The “chauffeur knowledge” in the organization

Did it happen to you that based on information from several PowerPoint slides you had to give an opinion or, what’s even worse, make a decision about something you are not really an expert at? If so, you may have experienced the so-called “chauffeur knowledge” syndrome.

PowerPoint is a useful tool in everyday work – it not only improved our ability to present data, ideas and projects, but also unnoticeably became a knowledge sharing tool in the organization. In companies which don’t have a dedicated knowledge management processes and IT systems to support it, the most important strategies and company projects are described on PPT slides. This situation may also have another side effect, which is greatly illustrated by an anecdote from Rolf Dobelli’s book “The Art of Thinking Clearly”. The author describes the history of the Nobel Prize winner, Max Planck and his chauffeur. After receiving the prestigious award, Planck set out on his tour through Germany to give lectures on quantum mechanics. Soon, after many speeches, the Planck’s chauffeur knew the whole lecture by heart and one day, for fun, he suggested that they change roles. Planck agreed and in the end another lecture was led by the driver, and the Nobel Prize winner was sitting in the auditorium, pretending to be a driver. After the lecture ended, a question was asked from one of the present professors, to which the speaker said that it was so simple that even his driver would know the answer and pointed to Planck sitting in the audience in the chauffer’s hat.

Shallow and deep knowledge

This story illustrates the difference between shallow knowledge, which in some cases may even be sufficient, and deep knowledge based on many years of learning and experience. In the world of rapid change, innovations and new technologies, building deep knowledge is a luxury. And it’s not about money, but the time, a scarce resource today, that is essential to gain and build knowledge. Every day, we flip through numerous PPT slides with summaries and project descriptions, and often we have to make decisions based only on them. With the current pace of work, we have few opportunities to devote time and learn more about each of the issues we face. Today, apart from the field in which we specialize, we should also be familiar with social media, start-ups, blogosphere, marketing, communication, employee motivation and engagement, innovation, big data, mobility, branding, not to mention artificial intelligence and new technologies. In most cases, superficial knowledge is enough, although sometimes it may lead to biases and the simplification of some issues. One of the examples relates to the Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which appears more often on corporate PPT slides than other motivational theories by e.g. Vroom, Alderfer or Herzberg. The reason for that might be the fact that the pyramid of needs fits perfectly into the template of the PowerPoint slide with an intuitively understood five-element chart.


The whole world is accelerating, with rapidly changing trends, instantly fading fashions, and quickly devaluating opinions and new ideas. New applications after one year are out of use, technologies disappear. In the pursuit of the latest information, we have less and less time to acquire extensive knowledge from a one specific field. This phenomenon has a strong impact on communication in organizations. Our daily struggle is to put as much information as possible in the shortest possible form. It is often frustrating both for senders and recipients – the former feel that their efforts are not effective, because the audience ignores the information, and employees in turn feel the increasing pressure of information overload. In such conditions, the chauffeur’s knowledge is a good strategy, provided that we choose one or two areas of our own specialization, in which we have deep knowledge – about other areas we can have just a general idea. It should be enough to understand the current trends in different areas and establish a dialog with field experts, who should be the ones to pass opinions and recommend the best decisions.


Syndrom wiedzy szofera Magdalena Selwant-Rozycka


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