Conversation Context

If you are on WhatsApp, you are probably on a host of groups, which you have, in all probability muted. Ever seen a pattern in the conversations in these groups? If someone started a group, and you connect with old friends after say 20 years, the first few days are about exchanging notes, and reminiscing about old days. After that the lull comes in the conversation, and this is when most groups become about forwarded messages or jokes.

Friends from college have a group, which is the place for college-style conversations. After a while, the conversations turn towards politics, and discussions about the world, pretty much the way it used to be back in college (boys don’t grow up, remember?!). However, due to a number of reasons, we decided to start a separate group about political/intellectual debates. Yes, intellectual indeed, even if I myself say so. Over time, the original group, which all of us are still members of has become a group for forwarded messages.

The reason is simple … context. No conversation can happen between two people without some modicum of a shared context. Take the context away, and the conversation can’t last. As college friends, we have gone different ways in our lives. However, there is a strong shared context of our time together at college, but beyond that, the shared context is that of the world around us. And hence, these are the two topics on which conversations can sustain.

In other words, context is key.

Of Definitions …

This is the season of discussing and describing some of the fundamental aspects of Knowledge Management. On similar lines is the post by Luis Suarez about using stories for defining KM and e2.0 … interesting reading.

Beginning with the idea of definitions, there is the important part about defining KM. This is where i believe we need to do a bit of rethink. I believe that there is no single universal definition of KM, simply because there is no single, universal definition of knowledge. What i am trying to say is that if we dont know what we are managing, then the definition of the management process itself must be a little hazy. Hence, the starting point for this has to be a definition for the concept of knowledge. Now, this is not to say that i claim to have come up with a definition. And i am not even trying. All i am trying to say here is that if a universal definition eludes us, then we must look for definitions which are specific in nature, from the perspective of the world of business, and then try to build up a somewhat universal definition, which covers ample ground.

What this means is that we can define knowledge in the context of a particular scenario. Now, this definition may not be applicable outside of this context but thats ok, because if we look at a series of contexts, then every scenario, within the organization, that is, forms a context. This is akin to looking for a working definition, rather than a precse one. And once this definition can be found out, then the definition of Knowledge Management can get derived from there. Again, by definition, this definition would be contextual, but again, being a working definition, this gives us a good starting point for building up KM initiatives. And if we look at enough of these definitions, we could come up with something which is generic enough to cover ample ground, which is why i quite like the definition which Dave Snowden has given at his blog.

Having said this, this kind of working knowledge can be built up using the art of story-telling as well. However, this probably doesnt take away much from the need of a definition, because i believe that what you cannot define in two sentences is something you havent understood. But, yes, i do believe that stories can be an excellent way of building up this understanding, which in turn can be quite a good way to approach a better understanding. For example, i use stories, too, rather, examples, when trying to define Knowledge, and from there, define Knowledge Management when i am running sessions for this. I like to distinguish between three terms before proceeding:

Data: Meteorological data, collected from across the world by weather satellites.

Information: Its going to rain in Kolkata

Knowledge: Better carry an umbrella if you are travelling to Kolkata.

This also bring up the idea of relevance of knowledge, illustrating the idea that what is considered knowledge by one person may not be so by another. What i like to take as an example of this is the incident from A Study in Scarlet, where, when told by Dr Watson, that the earth revolves around the sun, Sherlock Holmes informs him that now that he knows this, he will try to forget it, because this is not relevant to him. While it is true that its very difficult to say what information, from which sphere, could lead to what new discovery, in which sphere, it is impractical to have access to all knowledge on the world, and hence, the notion of knowledge being that which is relevant comes into the picture.

These ideas can be refined by the audience to arrive at a definition of Knowledge Management, which, while being different each time, usually comes to something like:

Knowledge Management is the management discipline of facilitating the flow of knowledge in the organization, ensuring relevant information is made available to the relevant people, in a timely manner, to enable them to perform their job more effectively.

As you can see, this definition is something which is specific to the working context, like i said that probably its better to create something which is contextual, and then build upon it. Any ideas of where this definition might lead you?

Conversations …

There is a rather interesting post by Nick Milton about the value of dialogue in KM. Nick makes a very important point about the non-clarity of the knowledge available with “suppliers”, and the knowledge required by “customers”. This is so because, by definition, we cannot articulate everything. And this makes conversations very important. And with conversations, i am not just talking about people talking face-to-face, but conversation as a generic presence within organizations.

Another aspect which i wanted to bring out here is that the value of conversations also comes from the fact that conversations bring out a shared context which is important for knowledge-sharing to happen. While i believe that with knowledge-sharing within the organizational context, the organization plays an important role in creating a shared context, within this larger picture, between the supplier and customer, there must be a shared understanding of what is being shared. This becomes even more important the more diverse the supplier and customer in terms of their background, whether geographic, work area, experience, etc., because the more diverse they are, the more important conversation becomes a way to bridge this contextual gap.

Lets take another step further. If we look at the KM scenario today, we find that content management is something which is already a given. Its not as though organizations are starting to implement content management. Rather, the concept of content management is already matured, with organizations already having a good understanding of what it is about, and what it entails, and the benefits they could expect from it. On the other hand, collaboration, rather, conversation, is something which is emerging as a concept in organizations. Which means that CKO’s probably need to look more closely at this aspect of KM. Maybe we need, in addition to CKO, someone as CCO … Chief Conversation Officer?

About A Story …

My friend and ex-colleague, Nirmala, has written a nice post about The Story of a Story … Interesting, the part she writes about what makes a story useful to people listening to it. She does have a point there. We all love to discover the meaning hidden in a story. Which is why, stories with a meaning, or a moral hidden in the story is worth so much more than just a drab statement which just tells you what the story is. This is somewhat reflected in the fact that a lot of folks dont learn from other people’s mistakes … what could be called experiential learning.

Having said that, another aspect which we might need to focus upon, is that the basic idea of the story is to appeal to the thinking processes of the listener … it is only by doing this, that a story can actually get the listeners to gather value from it … and the fact that the story must successfully create a context which the listeners can identify with. It is this context which creates an intersection between what the listeners already know, and what the story is trying to convey. This is something i have written about earlier … that new knowledge is created at the intersection of two fields of knowledge. And, the most important aspect of the story is that it builds up this intersection in a way which can be identified and understood by the listener, so they can build a connect between the existing, and the new.

Learning …

Swami Rama tells a story in the wonderful book, Living With The Himalayan Masters … This story is about a student of a Master who had never seen a cow, nortasted milk, but wanted to, because he had heard that milk is very nutritious. He went to the Master, and asked for his help. The master described the cow in great detail, and then described milk as being white, and being very good for the health. Now, the student went to search for a cow in the nearby village, where he couldnt come across a cow, but did see a statue of a cow. Now, nearby, people were whitewashing a house, and the bucket of whitewash was kept near the statue of the cow. Seeing this, and the white liquid in the bucket, the student thought this to be milk, and drank it. Needless to say, he was taken ill, and had to be admitted to hospital.

This story tells us of the value of direct experience. This is an invaluable asset to enable us to learn. We may learn a lot of concepts, but without direct experience, this learning is at best, partial. This is really the value of Internalization, as termed by Nonaka and Takeuchi, too. And this is something which we need to keep in mind when the question of training comes up … Usually, the concept of direct experience is not factored into the curriculum itself within the training, and this takes a bit away from the value of the training itself.

Over the weekend, i was seeing my son doing numbers. Yes, he is actually taking time off from being part-time Batman, and part-time footballer, to learn calculations using the method of the Abacus. Interestingly, he uses exactly the phrases that his teacher uses in class, to try to calculate. “Look down, is it enough?”, he asks himself. “No”, comes the answer, from himself, and so, he looks up to carry on the calculation. This, from his scrapbook, is the exact language his teacher, uses, too.

And this is the aspect about learning which we need to leverage with stories. Whenever i used to teach Min-Max Planning, i used to tell a story … about Mom going to buy Rice … buying a fixed quantity for the month, not on a daily basis, and replenishing while there is still some Rice at home. I have written about this here. This goes to illustrate the value of building a picture for learners which they can carry with them, instead of dry concepts, and which enables them to relate concepts to things in the real world.

The Knowledge Creating Company …

This book is one of the most renowned books when it comes to the subject of knowledge. This is The Knowledge-Creating Company by Nonaka and Takeuchi. Interesting reading, no doubt. And, i am sure i am learning a lot from the book. But, having said that (and you could say this could be because of very high expectations), i find the book a bit of a disappointment. Firstly, it is a bit confusing in the way it addresses definitional issues, and secondly, it focuses on the new product development aspect, in a way which at times doesnt feel relevant in other scenarios.

Firstly, the authors mention that metaphor and analogy are tools for externalization. However, this raises the question as to whether storytelling as a means of knowledge sharing should be treated as externalization, or whether it should be treated as socialization. According to the definition in the book, it should be treated as externalization, and this somehow doesnt ring too true, because a story is not really exlicit … By the meaning of the word, the story is really tacit, because the real meaning and moral is hidden somewhere in the story, rather than being explicitly detailed, like in in data sheet. These two are qualitatively different, and this theory doesnt seem to address this difference. In other words, there is, to my mind, a difference between specific and generic knowledge (essentially, knowledge that is presented in the context in which it was created, vis a vis knowledge that has been abstracted from its context and presented in a generalized form), and this dimension of knowledge doesnt seem to be addressed here.

Secondly, somehow, another thing doesnt really come out too well … That socialization, externalization, and combination are modes which are primarily from the sender’s perspective, and in a sense, all of these must be followed by a step of internalization, otherwise the communication is incomplete. As such, internalization should be a component of all the three steps, but this doesnt come out well. For example, if someone were to write a document (externalization), does this by itself imply knowledge sharing? Or, would someone need to read and understand this document for the knowledge sharing cycle to be completed (ok, so a rather simplistic example, but adequate to actually get the point across, i suppose)? Also, the demarcation between the different steps doesnt come out too well. Although the impression one gets is that these four are substantially different forms of knowledge sharing, this difference doesnt come out clearly, and at the same time, the idea that comes out is that demarcation between the different modes is blurred. For example, if a discussion is considered to be socialization, when does this discussion move from being socialization, to being externalization? Or, if someone is writing a document based on their experiences, and is referring to other documents, would this be in the realm of externalization, or would this be combination? Somehow, the fact that many forms of knowledge sharing are a combination of these multiple modes, and people would move seamlessly from one mode to the other (as these modes are defined) doesnt come out too clearly.

Having said this, the theory is a very useful model to understand the concepts, and it would be extremely nice if the authors had built upon it, to take the nuances to the next level.

Would welcome all your thoughts and criticisms on the topic. Please do write in … Would help me understand the fallacies in my arguments. Thank You!

This Book I Am Reading

These days, i am reading a book titled Shadows of the Mind … written by Roger Penrose. This is a rather interesting book … One that i would definitely recommend to anyone who is even remotely interested in human thinking. Though, of course, you would need to make sure you are at your most alert when you are reading the book (using a language slightly closer to English would have been actually a wonderful idea …).

Just so you know … i am still on chapter 1. Though, soon to move to chapter 2! Now, that would be an achievement (and if you read the book, you would quite agree with me!). The basic point of the part that i am reading now, is that there is the aspect of understanding “what needs to be done”, and of being aware of “why it needs to be done”. And, what Sir Roger Penrose argues (to my mind, quite effectively), that while the former is something which can be easily understood by any intelligence, through the form of mathematical algorithms (i would stretch this to the hilt, and say something similar about documented information, or, if i may use the term … explicit knowledge!), the latter, in other words, awareness of what we are doing, and why this needs to be done to achieve a particular objective is something which is the tricky part.

And this is where i would extend the logic from chapter 1 of the book, to the two aspects of Knowledge Management i deal with …

Codification, which is my fancy word for documented information

Collaboration, which, to a lot of folks, is the “other” part of KM

And this is where i would like to make the point that while what some folks call KM 1.0 focussed on the former, it is the latter which is the trickier part. One of the points Sir Roger goes on to make …

It also allows us to have some kind of direct route to another person’s experiences, so that one can “know” what the other person must mean by a word …

This is where i would like to bring out the importance of collaboration … from the basic premise that there is something which is beyond the objective (i am using the term loosely here) nature of things, and this is where managerial imagination comes into the picture, to imagine an organization where this can be tapped into. And this is something which large part of web 2.0 technologies are focussing on.

This also reinforces the point that some aspects of Knowledge, and hence of Knowledge Management must remain beyond measurement, at least till such a time as we can generate a framework which is scientific, and can bring these into the scientific fold (though this is something which the book argues against … something i would surely write about again).

Tongue in cheek … there are always ideas relating to our field of work from domains which are not necessarily related. Something i have written about before.

Knowledge Intersection

I was reading a blog some days back (cant seem to find it now, or i am just too lazy on a Sunday morning … not that theres anything special about Sundays) which was talking about looking outside your field to get new ideas. Usually, you been to one conference, you been to all of them. So, the novelty usually tends to be the drinks!

I have been thinking how this concept impacts the entire idea of knowledge creation. Lets take a team … which is purely inward looking. Theoretically, if they never had any interactions with anyone from outside the team, i surmise that they would come up with ideas from within a given pool of ideas, and this pool would never grow. That the ideas and thoughts and learnings would continue to recycle from a given set, and would simply go round in circles. Anybody disagree with this premise, i would be more than happy to read more about it.

Anyway, if we build on this premise … The logical consequence of this would be that new knowledge is generated at the intersection of existing bodies of knowledge. If we were to take two teams, or individuals, with their own given set of ideas and learnings about the world around, it is in the region of intersection of their “information sets” that new knowledge is generated. It is in this intersection that ideas are exchanged freely, and ideas of the one are understood by the other, and built upon, to create completely new ideas. If these two folks didnt have any area of intersection, they would simply be like a Hindi speaking, and a Tamil speaking man put together in the same room, neither understanding what the other is saying.

The important point i am trying to make out is that we often have certain information about the world. We have knowledge … and, this combines with knowledge from others, to create new forms of knowledge.

One implication … we as KM practitioners, must look outside the field at other areas to look at newer ideas of knowledge generation, discussion, and sharing.

For example, I am reading a book titled The Indus Saga written by Aitzaz Ahsan. And, i am definitely learning so much about a country we in India dont know much about … Pakistan. So what if we are neighbours. I believe that it is at the intersection of knowledge about our respective selves and our world views that new knowledge would be created.

The question this brings out … how best can the intersection be shared between two people. This is where the importance of “mental models” cannot be overestimated. One must understand where the other person is coming from, and where they are going. And, to illustrate their point, must relate it to the image of the world the other person is carrying. And, this is where stories play a vauable role. This is where a story, using simple language, and building the essential points, can be highly effective to create an understanding of each other. Read The Indus Saga, and you would find out.

Storytelling …

The ToI ran an interview with Yasuno Yuushi … A quick search on google turns up photo results. The topic is Kamishibai … the Japanese art of story-telling. And, how the advent of television led to the decline of the art …

Kamishibai is the art of story-telling … story-tellers would typically roam from one town to another on bicycles, and tell stories anchored by pictures … These stories run in episodes … Today, you hav e an episode which follows from the previous one … much like the television serials. Similar art forms are to be found n India as well … Whether it be the Ram Lila that is performed in Delhi … in the walled city of Delhi … where the Ramlila is performed in the form of episodes. You can find a sample program here. Or, whether it be the Nautanki.

The point I am trying to make here … there are usually important lessons that comefrom these stories … the way these stories are performed (not told, but rather, performed, which gets the audience to connect at multiple levels with the story being told, the most valuable being the emotional connection), lends to them an aura of reality, which enables people to connect with them.

Should this be something the art of story-telling in the organization adopt? We know there are story-telling gurus, and there are concerted efforts at knowledge-sharing using story-telling. What I am trying to understand here is how we can incorporate the human touch to stories. This, at times, seems to be missing … and, folk art forms may contain some answers.

At another level, the art of story-telling can have huge implications for training as well … in a lot of scenarios, training is conducted using ppt (pictures?), but the fun of the story is missing. And, this is the one major disconnect between the way stories are told, and the way the connect is missing in trainings.

Paradox of Communities …

There is a scenario that is often observed in communities … Especially communities within the organizational perspective … This is typically not valid in social networking scenarios on the internet, but within the corporate intranet, this is to be found quite frequently.

Communities that begin with good membership, and with a high level of participation (and I think these are among the parameters that can be applied for determining the level of activity that is happening in the community), over a period of time, tend to wither. Membership may be there … But the conversation soon dries up. This is to be expected, too.

Lets say you meet a friend after a long time … If you are as old as I am, it could be a really long time. You have lots to catch up on. What happened to so-and-so, where is such-and-such … There are years to catch up on. The two of you are talking excitedly … But there comes a point, when the conversation falls silent. When neither of you have anything to say. The pause may be short, or it may be long. It may even go on … If this is how we as individuals interact, could we expect communities, which are, after all, made up of individuals, to behave any differently? One could say that at least someone in the community would be saying something … But, that doesnt usually happen.

And, this is where the paradox of communities is. This is not the first time this is being written about, not the last. But, the fact is, communities, in addition to corporate sponsorship (which is something which a lot of us must have see in our experiences, that communities need some kind of encouragement from the management, and that managers have a key role to play here … something AndrewMcAfee has written about … and I wrote about the paper earlier), communities also need some kind of constructive intervention, to move them … reinvigorate them, or move the conversation forward, so to say … And, I think stories have a role to play here. A story, well told, could lead the conversation to a different plane, maybe into avenues which werent explored earlier.