Knowledge Management and Real Conversation




David Gurteen

First Published

November 2001


Awareness; Knowledge Management; Understanding; Conversation


United Kingdom

There are many barriers facing the productive use of knowledge within organizations today. I'd like to take a brief look at three of these roadblocks and suggest how ‘real conversation’ could help reduce such barriers.

The Problem of Involvement

I was at a KM conference recently where a woman in the audience explained to one of the speakers that her organization had implemented an IT-based KM system that no one would use. She wanted to know how people might be made to use it.

Now in the old command and control days of business, managers could make workers do as they wished. Manual work and clerical work are visible - we can monitor people's activity relatively easily. But knowledge work – ‘mind work’ is far more difficult.

When it comes to knowledge workers using a KM system that only supports them in their work - that they can chose to use or not use and still get results - then no one can make them use a new system and or make them change their behavior.

There are many things that you can do to ensure that knowledge workers use a technology-based KM system but by far the simplest and most obvious is to involve them in the project from the very beginning. Knowledge workers should participate in the design and development of such systems. They should have ownership.

This was the answer given to the woman at the conference but her reply was "Oh - but we did not have time for that - management wanted the system yesterday!" So what did management get? "A system delivered on time that no one used."

The Problem of Motivation

Much is talked about how to motivate knowledge workers and worse still how to make them adopt knowledge sharing behaviors. But a ‘true’ knowledge worker should need no external force or motivation. More often than not, organizational barriers and demotivators simply need to be removed. True knowledge workers will take the initiative and responsibility for what they know, don't know and need to know.

Managers cannot mandate knowledge sharing behaviors or the use of KM disciplines or tools. They certainly cannot mandate the mindsets required by knowledge workers - the way they see and perceive the world.

In a knowledge-based organization the role of a manager is quite different to a more classical organization. Managers are more coaches or mentors than controllers. In many ways managers and individual workers are little different in their need to understand KM and to leverage knowledge. They fundamentally need the same skills and mindset.

Personally, I tend not to greatly distinguish managers and workers and when talking and writing about KM, I adopt a ‘we’ approach. That is I write sentences such as:
    "How do we all learn to better collaborate together?" (i.e. managers, workers and consultants)
Rather than:
    "How do we make them (knowledge workers) collaborate?"
The former assumes that as managers or consultants we are ok and that everyone else is not ok. It is divisive and betrays the obsolete mindset of command and control. In general, managers and consultants are not any better at sharing knowledge than knowledge workers – often worse.

The Problem of Action

Lets say we had all the information and knowledge that we ever needed. And what’s more – it was perfect. That it was stored in one large easily accessible database. Lets also say that we had experts with perfect knowledge who were readily available and with whom we could easily and readily talk.

Nirvana! What ever we wanted to know, we could obtain. It was there at our fingertips. But would it really make that much difference?

Let me give you a quote from Michael Schrage:

    "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 behavior one iota. People choose not to change their behavior because the culture and the imperatives of the organization 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 organizations do not have the ability to act on the knowledge they possess. End of story."

Or a more cutting comment still from a business consultant I invited to a recent KM conference:

    "David - this KM business is really just a load of bollocks. It does not address the quality of the decision-making! What is the point of having all this KM stuff in place if people still make lousy decisions? If they don't use it or if they do the wrong thing - even exceptionally well - they would do better to do the right thing very badly and not bother with KM at all!"

In short, even if we made perfect knowledge available there is no guarantee that we will understand the world any better or make wiser decisions or put it to productive use. We 'tune out' what we don't wish to hear. We ignore information that does not seem relevant or does not fit our preconceived ideas. We assume we have the answers and look no further. At times, we are arrogant and ignorant and blissfully not aware of it.

Real Conversation

To my mind, one way to help reduce the above barriers is to start to engage in conversation - real conversation - to learn it, practice it and encourage it. We must start to seriously consider the fundamental problem that we are not good at talking with each other.

First, we do not listen to each other.

Second, we do not say what we think. We do not tell the ‘truth’ – we do not explain how and why we ‘perceive’ the world differently.

If we want to improve our knowledge and make it productive there is only one thing that we need to learn to do. That is to improve our understanding - to become more aware. Much will follow from this.

There are two ways in which we can improve our understanding of our organizational lives. We can learn from the pain as our illusions and false ideas clash with a continually changing reality. Or we can take another route – listen and tell the truth.

On Listening

Do we listen, in order to confirm what we already think and in order to reply? Or do we listen in order to discover something new? Do we enter into a conversation with a willingness to learn rather than to force others to agree?

Are we willing to change? Are we open to the truth, no matter what the consequences, no matter where it leads us?

Are we willing to admit that we are wrong? Maybe we have always been wrong. Maybe our views are just no longer appropriate in a rapidly changing world. But wrong nevertheless.

Are we ready to listen? Are we open? And by being open, I do not mean gullible. Being open does not mean swallowing everything we hear "hook, line and sinker". Or being talked over and walked upon - not standing for our point of view. We still need to challenge everything but from an attitude of openness, not stubbornness.

On Telling the Truth

Are we prepared to tell the truth? Are we prepared to describe the world as we really see it? Are we prepared to accept that in being honest we will scare people? Are we prepared to deal with people, who when we tell the truth, will perceive it as a personal assault - an invitation to battle rather than the beginning of a real conversation?

We resist speaking the truth, and we avoid hearing it, too. But by speaking the truth and being prepared to listen to the truth we become more self-aware and better understand the need for change.


All the best technology in the world; all the information and knowledge that we might ever need at our fingertips; all the tools and techniques that we are ever taught to manipulate people and get our own way will never compensate us for a lack of real understanding of what is going on around us.

It will never compensate for our failure to involve other people in our thinking and our plans. It will never compensate us for our lack of understanding of what really motivates people. And it will never compensate us for making bad decisions because we have failed to sufficiently talk to other people with relevant knowledge and insights.

Real conversation can however help address all of these issues. It is through real conversation that we learn to see and overcome our myopia.

Video: The Story of Stuff

The Story of Stuff: From its extraction through sale, use and disposal, all the stuff in our lives affects communities at home and abroad, yet most of this is hidden from view. The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world. It'll teach you something, it'll make you laugh, and it just may change the way you look at all the stuff in your life forever.

Media Information: Image

If you are interested in Knowledge Management, the Knowledge Café or the role of conversation in organizational life then you my be interested in this online book I am writing on Conversational Leadership


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