Do you always need conversation as part of KM?

There are 3 unusual cases where conversation is not important to KM, but they are rare!

This blog has often argued that conversation is as important as content in KM, that conversation is at the heart of effective knowledge transfer, and that without conversation it is difficult both to access the deep unconscious learning, and also to check whether the knowledge customer properly understands the knowledge that has been offered. 

However many companies operate knowledge transfer systems, such as lessons databases or knowledge bases, which involve no conversation at all.

Do these work? Under what circumstances can they work? Here are 3 cases

 1. Conversation-free knowledge transfer is perfectly acceptable when the context of the knowledge is very clear.

Take the example of cookery books; these are a very effective means of transferring the knowledge of how to cook certain dishes. The context of cooking a meal is a clear context, shared between the author and the reader. However if you move outside that context, for example moving to another country where the ingredients and measures are different, or opening your house as a pop-up restaurant, the results may be disappointing. If you want to move to a more creative context, you will probably take cooking classes and discuss what you are learning with a professional chef. 

2. Conversation-free knowledge transfer is perfectly acceptable when the nature of the knowledge is very limited. 

 Take the example of road maps; these are a very effective way of transferring the knowledge of how to navigate from one place to another. Most motorists have a road map in their car, or a sat-nav on their phone. But for more complex knowledge, like the details of finding a specific house down country roads, you need the advice of people with local knowledge (see my blog post on Charts and Pilots; charts are fine on the open sea, but every large vessel entering port uses a pilot to travel the last mile or so).

2. Dialogue-free knowledge transfer is perfectly acceptable when the knowledge is very mature at user-level. 

When a topic is mature, everything is known. We know all the questions that can be asked about the topic, and all the answers.  All of this can be fully documented, for example in an online FAQ or knowledge asset.  Even then, there will be advanced-level nuances which experts may still need to discuss, but for the average user, this knowledge can safely be codified.  However if a topic is not fully mature and is still evolving, then the answers in the FAQ may change, and new questions may arise. There will be knowledge that is needed that is not yet “in the manual” and will need to be exchanged through dialogue.

However in every other case, other than the three exceptions above, your Knowledge Management framework needs to focus on Conversation as well as on Content.

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Content and Conversation – equal and complementary focus areas for KM

I  blogged recently about Connect and Collect – the two parallel approaches to transfer of knowledge. Now let’s look in more depth about the two modes by which knowledge is carried – Content and Conversation. 

During the Connect approach we facilitate the transfer of knowledge through Conversations, whether these are online conversations or face to face meetings.

During the Collect approach we facilitate the transfer of knowledge through captured and codified Content in the form of documents, files, text, pictures and video.

    We also know that Conversations are a far richer medium than Content, potentially 14 times richer, though Content can reach far more people, and has a longer life-span than a conversation.

    Any comprehensive Knowledge Management framework needs to enable, promote, facilitate and otherwise support both Conversation and Content.

    Focusing on conversation and focusing on content are not alternative strategies, they are complementary and interlinked. Neither approach is sufficient on its own (although the content-only focus seems very common), and each relies on the other.

    Managing conversation without content leaves no trace, other than in the minds of the people involved. That in itself is useful, and we know that most of the processes of Knowledge Management, such as Retrospect, After Action Review, Peer Assist and so on are valuable individual learning experiences. But managing conversation without content is not a valuable organisational learning experience. Unless new knowledge becomes embedded in process, or guidance, or recommendations, it is never truly “learned”, and without this we find knowledge becomes relearned many times, with errors being repeated, wheels reinvented and so on.

    Managing content without conversation leads KM towards the already established fields of Content Management and Information Management, and you could (as the author of the famous “Nonsense of Knowledge Management” did) challenge what KM adds over and above these other disciplines. A focus on content without conversation results in a focus on publishing; on creation of reports and files, blogs, wikis, as a proxy for the transfer of knowledge; on Push rather than Pull. But unless people can question and interrogate knowledge in order to internalise it, learning can be very ineffective, and this approach always seems to deteriorate into technology, search, and the perennially soon-to-be-delivered benefits of AI.

    There is a saying in social media circles that “Conversation is King, Content is just something to talk about“. Like any other dualism-based statement, this is wrong. Knowledge Management, as a field, is far more “both/and” than it is “either/or”.

    Content and Conversation are the King and Queen of Knowledge Management – they rule together.

    • Content is something to talk about
    • Conversation is where Content is born and where it is Tested.

    As a Knowledge Manager, please focus equally on both, and please do not assume that all Conversation needs to be by written means. Face to Face is still the preferred transfer mechanism for high-context knowledge, and “getting people together to talk about what they know” is an amazingly effective tool within your Knowledge Management Framework.

    Make sure you promote and support Conversation and Content as equal partners in your KM Framework. 

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    Why a conversation with experienced colleagues is better than re-using captured knowledge

    There are some circumstances where re-using captured knowledge is helpful, but many more where a conversation with an experienced person is a better option.

    I have referred a few times in this blog to a very interesting paper by Martine Haas and Morten Hansen, who look at success data from bid teams in an international service organisation to find out when collaboration actually helps performance.

    They looked at the context of the teams and the types of bids they were addressing, and at two types of collaboration; how much they accessed and re-used documents from previous bids (which they called “codified knowledge”), and how much they sought advice from experienced colleagues outside the team (“personal knowledge”). They then looked at bid success rates, to give an objective measure of the VALUE of the knowledge to the team.

    The results are shown in the graphs here, and summarised in the table below. The terms Haas and Hansen use as “high/low need to learn” refers to whether the bid teams were experienced (low need to learn) or inexperienced (high need to learn). Also “high/low need to differentiate” refers to whether the bid they are working on is standard (low need to differentiate) or non-standard (high need to differentiate).

    They found that the value of reusing knowledge or of a conversation with experienced colleagues varied with the circumstances of the team and the bid.

    Re-use of codified knowledge
    Conversation with experienced staff (personal knowledge)
    Experienced team, standard context Harmful Harmful
    Experienced team, non-standard context Harmful Helpful
    Inexperienced team, standard context Helpful Helpful
    Inexperienced team, non-standard context Harmful Helpful

    What we can see from these results is that re-using codified knowledge is actually harmful to success in 3 out of 4 cases, while a conversation with an expert is helpful in 3 out of 4 cases. 

    This is a message to all of us working in KM – that codified knowledge alone will not deliver the full value from KM, and that conversations are also needed if we are to make the most of corporate knowledge.

    Conversation and content are the two sides of KM, and Haas and Hansen’s results show that conversation is the more useful of the two in many contexts. 

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    Management by Talking About

    Part of the way you manage issues such as risk, safety and knowledge, is by creating times and processes for talking about them.

    Steven Denning, at the Ottowa Knowledge Management summit a few years ago, said that the learning capacity of an organisation is directly related to it’s ability to hold conversations, and I truly believe he was right.

    When dealing with the management of intangibles such as knowledge, much of the process of management will be through conversation (conversation leading to action).

    For example, Safety Management is driven by conversations about safety, in order to drive awareness of safety issues and identify mitigating actions. Similarly Risk Management is driven by conversations about risk, in order to drive awareness of risks to projects and to identify mitigating actions.

    Similarly knowledge management is driven by conversations about knowledge.

    All of the most powerful knowledge management processes are driven by conversation – especially dialogue.

    • Knowledge management planning is a dialogue about “what knowledge do we need”, in order to identify learning actions. 
    • Peer Assist is a dialogue to exchange and acquire knowledge at the start of a project, in order to identify improvement actions for the project. 
    • After Action Review is a ongoing, regular learning-based dialogue within a working team, to identify improvement actions for the team. 
    • Retrospect is a detailed dialogue at the end of the project to identify and clarify the team learnings, and the improvement actions for the organisation. 
    • Knowledge exchange is a multi-person dialogue within a community or between two teams, in order to collectively make sense of experience, identify the learnings, and determine the process improvement actions.
    • Communities of practice are systems for dialogue amongst practitioners of a topic or domain.

    As Steve Denning might have said, the learning capacity of an organisation is directly related to it’s ability to hold conversations about learning.

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    Why Dialogue is at the heart of Knowledge Management

    Dialogue is the engine behind Knowledge Management – it is the primary means by which Knowledge is shared and absorbed.

    We often assume that connecting people together will lead to better knowledge exchange, but connecting wires doesn’t necessarily make a circuit. You need a way of ensuring conductivity as well as connectivity, and dialogue provides that conductivity for knowledge.

    Dialogue is different from other forms of conversation. In a Dialogue, the participants are trying to reach mutual understanding. It is a process of exchange of views and of knowledge, of both sides asking questions and of listening to the answers. It is a combination of listening, advocacy, reasoning and consensus-seeking. It is hard to imagine effective knowledge exchange without some form of dialogue.

    • Dialogue differs from argument, which is all about presentation and advocacy of views. There are no winners or losers in dialogue; you can’t say “I lost the dialogue with Peter”.
    • Dialogue differs from debate, which is all about testing the validity of a proposition rather than testing whether it is understood.
    • Dialogue differs from interrogation, where all the questions are one-way, and only one person stands to profit from the exchange.
    • Dialogue differs from discussion, which is often about analysis of detail rather than searching for common understanding.
    • Dialogue differs from reporting, which is the presentation of facts rather than the search for common understanding.

    We need dialogue because of the  unknown knowns, the deep knowledge of which people are unaware.  The person who has the knowledge (the “knowledge supplier”) may only be partially conscious of how much they do know. The person who needs the knowledge (the “knowledge customer”) may only be partially conscious of what they need to learn. The unknown knows and unknown unknowns are only uncovered only through two-way questioning; in other words through dialogue.

    Dialogue is needed, in order to

    • Help the knowledge supplier understand and express what they know (moving from superficial knowledge to deep knowledge)
    • Help the knowledge customer understand what they need to learn
    • Transfer the knowledge from supplier to customer
    • Check for understanding, and
    • Collectively make sense of the knowledge

    The knowledge customer can ask the knowledge supplier for details, and this questioning will often lead them to analyse what they know and make it conscious. The knowledge supplier can tell the customer all the things they need to know, so helping them to become conscious of their lack of knowledge. As pieces of knowledge are identified, the customer and supplier question each other until they are sure that transfer has taken place.

    Almost all of the effective Knowledge Management processes are based on dialogue. 

    AARsPeer AssistsKnowledge HandoversretrospectsHarvesting interviews, Learning Histories, Knowledge exchange – all are dialogue based. All of these processes are facilitated, and part of the role of the facilitator is to ensure dialogue rather than argument or monologue.

    Some of the elements of dialogue can be done remotely through Web 2.0 tools, though this needs to be done deliberately. We can’t assume that dialogue “just happens” over social media, any more than we can assume that a conversation will be a dialogue.

    • Blogs are 95% monologue, and although some dialogue can be sparked through blog comments, it’s more often debate than dialogue. However examples such as the Polymath project suggest that a structured approach of Blogs and Wikis can lead to problem-solving through dialogue
    • Community discussion forums can occasionally engender dialogue, but again, debate and argument are often found in there as well. 
    • Social media promote conversation, but not necessarily dialogue. The conversations in LinkedIn, for example, are mostly serial monologues, where people post their own views while seldom seeing to understand the views of others
    • Wikis allow co-creation, but not through a dialogue format, which makes them difficult for really contentious or emergent topics. 

    So how do we promote dialogue as part of our knowledge management programs?

    1. We deliberately promote, even to the extent of educating people in, the behaviours of listening and questioning, as part of a Knowledge Management and Organisational Learning Culture.
    2. We introduce the facilitated processes mentioned above
    3. We ensure our Online communities of practice are also guided and facilitated, to promote dialogue instead of argument
    4. We train the facilitators well.

    We move beyond just “connecting people”, and look at the nature of that connection, and the nature of the conversations that result. Good facilitation is key to helping this happen.

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    Should you allow people to be anonymous in company online forms?

    Is anonymity a good thing in online organisational (in-company) knowledge sharing forums? I suggest it is not, and my reasoning is below.

    Public domain image from SVG

    When you first set up knowledge sharing forums, it can be tempting to allow people to contribute anonymously, to reduce their fear of exposure. But is this a good idea?

    Please note I am not talking about public forums, where people may want to talk about personal problems – relationships problems, abuse, addiction – which they do not necessarily want their family and neighbours to know about. Nor am I talking about anonymous activism, or Wikileaks. I am talking about knowledge-sharing communities of practice as part of an organizational Knowledge Management framework.

    There are arguments for and against anonymity, and lets look at those first.

    Arguments for anonymity

    • In a toxic culture, where knowledge is power, it can be a risky act to challenge the status quo. To ban anonymous comments, is to remove the possibility of honesty. An anonymous forum creates a safe space for knowledge sharing.
    • In a non-Western culture, where admitting mistakes is not acceptable, it can be very difficult for people to admit they don;t know, and to ask for help. Anonymity again gives a safe space for asking.
    Arguments against anonymity
    • People are more likely to share positive knowledge if they get credit for it (see my blog post on keeping the name with the knowledge).
    • People are more likely to use the knowledge if they trust it, and if they trust the source. I remember, when testing an anonymous knowledge asset in an organisation, how people responded “Why should we trust this, if we don’t know where it comes from”.
    • It is very difficult to learn from the written word. Most effective knowledge systems allow you to find the contributor of a lesson, a good practice or a document, and to speak with them to learn more. With anonymity, this is not possible.
    • If the culture is difficult, toxic, or intolerant of mistakes, then an anonymous forum  acknowledges publicly that you have to be anonymous to share knowledge, and so to an extent perpetuates the culture. Conversely, if people can see knowledge being shared openly by brave souls, and those brave souls being praised and rewarded for it, then you have the potential to change the culture.

    That last one is the clincher for me.

    If you need to be anonymous to share knowledge in your organisation, something is badly wrong. Work with the culture, sure, for example providing named individuals who can share your knowledge for you if you are not brave enough, or provide alternative safe spaces where knowledge can be discussed and shared without anonymity, but don’t reinforce a bad culture.

    Instead, seek to influence it; seek to change it.

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    5 types of conversation – only one works for KM

    Knowledge Management is a combination of content management and conversation management, but which sort of conversations do we need?

    Conversation is widely recognised as the best Knowledge Management tool there is. Tacit knowledge and true understanding can be shared through conversation, but not through every type of conversation.

    The problem is that conversations do many things, and knowledge sharing is only one of them. Understanding how conversations work, and being able to influence conversations styles through facilitation, are vital tools for the knowledge manager.

    Here 5 common types of conversation. This is not an exhaustive list!

    • Small talk. Small talk is the social communication where the fact of communicating is more important than the words. “Hi, how are you? What a nice day!” all really mean “I see you, I recognise you, I have, or want to create, a social bond with you”.  Banter is one type of small talk. Gossip is another (though gossip is also a form of reporting and debriefing). Much of the interaction we see on Facebook, for example, is small talk (lol). Small talk has a vital social role, but does not share knowledge.
    • Social cohesion. Social cohesion conversation is like small talk, but the purpose is to gain social cohesion through agreement. Reminiscence is a social cohesion tool – “Hey, do you remember when …. Did you see that moment in the second half of the game where he ….”. The “Like” button is a social cohesion tool – “I am on your side”. The problem with social cohesion conversation is that it can completely mask the truth. The Solomon Asch experiment showed how social pressure means that individuals will often agree to something they know to be incorrect, in order not to disagree with the rest of the group – not to be “off-side”. Facilitators in knowledge management sessions such as Knowledge Exchange and Peer Assist need to be very much aware of the social cohesion aspect, and actively search for the dissenting voices. The only “side” to be on, in knowledge sharing, is the side of the truth.
    • Reporting and debriefing. These are conversations (or more often, serial monologues) where people state facts and occasional opinions. Most project meetings are like this. These meetings are vital to have, but are only very superficially “knowledge sharing” meetings. Facts are shared, deep understanding generally is not shared. People go away “better informed, but none the wiser”. If reporting and debriefing is the only type of conversation which happens in your projects, you need to introduce some  different processes, such as After Action Review, and Retrospect.
    • Argument and debate. These are the “win/lose” conversations. Someone has an opinion, and defends it against alternative opinions. Very often this is tied into the issue of status – “I am the expert – my opinion must be defended as it gives me my status; if I lose the argument my status will be weakened”. Debate is a milder form of argument, but both debate and argument carry the concept of winning. In debate and argument, people listen to and question their opponents statements in order to find weaknesses and loopholes. Many of the discussions on Linked-In are arguments, debates, or serial monologues. Argument and debate are hopeless for knowledge-sharing. As Thomas Jefferson said – “”I never saw an instance of one of two disputants convincing the other by argument.” The body language in the picture above suggests that this is a debate or argument.
    • Dialogue. As described in this HBR article, dialogue is the primary tool for knowledge sharing in organisations. The goal of dialogue is not winning, nor convincing, nor agreeing, but reaching a deeper level of collective understanding. In dialogue, people listen to and question the statements of others in order to understand why they hold these views. Dialogue requires listening skills as well as debating skills. In dialogue, people allow their opinions to be challenged (and indeed, welcome that challenge). In dialogue, everyone leans in to the conversation. Dialogue requires trust and openness. Dialogue is a very difficult conversational style to achieve, and until it becomes second nature in an organisation, the role of the facilitator may be vital. The facilitator watches the conversation, defuses argument, challenges group-think, ensures assumptions are questioned, seeks out the dissenting voices and the unshared opinions, and keeps the process of the conversation on track to it’s stated goal – that of building shared understanding. 
    Without good facilitation, dialogue can easily degenerate into debate and argument, or even further into opinion-stating, social cohesion and small-talk, and the opportunity for effective knowledge sharing is lost.

    Ensure you focus on Dialogue as part of your Conversation Management

    Contact us for KM process facilitation, or for facilitator training.

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