Knowledge, Risk, & Trust

One of my mentors once said that “every problem is a communication problem.” At the time, my mind was blown, but the more I progress in communication scholarship, the more I find this statement to ring true. This seems to be relevant in many discussions of knowledge management over the course of the semester. As a communication researcher, I find myself looking for ways the relationships we form as organizational members shape the ways we create and share knowledge. These relationships are especially important when approaching knowledge management in high-risk, emergency, or crisis situations.

Risk-Management Tight Rope

Massingham (2010) examined the effectiveness of a decision tree method for managing organizational risk within the Royal Australian Navy, which informed the development of an alternative model centered on constructs from the field of knowledge management. He details the similarities between risk and knowledge management. Both may inform employees, highlight the importance of action, and stress the significance of lessons learned. By marrying concepts from risk management and knowledge management, Massingham (2010) developed a Knowledge Risk Management (KRM) framework. This framework aids in evaluating how knowledge can lead to better risk management and helps to examine how the knowledge management process may inform risk management strategies.

Massingham (2010) makes a clear case for the inclusion of knowledge management constructs in risk management. He stresses that this would (1) offer greater insight of organizational risk, (2) reduce the environmental complexity among organizations by identifying salient, significant risks, (3) address cognitive bias of risk perception on the individual level, (4) provide ways to navigate the boundaries of risk event to the knowledge management, and (5) foster inter-organizational collaboration among employees with the necessary expertise. The KRM model would ideally bolster dialogue and more objective assessments of organizational issues.

The question remains – what role does trust play in the marriage of knowledge & risk?

There are many fellow bloggers who have discussed the role that trust plays in crisis response (see Abigail’s thoughts). Additionally, during an emergency or crisis, who determines organizational leadership (see Rachel’s post here)? Who determines what knowledge to share and how?

Ibrahim and Allen (2012) address these questions in their research on crisis in the oil industry. They stress the central role that information sharing plays in emergency responses related to offshore oil drilling. Information sharing needs to (1) foster a shared understanding among emergency responders, (2) aid in collective decision-making, (3) allow for the coordination of action, and (4) contribute to how responders follow instructions. These functions look great on paper, but can we apply these practices in high-stress, and perhaps volatile, situations? Offshore oil drilling

There were many key issues that organizational members of a multinational oil company revealed in this study, including the importance of knowledge, training, and the application of emergency procedures. Moreover, they stressed the significance of human interaction during emergency. Ibrahim and Allen (2012) view human interaction in this context through a socio-physical lens, which includes situational, affective, and cognitive aspects. The affective element stands out to me as this includes how organizational members may feel about one another, which goes back to the relational maintenance required to achieve optimal information sharing and seeking. Ibrahim and Allen (2012) offer ways to effectively approach communication among emergency responders including sharing clear, concise, and accurate information in a timely manner with a calm and confident tone. However, they neglect to provide ways to foster relationships and trust among responders. As I have stated many times before, knowledge management is a relational process. Even good communication can fail in the presence of poor relationships.


Ibrahim, N. H., & Allen, D. (2012). Information sharing and trust during major incidents: Findings from the oil industry. Journal of the American Society of Information Science and Technology, 63(10), 1916-1928. doi:10.1002/asi.22676.

Massingham, P. (2010). Knowledge risk management: A framework. Journal of Knowledge Management, 14(3), 464-485. doi:10.1108/13673271011050166

8 thoughts on “Knowledge, Risk, & Trust

  1. I think it also depends on if there is a pre-determined structure in place. If people have a clear set of emergency plans or instructions, it may be more likely that they will follow them, rather than doing something wild (but that may just depend on the individual, so…)

    • Absolutely it would. I think about the military in this context. Developing good relationships with the team can shape interactions. This is likely why communication (e.g., obedience, clarity) is stressed in basic training.

      • I’ve observed this in action. I won’t mention explicitly where, but I worked for a time in a place that had government-mandated training for certain types of emergency situations (in addition to more routine procedures), where we were expected to be able to coordinate to operate potentially dangerous equipment rapidly and effectively in high-pressure circumstances.

        However, there were fundamental breakdowns in the process. Some supervisors were not well-respected by their subordinates, and were generally not effective at communicating-not only did they expect tacit understanding of policy and procedure to exist in untrained employees, they each had their own vision of what those were, such that each supervisor wanted a noticeably different response to a given situation; new employees not only had to learn how to do things without being effectively trained, but to learn multiple different ways for doing each task and remembering which supervisor each applied to.

        Unsurprisingly, often the only people who were able to act effectively when those skills needed to be put into practice were the ones who had enough experience to do so without oversight, sometimes even using their closer ties to their co-workers to coordinate them more effectively than the supervisors.

  2. I agree with the comments above that training can have a large affect, and that sometimes people freeze during emergencies. On the flip side, there are also people you would not think of as leaders in a community who suddenly stand up and take the leadership role only during emergencies. My guess is the adrenaline gives them confidence they didn’t have before (but that’s entirely a guess, not researched at all).

    One thing I don’t remember any author mentioning is if there are different types of trust. For example, I would trust a doctor to diagnose me with a disease and I would trust a mechanic to fix my engine. But I wouldn’t trust my doctor to fix my engine and I wouldn’t trust my mechanic to diagnose me with a disease. Does this reflect trust, or a lack of trust? Both seem to be happening simultaneously.

    • Emergencies tend to bring out different sides of people from the ones who are not usually seen as leaders becoming leaders to people freezing that no one thought they would freeze. Of course, there are many people in between those two extremes as well.

  3. “The question remains – what role does trust play in the marriage of knowledge & risk?”

    I think your choice of words was spot on. Marriage. Trust plays a huge role in a marriage (even one between knowledge and risk). A marriage can look a million different ways but at its core, trust is a foundational quality of it.

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