tent” rather than keeping them at arms’ length. And by bringing them into the tent, he endeavored to understand them, to learn from them, in order to find common ground.

Johnson had a reputation as a good listener, someone who “tuned in” to those around him in an effort to get to know them, because he knew that good listeners make good leaders. As a senator from Texas, he had a sign on his wall that read: “You ain’t learnin’ nothing when you’re doin’ all the talkin’.” [2]

My point is not to argue for or against the merits of Johnson’s objectives or the outcomes of his actions. And some would probably choose to label him a shrewd manipulator rather than an attentive leader. I get that. But his message is still clear. It is easy, and far too commonplace, to fall into the trap of waiting for our turn to talk rather than actively listening, and of building walls between ourselves and others rather than allowing them inside our own, protective “tents”. And in so doing, we diminish our own ability to influence and to be effective leaders.

I have for years been a fan of French philosopher Simone Weil, whom Albert Camus once described as “the only great spirit of our times.”[3]

Weil once remarked: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

There is no greater gift we can give to another person, no greater form of generosity, than to pay attention to them. To truly listen to them. And, in so doing, to pay them utmost respect, regardless of our positions or regardless of our agreements or disagreements. But, as Weil so eloquently said, attention is a rare thing. And this coming from a woman who lived and died in the first half of the twentieth century. Imagine what she would have to say about the dearth of attention in this “ADD-rich” world we live in today.

This is a hard-learned lesson, one that I personally struggle with daily, as I suppose do many of us. But imagine the impact if all of us endeavored every day to listen more actively and attentively to those around us and to invite others, even seeming adversaries and strangers, into our “tents”.

Mike Cobb

[1] As quoted in The New York Times, October 31, 1971

[2] Dennis Lee, “Good Leaders are Good Listeners”, Des Moines Register, May 12, 2015

[3]John Hellman, Simone Weil: An Introduction to Her Thought (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1983), pp. 1–23


Larry Jones the Horseman

Larry Jones the Horseman

J. Larry Jones has horse racing in his blood. From an early age he must have known he was destined to be a horseman, and a great one at that. Larry’s a horse trainer. A trainer of champions, in fact. Hard SpunProud SpellEight Belles … and the list goes on.

Larry’s the kind of guy you’d be hard pressed to forget once you met him. Six feet tall. Skinny bowlegs. A rugged face that bespeaks fifty-nine years of hard driving, and a will to succeed at anything he does. You get the picture.

He was described by Peter Boyer in The New Yorker as being “among the elite rank of horsemen whose cellphone numbers are programmed into the iPhones of ESPN producers”. [1] At one time he had over a hundred horses under his purview. He has a reputation for turning long shots into champions.

He tells a story about an experience that perhaps shaped his career more than any other. When he got into the business in 1980, after a career as a commercial farmer, he was determined to be the best trainer around. He started out doing what most new entrants into the industry would do … he carefully watched the other trainers and copied what they did. You could say he benchmarked against them. He would show up early in the morning for workouts, with a pad and pencil and a stopwatch. He would clock the horses diligently, keeping careful records of their performance. He laid out his plan, he set milestones, he measured them, and he managed to them. He measured again. And again. He was, in a very real sense, managing the process of training horses.

But then one day, as he tells the story, an old-timer, a veteran trainer, happened to be with him. Now mind you, Larry was only in his twenties at the time. And there he was that morning, carefully clocking the horses. And the old man was helping him make sense of it all.

In his own words, “I was out there one morning, and I’m watching my clock, and this old-timer was with me. He was helping me, and I was telling him the splits,” Jones recalled. “And he said, ‘Where’d your horse switch leads at, comin’ down the lane?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I was watchin’ my watch.’ He said, ‘Son, let me tell you, if you need that watch to tell you what kinda horse you got, you don’t need the horse. Watch your horse, leave the watch alone, and you’ll learn to see what they’re doing.’ And from then on I just kinda threw it away and watched to see how they finish. And I can get within a tick or two now of what they worked, just by watching, and knowing. I don’t even bring a stopwatch.” [2]

From that point on, Larry stopped using a stopwatch. He watches the horses instead. He knows them by watching them. By experience, observation and intuition.

Seeing, watching and knowing, or, perhaps more appropriately “feeling”. And winning. Part of what’s going on here, I believe, is what Malcolm Gladwell set forth in Blink [3] and what Daniel Wegner called the “adaptive unconscious” [4], mental processes that work rapidly and automatically with relatively little information.

Now lest I be accused of putting too much emphasis on the power of intuition and the adaptive unconscious, let me emphasize that data, information and analysis are hugely important, and probably becoming more so every day. There is a balance. And there is often a tendency to err on one side (“flying by the seat of one’s pants”?) or the other (“not seeing the forest for the trees”?) rather than striking a healthy balance between intuition and analysis. In fact, I would argue that we’re not talking about a duality here but, rather, a complementarity that, when that balance is found, can be very powerful.

But getting back to Larry Jones and lessons we can learn specifically from him, I believe there are several salient takeaways.

First, the process of observing, of “knowing your horses”, of being attentive to them through the lens of experience, is as important as measuring results per se. Results are critically important, but first it’s about the process. Focus on the process first and the results will often come.

Second, it isn’t about top-down management. You have to get under the skin of what you’re doing. You have to live it on the ground. It’s not about managing a project so much as it is living it.

Third, listen to the veterans, those who have come before you. Learn from them. They have the scars. They lived it on the ground. You can get a lot of this experience in personal interaction, although admittedly some of it will come from books and articles.

Fourth, it isn’t about benchmarking. If Larry Jones had continued to benchmark against the trainers, he likely never would have been better than the best of them. He would not have been best-in-class. If you benchmark against others, do so to learn from them, not to emulate them. Benchmarking, while informative, does not lead to best practices.

Mike Cobb

[1] Peter J. Boyer, “Horse Sense, Can racing redeem itself?”, The New Yorker, May 4, 2009.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Little Brown, New York, 2005.

[4] Daniel Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will, MIT Press, 2002.


Your Way, My Way or Our Way?

Back in the mid- to late-nineties I did a lot of work in South America. While in the throes of working through the terms of a business arrangement, my Colombian business partner made a statement that I honestly did not understand then but have grown to appreciate with the passing of time. He spoke confidently and with conviction as he told me that he didn’t believe in compromise. At the time I was taken aback by what I interpreted as an intransigence that could easily kill a deal. For some reason I didn’t challenge his position, but we worked through whatever issues there were. Frankly, after two decades, I have no recollection as to why, or over what particulars, we had reached a seeming impasse, but I do know that by working together we arrived at a solution that represented the best of our respective positions.

Merriam-Webster defines compromise as: “settlement of differences by arbitration or by consent reached by mutual concessions”. Mutual concession implies the giving up of something important to each side for the sake of a middle-ground that represents a dilution, if you will, of opposing positions.

It’s Easter Sunday as I write this. Early this morning, as I sipped my first cup of coffee, I happened to tune in to an interview of Father Richard Rohr by Krista Tippett on NPR’s Peabody Award-winning show, “On Being”. You may know him as the Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico.

Late in the interview, Father Rohr said something that resonated with me and recalled that conversation twenty years ago: “Opposites do not contradict one another. In fact, they complement and deepen one another.”

This is the essence, I believe, of what my business partner meant when he said he didn’t believe in compromise. His was a both-and perspective, as opposed to the either-or mindset from which we more often than not enter into negotiations. It is the conviction that, if we work together to find a common ground, as opposed to a middle ground, we just might arrive at a solution that represents the best of both positions and an outcome that is better, in balance, than if either side prevailed. It is a refreshing departure from the “zero sum game” that says each party has to give something up to reach agreement. It is about each side endeavoring to understand the other’s position and, in the process, developing an understanding of how opposites complement and deepen one another.

Now, I am prepared for push-back from those who will say that my perspective is unrealistic in many, if not most, business situations – that the chances of two opposing parties coming together and reaching a compromise that represents anything other than each side giving up something so that, in the end, neither side is truly happy with the end result, are slim at best. And they may be right. But that reality, if it is true, is no reason not to aspire to something greater, to work to truly understand others’ positions and to endeavor to find a common ground that is better than the sum of its parts.

Stephen Covey, perhaps most famous for his best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, wrote another book in 2011 called The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems. In The 3rd Alternative, he presents the concept of synergy as a powerful alternative to compromise. Synergy is an overused word, and for that reason I generally avoid using it. But in this instance, I believe Covey hit the mark. In his words:

“Synergy is not the same thing as compromise. In a compromise, one plus one equals one and a half at best. Everybody loses something. Synergy is not just resolving a conflict. When we get to synergy, we transcend the conflict. We go beyond it to something new, something that excites everyone with fresh promise and transforms the future. Synergy is better than my or your way. It’s our way.”

It’s as though Steven Covey, my business partner and Father Rohr are all trying to get me to listen … to understand that it’s not just your way or my way … that there’s a powerful alternative if only we are willing to seek it together.

What’s your take on this? I’d love to hear from you.

Mike Cobb

Calling – Will Your Work Leave a Legacy ??

A decade and a half ago, Jim Collins wrote Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. Most of us are familiar with it and many have read it. The book was hailed as “one of the top ten business books of 2001”, and has enjoyed long-standing positions on the New York Times and Business Week best seller lists, been translated in thirty-five languages and gone on to sell over 4 million copies.

Business leaders throughout the country, and the world for that matter, heartily embraced the concepts laid out in the book … level 5 leadership, getting the right people on the bus, the flywheel, a culture of discipline … and adopted it as a mainstay in their arsenals of management tools, in some cases going so far as to establish it as required reading in their organizations. I know, because I was one of those people.

And while scholars, pundits and management consultants have criticized the book and its premises in recent years,[1] many of the principles espoused by Collins are, in my opinion, solid and well worth embracing.

But there is one principle in the book, what Collins calls the “Hedgehog Concept” that has been on my mind a lot lately. Not because of disagreement with its basic premise, but because I fear that by focusing on and adhering to it, we may run the risk of losing sight of what matters most as we forge our individual journeys through life.

If you are not familiar with the concept, think of three overlapping circles that address the following basic questions: What are you deeply passionate about? What can you be the best in the world at? What drives your economic engine? According to Collins, the key to sustainable success lies in endeavoring to live where these three circles intersect. And though his primary focus was on businesses, the principle has been adopted as a guiding force for individuals as well … and this is where I have come to struggle of late.

Let’s shift our focus for a moment and think about the concept of vocation. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when we hear that word? Many of us probably think of career. Occupation. Profession. What we do every day to make a living (as opposed to avocation, what we do in our spare time for enjoyment). For over ten years I have promoted the Hedgehog Concept to countless young people, my daughters included, as a foundational vocational principle, and not just as three intersecting concepts but ones that should be addressed in a particular order: first identify what you are truly passionate about … then find where your passion intersects with what you can be the very best at … and then figure out how to make it work economically.

But my problem with this approach, this paradigm if you will, is that it falls short of hitting the mark in so far as vocation is concerned. The operative word in all three of Collins’ intersecting circles is the word “you” (or, introspectively, “I”). What am “I” passionate about? What can “I” be the best at? How can “I” make money? Now don’t get me wrong, these are all important questions to ask, and perhaps increasingly so in the competitive world we live in today. But this is not, fundamentally, what vocation is about.

Let’s parse the word a bit. It goes back to the 15th century and has its roots in the earlier Old French vocacion, “call, calling, consecration” and the Latin vocare, “to call”. It shares etymological roots with the word “voice”.

Vocation, in the original sense of the word, is about finding your callingfinding your voice. It’s about meaningful response to external imperatives that drive you, not so much about achieving internal success or greatness, but about making a difference in the world. It’s about focusing on the work as a manifestation of your calling to do good things and have a lasting impact through your work, no matter how small or how grand that impact may be. It’s about something transcendent to ourselves. Our forebears understood it as a spiritual calling.

Think of those people who have truly made a difference in the world, those in our lifetimes and those who have come before us. Those who will leave, or have left, lasting legacies. Those whose eulogies will touch, or have touched, not so much on personal success but, rather, on leaving a lasting impact on others’ lives. On making the world a better place. These people … we all know who they are … did not set out to achieve greatness. And I rather doubt that they set out to be practicing hedgehogs in the Good to Great sense of the word. By contrast, they focused on vocation as a calling greater than themselves, something transcendent and outside of “I”. The work of doing good things, not to achieve greatness but simply for the sake of the work, and doing it with humility and gratitude.

When I was leaving school and embarking on a career path, these concepts could not have been more alien to me. Many years later, I am not proud to say that most of my life has been spent in willful neglect of the true meaning of vocation. And I am not alone. But one thing I find encouraging and heartening is that I see every day, across generations, examples of individuals who have chosen to make a difference, not so much to make a difference per se, and certainly not to achieve greatness, but out of a profound vocational sense of calling. And I intend, going forward, to learn from them.

Mike Cobb


[1] For excellent examples of such critiques, I would recommend Phil Rosenzweig’s The Halo Effect (Free Press, 2007) and the 2008 writings of Steve Levitt, of Freakonomics fame, found here: “From Good to Great … to Below Average”

Amidst the Cacophony


Amidst the Cacophony and Sensory Overload … Breathe Deeply

While in graduate school, I would occasionally take the forty-five-minute drive to Conyers, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta, for a weekend of blissful silence. Several years earlier a friend told me about the Monastery of the Holy Spirit and the welcoming embrace afforded to people from all walks of life, including non-Catholics like me. The brothers of the monastery are members of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, more commonly known as Trappists, who dedicate themselves to a life of solitude, silence and humility. I cherished these times away from the obligations and stresses of graduate school, brief opportunities for contemplation and recharging. Father Francis, who for many years ran the guest house there and has since passed on, taught me the importance of silent reflection. We often have the mistaken notion of monks as living lives of isolation and detachment from the “reality” we know, but my experience over the years is that they are very much of this world, dealing day-to-day with the same things we have to deal with to get by, just doing it with a perspective and life balance that is lost on us.

Upon leaving graduate school, I put those weekend experiences behind me and moved on. My wife and I relocated to New Jersey, and for the next twenty years I pursued my professional career, largely heedless to the powerful lessons learned from the brothers in Conyers. Caught up in a hard-driving, success-focused life that I would imagine resonates with most people reading these words, there was precious little time for contemplation. Life balance? Forget about it, it just wasn’t in the cards.

Fast forward twenty years and I found myself, again, yearning for quiet time, for opportunities to reflect amidst the cacophony and sensory overload of everyday life. For centering. For getting back in touch with what, at the end of the day, really matters. It was around that time that I discovered another special place, this time a thousand miles away in Cambridge, Massachusetts and run not by Catholic monks, but by the brothers of the Anglican order of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. Situated on the banks of the Charles River mere yards from Harvard Square, the monastery provided a sanctuary in a time of need. I found myself drawn to a welcoming community and the power of silent contemplation.

If you’re like me, you likely find it increasingly difficult to find opportunities for reflection, for quiet contemplation, for sense-making in a noisy, information-saturated world. I find myself seeking out such opportunities more frequently these days.

This is not necessarily about religion, by the way. And it’s not about the prattling of a sixty-something edging ever closer to retirement. There are ample opportunities for all of us, regardless of our stages in life or our theological beliefs, or lack thereof, to find solace in silence. If we just look for them.

David Brooks, in his recent book The Road to Character[1], captures the essence of this dilemma eloquently and succinctly when he says:

“ … communications have become faster and busier. It is harder to attend to the soft, still voices that come from the depths. Throughout human history, people have found that they are most aware of their depths when they are on retreats, during moments of separation and stillness, during moments of quiet communion. They have found that they need time, long periods of stillness … . These moments of stillness and quiet are just more rare today. We reach for the smartphone.”

Skeptics among us may say that this is our reality. That, in order to get ahead in an increasingly competitive world, we have to play the game. These are the times we live in and no amount of pontification about the power of quiet contemplation will change that. Get real, they might say. We can’t afford to slow down. My conviction, increasingly, is that we can’t afford NOT to. Our spirits and souls, our futures and those of our children, just may be at stake.


[1] David Brooks, The Road to Character (Random House, New York, 2015)

DIKW and Tribal Knowledge

In a recent article I touched on the role “tribal knowledge” plays in the decision-making process in many organizations (Do You Think It Or Do You Know It).

Early in my career I had the opportunity to head up a product development group for a major chemical company. We were charged with commercializing what at the time was a radically new coating system into several industrial markets, including the automotive industry. As a result, my team and I spent a lot of time in Detroit, much of it inside the walls of manufacturing facilities, running plant trials and overseeing implementations.

One of these facilities, owned and operated by one of the “Big Three” domestic auto manufacturers, produced polyurethane fascias, or bumpers, for most of the company’s US assembly plants. The fascias were produced using a technique called reaction injection molding, or RIM, primed with a plastic-friendly primer, finished with a base/clear topcoat, and shipped to the destination assembly plans for incorporation onto new vehicles rolling off the assembly line. The company operated on a near-just-in-time basis, so if the fascias didn’t ship the assembly lines were forced to shut down.

The managers and line workers in the facility, by and large, were auto industry veterans. Relying on decades of hands-on experience, they intuitively knew how to do their jobs. They did what they did the way they had done it for years, and took great pride in the fact that their “tried and true” experience-based approach worked. Every day. Sure, there were days when something didn’t work as planned, but they were able to deal with it. In some ways it was akin to riding a bicycle … they could almost do the job on autopilot, they knew it so well. In the learning model made famous by Thomas Gordon (see Is Running Your Company Like Riding A Bicycle) they operated in an “unconscious competence” mode, sometimes dropping down a notch into “conscious competence” when a problem occurred, but most of the time doing what they did by rote.

Then one day, suddenly and without warning, the fascias coming off of the topcoat line exhibited tiny fisheyes, imperfections that, unfortunately, did not show up until the last step in the production process. The fascia manufacturing process shut down. And it wouldn’t be long before the effect would ripple through the supply chain and some assembly lines would be forced to shut down as well. The company had redundant fascia manufacturing capability, but the system simply could not meet the demands of all of the assembly plants.

What was causing the fisheyes? Were there imperfections in the polyurethane substrate? Were there perhaps impurities in the primer or topcoat? Was a contaminant being introduced in one of the curing ovens? Was there some other root cause?

The tribal knowledge that enabled the managers and line workers to do their jobs so well, day in and day out, was woefully inadequate to solve the problem this time. Something had changed in an instant, and the experience that came from years of “we’ve always done it this way” didn’t help.

We were called in, along with experts from other companies, to solve the problem. Time was of the essence. Every day the problem went unresolved would cost the company millions of dollars. So we rolled up our sleeves and got to work. We reviewed existing data, collected new data, contextualized the data, looked for patterns, performed root cause analysis, ruling out the “obvious suspects”. We endeavored fundamentally to understand the principles underlying each step across the value chain. And in a surprising short time we found the answer. A microscopic pinhole had formed in one of the hydraulic lines in the automated paint system, spewing out a fine oil mist, so fine that it was undetectable with the naked eye. The line was replaced, the fisheyes went away, and in due time quality fascias were being shipped again.

So what are the lessons learned from this experience? Unbeknownst to me at the time, we were, in short order, committing to practice what I now understand as the DIKW hierarchy.

Data – Information – Knowledge – Wisdom (or Understanding). While DIKW’s origins are unclear, an early proponent of the model (at least the DIK part) was Nicholas Henry, Professor Emeritus and Former President of Georgia Southern University.[1] While the model has been refined, reinterpreted and applied to various disciplines over the years, a succinct interpretation is as follows:

  • Data consists of facts, signals, stimuli … things you can observe or measure … contextually and informationally neutral.
  • Information is data in context … connecting observations, identifying relationships … contextualizing to derive purpose, utility and meaning.
  • Knowledge is the synthesis of multiple sources of information … identifying patterns … deriving insights.
  • Wisdom is developing an understanding of the principles underlying data, information and knowledge … the “know-why” (why something is) and the “know-what” (knowing what to do in a given situation, whether anticipated or not, because of gained insights) … it is contextually-transferable in that it affords the ability to transfer knowledge to new situations.

Being true to DIKW at its best requires a relentless commitment to identifying biases each step of the way (e.g. selection bias in collecting data and confirmation bias in interpreting information) and working to eliminate them. It is also cyclical and continuous.

So what does all of this have to do with tribal knowledge? Tribal knowledge is experiential, often anecdotal, usually unwritten and derived from many years of hands-on practice. It is often passed down from “generation to generation” in an organization.

On the one hand tribal knowledge can be a valuable asset to an organization. It provides a “short-hand” mechanism for getting things done effectively, leveraging years of real-world, hands-on experience, the things you “can’t read in a book”. It can help foster emotional engagement in the work at hand. It provides a powerful, peer-to-peer knowledge transfer vehicle.

However, tribal knowledge alone, when not combined with a rigorous DIKW discipline, can be dangerous and in some cases fatal to organizations, especially in the ever-changing business environment in which we live. It is inherently bias-prone, relying on highly situational and limited experiential data, subject to confirmation biases, and limited in the ability to convert knowledge to true wisdom and understanding. In a sense, the DIKW cycle is broken and what would otherwise be cyclical and continuous becomes static and unchanging, manifested in a “we’ve always done it that way” mindset. It creates insularity in organizations so they don’t look beyond themselves for insights and learning. More often than not, the focus is on situational consequences of actions without a fundamental understanding of root causes, the “know-why” part of the equation. If you don’t know, beyond the situation you’re in, what the outcomes of a given action are, you don’t have the understanding to effectively respond to situational changes. This often results in bad decisions or the inability to deal with unforeseen problems.

Which takes me back to the auto plant example. Not only did tribal knowledge hinder the ability to solve an unforeseen and previously unexperienced problem on the production floor, it also facilitated a mindset higher up in the management ranks, one that US automotive manufacturers spent years working to overcome. I distinctly remember a “we’ve always done it that way” attitude in the face of the impending threat from Japanese auto manufacturers. This attitude, based largely on tribal knowledge and untested assumptions, resulted in a disinclination to acknowledge the threat and to change in response to it. After working primarily with two of the “Big Three” US companies, I visiting the Honda assembly plant in Marysville, Ohio for the first time and knew at that point that a major transformation was in the works, one that would necessitate a dispensing of tribal knowledge and untested assumptions if an industry were to survive.

Mike Cobb




[1] Henry, Nicholas L. (May–June 1974). “Knowledge Management: A New Concern for Public Administration”. Public Administration Review. 34 (3): 189.