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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Reduce Searching Start Talking

I just saw When Knowledge Management Hurts

Professors Martine Haas from the Wharton School and Morten Hansen from INSEAD, for example, examined the use of internal knowledge systems by teams of consultants in one of the big four accountancy firms trying to win sales bids. They measured to what extent these teams accessed electronic documents and how much they sought personal advice from other consultants in the firm. They figured that, surely, accessing more knowledge must be helpful, right?

But they proved themselves wrong; to their surprise they found that the more internal electronic databases were consulted by these teams the more likely they were to lose the bid!

So I naturally looked at the citation to read the details … Does Knowledge Sharing Deliver on Its Promises?

In a study of 182 sales teams that were bidding for new client contracts in a management consulting company, Haas and Hansen found that using personal advice from experienced colleagues can improve work quality.

"We find that using codified knowledge in the form of electronic documents saved time during the task, but did not improve work quality or signal competence to clients, whereas in contrast, sharing personal advice improved work quality and signaled competence, but did not save time," Haas says. "This is interesting because managers often believe that capturing and sharing knowledge via document databases can substitute for getting personal advice, and that sharing advice through personal networks can save time. But our findings dispute the claim that different types of knowledge are substitutes for each other. Instead, we show that appropriately matching the type of knowledge used to the requirements of the task at hand -- quality, signaling or speed -- is critical if a firm's knowledge capabilities are to translate into improved performance of its projects."

There is considerably more detail here, but this certainly calls into question the idea of creating large knowledge bases. It may even call into question sharing of Effective Patterns. However, my findings indicate that using Data Driven approaches ensures that you arrive at effective sharing, but it's certainly different to share patterns as opposed to sharing additional codified knowledge.

What is hugely important out of this is the reminder of the limits of codified knowledge and that Conversation Learning is essential but that there are limits to what should be shared and how effective that sharing can be. Still, I've come to believe the most important Knowledge Worker Skill Gap is the Leveraging Networks Skill. I've discussed this many times in Value from Social Media and Networks and Communities.

The research would seem to suggest that it's more than just an uneasy feeling after searching, but the reality is that you likely are missing things. You really do need to have that conversation.

The bottom line is to reduce the amount of time you spend search and spend more time talking.

This does make me wonder what this means for professions that focus on helping to create codified knowledge?


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora TonyThis is fascinating stuff, but in many ways I find it understandable.

For instance, when someone reads the description written by another (say in a database file) much is open to interpretation. My own experience in observing others interpreting (or reinterpreting) written information found on a search, say, and my own track record in doing the same, is that it is too easy to make assumptions that turn out to be incorrect.

Assumptions also have a habit of cascading, leading to totally the wrong idea. Having made the first incorrect assumption, the reader will progress and make reasoned interpretive deductions to permit the understanding of information that follows.

Few people can write textual technical information that it is unequivocal to the majority of readers. It is the nature of editing in particular to trim and refine and this culling can often remove important information required by some to interpret and understand.

Such editing is not done to an extent when talking about things. Nuances passed on by talking to another often convey more than can be conveyed in text: body language, tone of voice, emphasis, asides.

Further to this, in talking there is opportunity for interruption and to ask questions to clarify. These too are precluded when conveying information in text, unless it is in a chat environment.

Blogs and wikis do not provide the immediacy that is required to clarify information before it is fully committed to the mind, whereas phone or F2F conversation can provide this.

Jaques Derrida believed that text was confusing and apt to mislead. As I study more about blogs (predominately text oriented) and what can be gleaned from them and conveyed to others, I find I become more aligned with where Derrida was at.

This shocks me, for I did not support Derrida when he was alive and for a long time after his passing. I still think he had some odd ideas. But his belief that talking was better than reading about it, is exactly what you are writing about here!

Catchya laterfrom Middle-earth

Maria H said...

I find this interesting too, but not surprising. I think there is time and purpose for all types of information transfer (for lack of a better phrase) and helping people learn when to use the right one is our challenge. I go back to the idea that a lot of people are talking about: that our jobs are changing because we need to teach people how to learn, and face-to-face, whether it is formal instructor-led training, meetings, informal conversations won't go away.

I worry that the move to "distance" everything, learning, working, etc. will disconnect us from each other. When I was a consultant, one of the worst projects I managed was a small little documentation project for two engineers in NJ that none of us, the account manager, instructional designer or I, had ever met in person. By the end of the contract, the instructional designer and I pretty much hated the client and they were none too thrilled with us or the end product we submitted. We communicated by phone and e-mail, but mostly by e-mail because they were traveling, often out of the country, during the project. I have no doubt the confusion, controversy, misunderstanings, frustrations, etc. could have been ironed out if only we had met with them in person, even once.

There is no doubt that you can communicate a lot in writing and over the phone, but there is something about seeing someone and connecting it all together that really makes you understand them and what they are saying. I am not surprised at the findings in the research because they were studying sales bids and in sales, so much of it is about relationship building. The information part of it can be pretty easy, but understanding the nuances of prior experiences of your colleagues with the client is invaluable and awfully hard to capture in a database. I see our jobs changing, not going away, but we need to be sure we are paying attention to everything. Building better documentation, systems for knowledge access, elearning, etc. is important and we need to do that well, but we also need to understand that part of role may be helping people build better relationships and that is much more complex, but frankly more intersting, at least to me right now.

Tony Karrer said...

Ken - great take on this. I'm maybe a little behind your thinking. I've certainly seen myself moving away from search (at a point) and towards conversation. However, I feel there must be some points when its natural to use conversation to move beyond the problems of interpretation or context that will be found dealing with existing written content. At the same time, I think what you've said about the problems of written material almost reads like a "get rid of it" - I think of it more as - when do you move by it to conversation. I really do still believe that you fight a bit with search to get a baseline before you initiate most conversation. I can't say that I've quite got that figured out in a general model.

I somewhat disagree with your comment that "blogs do not provide the immediacy ... fully committed to the mind" ... I think that the relatively slow speed of blogs is not as good as real-time, but it has a place as a slow conversation.

How do you feel about the transition from written to conversation at points?

Maria - I think your opening paragraph is extremely well said. I'm not sure we will be in position to dictate how people choose to consume information, but we should be ready with guidance and skill building about each of the forms.

In terms of distance, I used to be much more concerned about it, but I'm slowly losing that concern. I have such fantastic distance conversations of a variety of forms. I simply cannot get that quality if I limit myself to in-person.

However, I tend to agree with you about something special that happens in f2f. While projects can go well when there's not been f2f, often there is a bit better relationship building and bonding when you've had f2f.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments! Love the conversation!

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Tony!

And thanks for the quick response.

I think I tend to entertain the options in a situation more than most - that is to say, I can see a point of view, express it, and even agree with it in part but that doesn't mean that I follow it. So it is with Derrida and his philosophy. It's part of what I claim is the bath, the baby and the bathwater syndrome, that of eschewing everything to do with an idea even if it may have really worthwhile elements. I'm always prepared to look for the worthwhile elements if they are to be found. I'd never make it as a politician for that reason.

Interesting isn't it that you see that what I wrote of the problems of written material almost reads like a "get rid of it". I don't maintain this, of course - but this instance tends to illustrate my point about interpretation from written material.

What I do maintain is that it is better to be aware of possible pitfalls of using written material while making the most of the benefits. I have come across many examples of this, but it doesn't mean that I think written material should be gotten rid of. Far from it.

The transition to conversation in the appropriate environment is what I believe is the way to go.

I say appropriate. When stuck with no one to talk with, who has the capability of useful input on the subject, reverting to other means of finding out is all that's available at that time. Flicking an email or tweet about it, knowing that there is a possibility of some useful feedback, is one measure that can be resorted to in that instance - I use that a lot.

Knowing WHEN to switch is the key to efficiency in applying KM I reckon. A typical scenario that often arises in my workplace is one where I fail to find what I'm looking for (a form or other info) on our work database. Usually a colleague nearby will give me the answer when I ask, and that's great.

From time to time it starts a search by a group of my colleagues (this happens more with me than with others :-). The camaraderie is such that a few of us may well look on it as a challenge to come up with a solution. Invariably someone will triumphantly announce Eureka!

The outcome is that we all learn a bit from the occasion and our general knowledge benefits.

When to switch? It depends.

Often the switch time should come earlier than it is made. A typical example of this is when a student phones me up about a difficulty. Usually they have been grappling with it for some time, maybe looked on the Internet, read the book etc, and then they resort to taking the initiative to phone.

BUT, in describing what the problem is over the phone, it's not unusual for the student to find their own solution. By verbalising what's problematic, it somehow enables the mind to see the solution. What the student should have done, of course, is to phone me earlier.

This is another aspect of conversation that's often overlooked - that of translating thought, so that the idea becomes more apparent and hence giving more opportunity for the talker to understand.

I'm no psychologist and John Cleese isn't either, but he maintains that sleeping on a problem often solves the problem, so that it simply doesn't exist after the sleep. I wonder if it's the internal conversation that the psychologists tell us we have in our subconscious, that sorts it out for us. Who knows?