Friday, April 17, 2009

Love The Conversation

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all
Love the Conversation
“Love the conversation” is Tony Karrer’s closing sentence in a recent discussion on his post, Reduce Searching Start Talking.

The poet in me reads his words as having latent yet brilliant dichotomy. I couldn’t help but be entertained by this, for the post and its associated discussion are precisely about the practical usefulness of information, brought about through conversation, rather than by a search on an information database.

Conversation can apply to discourse on a blog, chat-room, phone or face-to-face. I explore parts of that conversation here.

Tony reviews the opinion of Martine Haas. She maintains that following a knowledge sharing philosophy, using document databases within an organisation, will not necessarily bring about desired success. Key and pertinent points that Tony brings forward are:
using personal advice from experienced colleagues can improve work quality

appropriately matching the type of knowledge used to the requirements of the task at hand is critical to improved performance of projects
The question is how to apply these axioms effectively and efficiently.

Experienced colleagues

When it comes to using the experience of people within an organisation, there’s often a pecking order or hierarchy. The hierarchy does not necessarily relate to a gradation of useful experience, so a careful inspection is required to avoid selection according to invalid or wrong assumptions. All of this relates to people and how they communicate. I put forward a selection of questions relevant to this:

  1. Who decides who within an organisation has the most useful experience when it comes to learning from that?
  2. What criteria are used in this decision making?
  3. How is personality, as a factor used by decision makers, considered against experience and worth of opinion when selecting experienced colleagues, presumably from within, rather than from outside, the organisation?
  4. (a) How is useful advice that is collected from experienced colleagues translated into workable information?

    (b) What ensures that variation from original advice
    doesn’t occur through invalid interpretation or other infidelity?
Inherent in the questions 4 (a) and (b) in the above list is the need to ensure the relevance and significance of gathered information isn’t dulled or diffused by editing or judicious culling. This may be brought about through intensions unrelated to the intent behind the first gathering of information. The writing of a summary report from transcripts and the like, perhaps edited by a third party, is one area where such diffusion can occur unwittingly.

Often within organisations, either in association with government or where there is strong policy or procedural strategies in existence, there are political factors that are brought into play. Depending on how these are taken into consideration, such features can adversely influence an otherwise appropriate decision or choice. These situations are often encountered when authorities are involved, and policy is enacted, perhaps incongruously, without due thought given to implications relevant to the issue being examined.

Matching the knowledge transfer process

Helping people to learn to use the most effective means of knowledge transfer is the challenge that Maria put forward on Tony’s post. I agree that this must be where it’s at on all levels in an organisation.

The question here is where to start. It is likely too complex for a practical guiding taxonomy to be drawn up and be of any use. Drafting a program to teach adults to use the right means of knowledge transfer is probably at least as difficult as teaching children to be discerning about information accessible on the Internet. There are no hard and fast rules for this. Yet there is no doubt that discernment forms a large part of selecting efficient and effective means for knowledge transfer.

Not only is careful analysis of the type of knowledge required, but its reason for use and the possible methods for its eventual dissemination have all to be considered when making a selection.

I recall visiting a demonstration in the late 80s on the use of Phoenix, an authoring tool for creating computer assisted instruction. At the time, my interest was to use the technology for developing a course on how to use a database. The example given as a paradigm was instruction on how to dig ditches.


Appropriate information gleaned from conversation, rather than sifting for the data in a document database, will yield results that are more likely to lead to success. In conversation Tony posed the question, when should the transition from written to conversation occur? In my response, I chose an example of when this decision making is done by a student:

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.

Formal discussion

If time is at a premium, meetings scheduled for discussion tend to be rushed. Contributors tend to do their thinking during the discussion rather than before. Personalities can dominate procedure and theme, and an unwritten agenda of consensus can preclude useful debate.

In challenged discussion of this type, important issues may be overlooked for there is often insufficient time for due consideration and real thinking to be done. The concern is to ensure contributors have done sufficient thinking on the salient issues before the meeting.

Digital discussion

At first look, a wiki or other such discussion forum over time could provide the opportunity for points to be raised for further thought. But it is well known that participation in discussion of this type tends to be limited to a small minority within a group. That’s not to say that others do not read, think and further consider the issues that are tabled, but there is no unequivocal way of checking this. I now understand Tony’s earlier pursuit of mandatory participation in digital discussion.

But given that such a system could operate, there are a number of important guidelines that should be followed by the person who calls the meeting. Since an understanding of what the key issues may be is paramount to the possible and eventual success of the process, it is clear this person also has to be one who has a major leadership role relevant to the process.

Type of discussion

At a recent meeting I attended, teachers were invited for their input on an introductory diagram to be drafted, designed and eventually used in teaching part of Curriculum Level 3 - 4 Science. It was specifically for learners new to the concept. Unfortunately much of what was brought along were ideas on many and related cycles interlinked with but not directly relevant to the proposed diagram that was to be designed.

The meeting became a free for all. Some teachers became exasperated at its diffuseness. Eventually, refinements had to be made to a draft diagram through a series of to and fro emails over a number of days.

A clear understanding of the purpose of a discussion should be owned by each invited participant. Discussion parameters should be made evident to all parties before it begins. This not only saves time, but also prevents digression from the original intent.

The type of discussion expected should also be known and understood by all participants. If it is to be a face-to-face brainstorm, for instance, the contributors should also be fully versed in format and expectation. This will mean defining guidelines before the meeting, such as:
no put down – anything goes – short sharp suggested ideas no discussion – all ideas are recorded – maximum time for meeting 30 minutes.

Ambiguity wastes time

So often the issue to be discussed is only vaguely outlined and perhaps hurriedly in an agenda. Ambiguity contributes to vagueness.

There is nothing more likely to waste valuable time than participants arriving at the venue with the wrong agenda in mind. If the meeting is called to decide on a particular direction or course of action from a number of possible options, relevant information should be circulated about all the options to all participants before the meeting.

But these ideas aren’t new and they're not rocket science. They’re simply good communication practice for calling meetings. While the conversation at a meeting may be criticised, its planning may well be at fault from the start.


How well participants are committed to the cause within an issue brought forward in discussion is a moveable feast. All I can offer here is a message about ownership.

It’s not just a case of announcing the title of the topic at issue and distributing invitations. For participants to enter willingly and wholeheartedly into discussion on a topic, they must first have a sense of ownership. Their vested interest is fostered by offering opportunity to enter into cognitive discourse - they need time and occasion to think about it. That time well spent brings ownership to the participants of any conversation.

( 3 ) ( 2 ) << - related post
Ka kite anō – Catch ya later


Tony Karrer said...

Fantastic post Ken!

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Tony!

Thank you, for the opportunity to write it. After you commented I noticed I'd completely forgotten to include my response to your question on switching from written to digital. Fixed that now - not sure if I answered your question though.