Six little lessons from big science

Professor Chris Mabey Middlesex UniversityProfessor of HRM at Middlesex University Chris Mabey reflects on how all organisations can learn from the success of the ATLAS particle physics experiment at the CERN Large Hadron Collider.

The life-blood of most organisations is knowledge. Not just everyday data which make things tick, but those idiosyncratic insights which help break new ground and take us in fresh directions. Not so much “know-what” as “know-how”. The problem is that most organisations, whether multinationals, R&D networks or scientific collaborations are better at know-what than know-how. That’s because know-how, or tacit knowledge, is difficult to spot, not easily distilled and even more tricky to pass on.

One global network that appears to be cracking this problem is ATLAS, a high-energy particle physics experiment comprising 3,500 scientists from 140 institutes across the globe. Based on an ESRC study of ATLAS over three years, I’ve come up with six lessons for international knowledge-exchange.

Six lessons for international knowledge-exchange: 

1. Built-in reciprocity

ATLAS is characterised structurally by highly democratic decision-making and the avoidance of any “over-mighty” individual or group.  All scientists in the experiment are reliant upon accurate and timely knowledge from every part of the network.

2. Personal buy-in to a transcendent goal

There is a strong ethic of active collaboration, unusually high trust and shared intent. This was how the Higgs boson was discovered. Intensive immersion into the scientific community at CERN comes from high personal investment goals which transcend parochialism.

3.  Light touch leadership

Like most knowledge activists, ATLAS scientists are highly autonomous and find micro-management stifling. Having set the overall direction, leaders allow cognitive capital to be built at “lab level”, where shared mental schema and strong working relationships allow for the fast uptake of important, intuitive knowledge.

Members of the collaboration and the LHCb cavern, November 2008

Photo copyright European Organization for Nuclear Research

4. Collective learning

An important ingredient is the timescales of the experiments. For many scientists, the ATLAS collaboration will outlast their personal career, but they remain intent on preserving the integrity for the next generation. To “know-how”, we might add “know-why”.

5. Innovation space

Any network operating with loose and flat structures, relies on high trust and mutually beneficial goals. In the centre of CERN is a vast cafeteria, much like a bazaar which buzzes with serendipitous, exchange of tacit knowledge. You might call it contrived spontaneity.

6. Inclusive ethos

ATLAS scientists work hard to leverage the diverse national mix of their collaboration and there is a refreshing absence of hierarchy and a premium on informal networking.

But there are downsides. Ironically, the danger of all this informality and spontaneity is a slide towards conformity. And despite the rich knowledge-exchange of in-groups, some individuals find themselves excluded due to culture gender, culture or first language. It seems that for all the advantages of virtual operations in the knowledge era, some face-to-face proximity is necessary for building rapport and trust.

Multicultural networks offer immense learning and – often uncomfortable – opportunities for surfacing radically different know-how. Benefits include unfreezing favoured cognitive maps, loosening conservative structures and processes, preserving healthy levels of doubt and debate, and confronting negative stereotyping and prejudice. For such learning to be exploited, and to avoid the familiar marginalising and excluding of “out-groups”, relentless and rigorous self-scrutiny is required.

This research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC Ref : RES-062-23-1977).

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