Knowledge Sharing or Groupthink?

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It goes without saying that there are benefits from studying with colleagues to prepare for certification exams. When you bring in another person (or persons) with whom you can learn, you’re boosting the information available to both of you by aggregating the knowledge of multiple individuals. When you get together, you can share what you’ve learned through training and experience and use each other’s comprehension of technologies and techniques to succeed in your credentialing efforts.


Yet, there is one pitfall of working with others: groupthink. For those not familiar with the term, it’s a deliberately Orwellian description of a group of individuals suppressing their own views and making their expressed opinions conform in order to “go along with the crowd” and “not rock the boat.” Decisions afflicted by groupthink often fail to take into account the full range of possible alternatives, employ very poor and selective research and inadequately address risks and objectives. Thus, the results of groupthink typically are unsatisfactory for everyone, even though each member approved of the methods and means involved.


When it comes to certification, this is admittedly a sporadic threat. Many of the IT credentials out there are very straightforward in terms of the skills and knowledge they assess — and in their examination procedures — and therefore don’t require the creative thought processes that are susceptible to groupthink. As certification programs raise the bar in aptitude and sophistication, however, candidates will need to rely more on imaginative and resourceful approaches to the technology on which they’re being tested.


Indeed, many credentialing organizations are using or beginning to explore examination methodologies that go beyond traditional multiple-choice questioning. These new tests require candidates to successfully get through complex evaluations such as written essays, oral interviews and simulations. What’s more, for many of these, there is no “right” answer, although there might be wrong ones. Hence, participants have to evaluate options and make informed decisions as to the best possible solutions.


Undeniably, studying with others for these kinds of exams still can be advantageous. But you and your collaborators have to consciously avoid the narrow assortment of answers offered by groupthink and instead try to consider the fullest possible spectrum of solutions.


The first step is to recognize the issues that lead to groupthink conditions. One is domineering leadership: If John overwhelms the other members with his personality and presence, they might be afraid to go against what he says, even when he’s wrong. Another is similar backgrounds shared by everyone in the group. If Doug, Diane and Dana have worked with only a certain vendor’s technology, then they might be oblivious to better products and functionality offered by a competitor.


To prevent groupthink in your study coterie, don’t appoint any leaders. Instead, work to create an environment of democratic interaction and reasonable dissent and also discourage deference. One way to do this is to appoint a single member of the group to assume the role of devil’s advocate. Any time an idea is introduced, he or she will try to shoot as many holes in it as possible. This will help sharpen the good solutions you come up with, as well as weed out the bad ones.


Another way to evade groupthink is to consciously seek out people with divergent backgrounds — years of professional experience, exposure to different technologies and vendors, various certifications and educational qualifications, etc. — but with the same goals. This will facilitate consensus building, or cooperation through conflict, which will help you with more than just your studying efforts


Finally, remember that some decisions should be made individually. While it’s nice to have others on your team, sometimes you should just go it alone.

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