Knowledge serendipity in crisis response

Knowledge is the key to solving problems and coping with challenges in the workplace. The number 1 challenge worldwide is the current Corona outbreak leading to Covid-19 disease.

A recent publication in the Dutch NRC Handelsblad newspaper shows how serendipity and broad insight in employees’ knowledge can help speed up emergency response in such a crisis.

First reports of the outbreak came from the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. In the Netherlands, the RIVM (National Institute for Public Health and the Environment) is the primary Government agency investigating, researching and advising on the disease and control interventions. The Chinese authorities shared a lot of their findings and early results with the other authorities in the world. Nevertheless a lot of the local reports in and around Wuhan are not yet translated.

The RIVM reported two serendipitous sources of crucial information: a Japanese post-doc who knew a Chinese researcher in the US who translated some of the early outbreak reports and put them in a comprehensive spreadsheet.

The second serendipitous source is a Chinese intern from Wuhan who was able to scan, assess and translate sources which were not available in English yet. “There still is a lot of untranslated data in China. The intern already uncovered a lot for us.”

“Er ligt nog heel veel onvertaalde data in China. De stagiair heeft al veel voor ons boven water gehaald.”

The Japanese postdoc shows the strength of weak ties. The example of the intern from Wuhan shows how important it is to recognize and acknowledge everyone’s individual knowledge profile and act upon it when appropriate.

Of course you can’t have interns from all around the world at all time. You can and should promote and stimulate diversity across the board though.

Furthermore you should identify and acknowledge employees’ broad knowledge profile and connections, since you can’t possibly know what will be relevant for tomorrow’s emerging challenge or the next global crisis.