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Article

The Discipline of Dialogue

  



Author(s)

David Gurteen

First Published

December 1999

Categories

Dialogue

First published in Knowledge Management Magazine, December 1999
I believe that much of what is written and said about knowledge management misses a fundamental point. Herbert Spencer, the philosopher, is quoted as saying:

“The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.”
In a recent interview, Michael Schrage, talking to Knowledge Inc. made the following insightful observation:

“I think “knowledge management” is a bullshit issue. Let me tell you why. I can give you perfect information, I can give you perfect knowledge and it won’t change your behaviour one iota. People choose not to change their behaviour because the culture and the imperatives of the organisation make it too difficult to act upon the knowledge. Knowledge is not the power. Power is power. The ability to act on knowledge is power. Most people in most organisations do not have the ability to act on the knowledge they possess. End of story.
And Peter Drucker, in his book Post Capitalist Society makes the point that:

“A manager is responsible for the application and performance of knowledge.”
So I believe that as knowledge management evolves, its focus will move away from “managing knowledge” which tends to centre on technology and all the explicit stuff, towards how people think, behave and communicate. The exchange of tacit knowledge and crucially people’s behaviour and ability to put knowledge into action will take precedence.

In making this move, I believe that by far the greatest barrier is the stranglehold that our paradigms and mental models exert over us. We are prisoners of our past, our upbringing, education and business experiences. We need to find ways to free ourselves from our limiting mindsets.

One emerging and exceptionally powerful new tool is the concept of “Dialogue” inspired by the work of the physicist David Bohm. Dialogue helps in two basic ways:
  • It frees and dramatically improves interpersonal communication - fundamental for the sharing of tacit knowledge.

  • It helps reveal to us and allows us, as individuals, to question and change our deeply held assumptions about the world – fundamental to making knowledge productive.
  • Dialogue is a disciplined form of conversation. In dialogue:
  • You prefer a certain position but do not cling to it.

  • You are ready to listen to others.

  • Your mindset is not one of 'convincing others that your way is right' but of asking what you can learn from them.

  • It is recognising that other people’s input will help you refine your own ideas or reveal your misconceptions.

  • It is not argument or debate. It is not win-lose. In dialogue all sides win by coming up with a more appropriate solution than a single person could ever have. It is win-win.
  • It is about what Stephen Covey calls ‘synergy’. This is what Stephen says about synergy in his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”:

    "Many people have not really experienced even a moderate degree of synergy in their family life or in other interactions. They've been trained and scripted into defensive and protective communications or into believing that life and other people can't be trusted. This represents one of the great tragedies and wastes in life, because so much potential remains untapped - completely undeveloped and unused, Ineffective people live day after day with unused potential. They experience synergy only in small, peripheral ways in their lives."
    Synergy is where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It’s in the relationships that exist between the parts. Again in the words of Stephen Covey:

    "The essence of synergy is to value differences - to respect them, to build on strengths, to compensate for weaknesses."
    The real power of dialogue though is in revealing our hidden paradigms. We all have different upbringings, experiences and backgrounds that allow us to see each other’s false assumptions. By engaging in dialogue we can reveal other people’s paradigms to them and they in turn can reveal ours. This helps us to see the world in new ways and to destroy a lot of inappropriate assumptions and misinformation that we all hold dear. In short I believe the discipline of dialogue is emerging as an immensely powerful creativity tool.

    Will knowledge management evolve this way? Will it focus more on creativity and the unrealised potential of the individual? It seems a natural next step and I find it difficult to see it doing otherwise given the increasing knowledge based nature of the world economy. In conclusion, I’ll leave you with a quote from David Bohm:

    "Suppose we were able to share meanings freely without a compulsive urge to impose our view or conform to those of others and without distortion and self-deception. Would this not constitute a real revolution in culture."
    ****



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