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Archive for the ‘Conversations’ Category

Language often makes things quite concrete, but I think at times it’s worth reflecting on the plasticity of language. It evolves over time, and as it evolves meanings change, subtly, but with quite large consequences.  Information is an everyday case in point. We all understand what it means, or do we? Relative to data, it’s more structured, more analysed, less raw (or more cooked?). Some experts argue that explicit knowledge is simply information, because it becomes detached from the richness of context and know-how about how it is usefully applied. Even though I was once a Latin scholar, I often neglect the underlying roots of the word. I was reminded of that the other day. It was one of those serendipitous light bulb moments because as words were spoken, I happened to be thinking about information as evidence. Some-one was talking about doing things in formation. Of course they meant in a regimented, structured way, like flying or marching in formation. Even though I know very well that the Latin verb ‘informare’ means to give form and shape to something, (maybe an idea, a conception of some sort or a disposition that shapes something else) I was still falling into the trap of viewing information as something more objective, permanent, solid and reliable than I should be. There is no suggestion that in forming something it becomes set in concrete, in the original meaning of informare. ‘In formation’ means under development, ie forming, tentative. The word conform comes from the same root, but has more permanent implications, perhaps because conform is about forming together with others and over time, the meaning gets agreed and so becomes more permanent. When more people together have considered the information, evaluated its relevance and utility in context, then perhaps there might be more reason to conform. Still, not a certainty for me though, as I rail against conformity much of the time!

http://blog.29daysto.com/2011/01/20/ten-things-thou-shalt-do-or-not-do-to-thy-fellow-man/

How do we receive information?

Quite simply though, if we thought more about information as potential knowledge in formation, would we be so obsessed with capturing it, storing it, protecting it? For some information, yes, we still would. For example, where it has enduring personal value – my bank details, mother’s maiden name, birth date and address are a package of information, I would expect businesses to protect very carefully. The consequences of not doing so are obvious and expensive. But that’s because the formation of those particular items together has a very specific, repeatable use in many contexts related to my identity. But there are many, many situations, where the information we capture in reports has been formulated into an argument, but the argument is still formative. In other words it is subject to change, refinement, interpretation. As Alison Donaldson points out in the chapter on the social life of documents, in this book about communities of influence they are important as stimuli for conversation and dialogue, and to represent ones reasoning at a particular moment in time. Unfortunately once the words are on the paper, often we neglect that social life, and they become set in stone (a historical metaphor that probably explains a lot about why information is NOT seen as in formation).

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In the past month, all we have done is think about the KM forum conference. I’ve learned so much studying the speakers’ slides, reading their papers, and then writing about the topics on the blog.  Yet even though all that mental activity was intense and fascinating, it’s not until you actually feel the buzz in the room, hear the speakers bring their slides to life, and have the conversations with them and all the delegates that intellectual comprehension becomes impactful knowledge, which will shape my plans, or reactions in future.  Cognitive knowledge has nowhere near the same impact as the deep connection and resonance that lived experience brings.  It can be a real jolt.  Knowledge in the written word is weak, the spoken word in conversation is stronger, but experience has a more lasting effect on how knowledge changes our perspective and behaviour.  The huge power of experiential learning was something that seemed to crystallise for conference delegates too as the conference progressed.

Sparking ideas and colouring experience

A strong sense of its importance seems to have been sparked when David Gurteen shared his interest in Positive Deviance (How unlikely innovators solve the world’s toughest problems) over dinner on Wednesday!

The following morning, Professor Jean Bartunek fuelled the fire when she talked about how emotions colour experience either energising or de-energising peoples’ response to change. Feelings are contagious, which means change leaders have to work with a much more finely hued picture than rational analysis can outline.

These implications were brought to life in Nick Milton’s Bird Island Workshop. It was fabulous to watch 10 teams hand on, down on the floor building brick towers. Thanks to everyone who participated so enthusiastically. And thanks to Nick for the courage to venture into untried territory and work with so many groups. It was worth it.

Knowledge in Action building experience and relationships

The inspiring thing was to feel the buzz when so many people realised the difference between what a team can achieve and what an organisation could do when everyone has access to knowledge assets AND are inspired to extend themselves beyond their self imposed constraints. Eyes lit up and ambitions over what was achievable grew. But even more importantly much more was achieved.

In the afternoon, Tim Harford added a dose of realism with his stories about how complex the world is, how hard it is to unravel the real nature of a problem and how small events can have enormous unforeseen consequences as they cascade through highly connected economies and organisations.  It’s hubris to imagine we can control events.    The only way to navigate the turbulence is trial and error, refined by frequent feedback.  (Enjoy Tim’s views on the God Complex again here)

The problem is that trials always involve incomplete knowledge and error means failure. So experiential learning comes with an emotional health warning. Don’t get despondent, we just have to try, try, and try again, whilst, as far as humanly possible, taking care to ensure we and our organisations fail safe. That way you have the chance to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and take another learning trip!

Undaunted, In March, we set off into our 13th year of learning in the KM Forum. We hope it will be enlightening even with the ups and downs of trial and error.  Join us in the experience if you can.

If the conference experience inspired you to do something different or changed your perspective, then please do share below.  If you missed the experience, even though we know the written word is a poor substitute, we will be writing up the whole event in a report, so watch this space.

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Many of you know Ditte Kolbaek from Oracle.  She will be joining us at Henley on 29th February. Many members will remember she presented her work on Proactive Reviews at the June meeting of the Henley KM Forum.  Members can download her slides from here

Proactive Review is a method of knowledge sharing, knowledge creation and knowledge implementation that results in learning at three levels: the learning of the individual, the learning of the team as well as organisational learning. The method is based on dialogue between the people who have completed a task together. A Proactive Review is a way of conducting a dialogue with a certain structure and a given time frame. Using this structure ensures that the group creates a result within the given time of the Proactive Review.

 

But if you missed it, then why not take a look at her book, which has just been published, or take the chance of talking with Ditte at the Henley KM Forum Conference.

Knowledge in Action Issue 15. Improving the Quality of Conversations

Having talked with Ditte myself, I know that the method really depends a lot on good facilitation skills in generating a very high quality of conversations within the group.  (If you haven’t already, then why not download the Knowledge in Action No 15. which focuses on improving the quality of conversations to enable effective knowledge sharing. It’s free on the Forum web site).   Ditte spends a lot of her time travelling the world and developing and enhancing people’s ability to facilitate high quality conversations in these Proactive Review sessions.

Facilitation is something that is often underplayed as a practice, and there is a lot of debate as to whether those who do it need to be experts in the subject area or not. Having expertise can predispose you to bias, whereas facilitating content free means you are a dispassionate observer and so more likely to be a supporter of the conversation, rather than colouring the process based on your own preferences.  The downside of this is that someone who doesn’t understand the topic may not pick up on the subtleties of the conversation or the critical turning points where the emotional state of the group changes because a particular element of discussion affects the tone or the sensibilities of participants.

One of the other interesting aspects of this is facilitating across cultures. If members of a conversation come from different backgrounds and cultures the assumptions that underpin the way they communicate are going to be very different, and a facilitator needs to be aware of these in order to pick up on the differences.   One of my DBA students is studying the adoption and absorption of certain Western techniques for facilitating and co-coaching. Some Japanese companies are adding training about these topics into their approach to management development because they want to encourage more creative thinking. They seem to feel that they should challenge some Japanese cultural traditions of learning by listening to the voice of age and experience.  Traditionally Japanese education is about absorbing from wise masters in the field.  So challenge and questioning has not been encouraged. It seems that many Japanese managers find our western approaches to management education quite alien. Our Western assumptions that adults learn best from their own experience, certainly can neglect the wisdom of age and experience, but it brings in the contribution of meaning and engagement. In an uncertain world where the past is not always a predictor of the future, there is benefit in learning from the experience of youth, too.  Performance comes from harnessing the diversity of relvant and valid experience and co-ordinating it so that it delivers on some coherent and worthwhile purpose for the business.  What we have to be careful to discriminate against is the tyranny of anecdotal evidence that is opinion without any repetitive pattern, whatever generation the view comes from.  Encouraging learning across generations rather than up and down generations is one way leadership can impact on a climate for knowledge and learning. It’s something which we need to investigate further in this era of social media. Possibly this might be something that comes into our action learning groups this year under the topic of mindsets. Alternatively it might be part of the research project we propose for 2012. Get your thinking hats on and consider what would be most useful for your practice in the coming year.

 

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