The Knowledge

If you are a fan of right angles and straight lines, driving in London is not for you. The baffling knot of streets, roundabouts with up to eight entry points instead of stop signs, and the fact that you are driving on what we consider the wrong side of the car AND the wrong side of the street turns most Americans into whimpering idiots within a day, if not an hour. In London, it’s completely possible to take two right turns and end up in the exact same spot. Or in Narnia. Or Bonkersville. Even with a good map, most people get lost. And yet, there are thousands of Londoners who’ve committed the city’s entire layout to memory… the drivers of London’s famous Black Cabs.

This week as my work takes me to England and Ireland, the first thing Tom and I did upon arriving at London’s Paddington Station was hail one of these cabs to take us to our hotel which was located in the financial district about 25 miles away. As we slid into the immaculate and spacious rear section with all our luggage, the friendly cab driver asked, “Where to?”

“Malmaison Hotel, please. Just a moment, I have the address right here…” As I frantically began to dig around inside my cramped travel bag, he raised his hand and replied, “No worries, Miss. I know exactly where ‘tis.” And, with a reassuring smile in the rearview mirror… we were off.

It was late afternoon and we hit a traffic jam almost immediately. Our cabbie quickly and expertly made a sharp turn and detoured down a different avenue, explaining along the way how the city was laid out as well as adding fascinating tidbits of information about all the sights we were passing. Impressed with his substantial knowledge and skill, I asked if he had lived in London all of his life and if he was a history buff. That is when I learned about “The Knowledge.”

The Knowledge is a test among the hardest to pass in the world and has been described as having an atlas of the streets of London implanted in your brain.

While learning to drive one of London’s Black Cabs is no easy feat, the pay which averages $150,000 per year and the freedom make it very appealing to 25,000 licensed drivers. Cab fares in London are the second most expensive in the world (after Tokyo). To earn the privilege, drivers have to pass an intense intellectual ordeal, known charmingly as The Knowledge. Since 1865, they’ve had to memorize the location of every street within six miles of Charing Cross… all 25,000 of the capital’s arteries, veins and capillaries. They also need to know the locations of 20,000 landmarks – museums, police stations, theatres, clubs, and more – and 320 routes that connect it all together.

It takes an average of four years to learn The Knowledge though some have done it in as few as two and as many as thirteen. To prove their skills, prospective drivers make “appearances” at the licensing office where they must recite the best route between any two points in a one-on-one oral exam. The only map they can use is the one in their head. They even have to narrate the details of their journey, complete with passed landmarks, road names, junctions, turns, restaurants, ATM’s, and maybe even traffic lights. Only after successfully doing this, several times over, can they earn a cab driver’s license.

There are no short cuts to becoming a Black Cab driver. Students, known as “Knowledge boys” (or girls), spend years driving through London learning thousands of streets and the quickest “runs” or routes from one point to another. Most of them work a full-time job, spending nights and weekends on the back of a scooter with a map of an area attached to a clipboard and mounted on the handlebars, covering thousands of miles in the process.

If they sit for one of the many exams they must take and do not pass, they simply try again. Our cabbie described it this way, “Perseverance is the key: Nobody can fail The Knowledge. They can only give up.”

So why don’t they just use a GPS (or SatNav as the Brits call them)? The answer to this question brings me to the point of this week’s Stretch: Just because technology CAN do something for us… doesn’t mean it always should.

Turns out that many experienced London Cabbies have entered regular competitions where they battle against GPS technology and the clock. They are asked routine questions, common in the life of most cab drivers, such as, “Can you take me to my hotel but on the way could you stop at a cash machine and an all-night pharmacy?” When pitted against another person operating the GPS, the cabbie equipped with The Knowledge almost always wins.

I observe similar issues in my work with healthcare and service-based businesses all the time. For example, I’m a huge fan of automated appointment confirmation systems for most clients but occasionally the administrators, armed with The Knowledge of years of experience, know that the shortest route to actually getting certain clients through the door on time and on the right day for their appointments is not only to pick up the phone personally but also to do it in a particularly personalized way for that patient… something the digital technology just can’t do.

Luckily for us, we don’t have to log thousands of miles on the back of a scooter in rain, cold, and snow for four years to learn The Knowledge. We simply have to recognize that ultimate client service is achieved by a common-sense approach to merging both technology and human interaction… high tech combined with high touch. When you merge this with experience and common sense, your team will create an unbeatable client experience that no digital “GPS” could ever navigate!


“Truth is emotional, it’s fluid, and above all, it’s human. No matter how quick we get with computers, no matter how much information we have, you’ll never be able to remove the human from the truth-seeking exercise.” — Markham Nolan

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