Turning silver into gold

Our knowledge is related to context and experience. Just because someone is successful in one business venture does not mean they will automatically succeed again or continue to succeed in their present situation. Our ability to resolve something depends to a very large extent on our ability to apply the right learning and insight to the right situation.

This quirky relationship between context and knowledge poses fascinating questions about how we change our habits, grow our experience and expand our know-how. First, how skilful are we at exploring and reviewing our habits and self-imposed limits? Second, how talented are we at learning about what is hidden, forgotten or unknown? Third, how do we communicate our know-how in a simple and understandable way?

No doubt these questions raise a number of tensions in human communication. Even with the best of intentions and techniques of knowledge sharing, communication is not foolproof. As soon as someone tries to communicate something they lose part of their message or insight. You best see this when people try to write down an idea. It is very difficult to capture everything in a letter, an e-mail or a book. Even then, we have to expect that some of the material you share will be incorrect because it is based on inappropriate assumptions, context and facts. As a result, people need constantly to test and question their wisdom while also being prepared to explain the assumptions behind each story or message.

Getting our knowledge out is one thing but having it accepted or understood without modification is another. So we need to follow up to ensure that it is known, clear and acted upon. Our innate ability to question knowledge at all levels will ultimately determine whether we are able to transform an idea from something that may have a silver lining to something that is golden.

In this regard it is important to understand the difference between what is called explicit and tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is know-how that can be written down. It normally takes the forms of checklists, formulas or procedures. Tacit knowledge is wisdom or know-how that is locked in our mind or body.

For example, if you asked me to tell you about where I live in Sydney, I could detail a number of facts about my suburb but I would also tell you about my experiences. It is here, in the stories of my experiences, that you would move into my tacit knowledge. If you probed me you would discover more and more about the area in the city where I live and my own unique experience. It is here where you discover much deeper awareness than just facts. It is quite likely you could interview me for days and not touch the surface of what I know, not because I am especially smart but because in my mind are millions of stories and experiences. This tacit knowledge is priceless because it comes from direct experience.

Let us take the example of the Sydney Olympic Organizing Committee for the 2000 Olympics Games. At the completion of the Atlanta Games in 1996, the Sydney Committee decided to acquire many of the files from the running of the USA games . On the surface this pile of information was very useful, but much of it was not. Many of the systems and procedures were similar but the context was different, and that made much of the transfer of know-how difficult. What helped more were the real-life visits of Sydney staff to Atlanta, recording videos and audio tapes, observing what was actually happening and attending an aftergames debrief.

As you would expect tacit knowledge can take various forms. It could involve personal approaches to situations or problems, including how decisions are made and in what order. It could detail deeper wisdom behind routines, standard operating procedures and intellectual property. Tacit knowledge could be body and minds skills which require practice to master, for example, how to lead a group discussion, how to tile a bathroom or swim breaststroke. People can read about these skills but it is the practice and experience that grows their capability. Finally, there are mental models or schemes where people have developed a framework to make sense of a phenomenon or some hard-to-grasp situation, for example, how to manage hostile customers or how to cope with stress. When you quiz someone about this level of tacit knowledge they could supply you with a list of possible frameworks, metaphors or theories that help them deal with the situation being discussed. All of these could be vitally important to a business or a career.

The difficulty in extracting tacit knowledge is that much of it lies dormant in our minds and is often left unsaid. If you wish to reap the benefit of deeper tacit knowledge, people need to become skilled in digging out this deeper ˜know-how . Of course, some of this knowledge may be highly confidential, so this issue would need to be discussed beforehand. However, by making an extra special effort to record, observe and write down tacit knowledge, you can start to understand what and why people think as they do.

There are numerous ways to help the sharing of tacit knowledge. Here are eleven examples:

  • Have people tell relevant stories, saying what they did and what they learnt.

  • When you are coaching, think aloud . Share what you are exploring and why.

  • Write down the history of an important experience. Then discuss the thinking and insight that came from each stage of your story.

  • Write a case study based on a real-life situation. Then have a team of people explore their approaches to the situation.

  • Do plenty of reviews of what is actually occurring during an experience.

  • Encourage people to share their new understanding when they are experiencing new knowledge.

  • Use experts to develop models or frameworks from people s tacit experience.

  • Watch how others interpret and experiment with an idea. If you are the originator of the idea you could gain more insights.

  • Take a theory or a hypothesis and test it. Take abstract notions and hunches, and dig around and see what works or does not work.

  • Set up informal chats and dig deeper into what is on people s minds. Free-wheeling conversations provide wonderful anecdotes and ways of thinking.

  • Organize knowledge fairs to explore thinking, work in progress and to test assumptions. The greater the cross-fertilization and collaboration the better!

Finally, when it comes to simpler explicit knowledge, ensure that the knowledge is properly codified and accessible to the right people. Having a large database of lessons learnt can be useful but it must be well organized and easily retrievable. A large reservoir of stored knowledge is worthless unless it is put to use and is frequently updated and improved.

Winning the Knowledge Game. Smarter Learning for Business Excellence
Winning the Knowledge Game. Smarter Learning for Business Excellence
ISBN: 750658096
Year: 2003
Pages: 129

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