posted 28 Jul 2011
In search of understanding
David Gurteen wonders whether better knowledge necessarily makes for wiser decision making.
Knowledge Management tends to focus on the management of information and knowledge in the belief that if we have more knowledge, better quality knowledge and more accessible knowledge then we will do our jobs better. This is simply not true. We need more than just improved information and the right knowledge. What we need is better awareness and understanding.
Let’s say we had perfect information – stored in a single, large, easily accessible database. Let’s say we had experts with perfect knowledge who were readily available and with whom we could easily talk. Whatever we wanted to know, we could obtain. It was there at our fingertips. Would it really make that much difference?
A few years back in the Culture section of The Sunday Times I found a fascinating article on creative writing by the author Joanna Trollope. This is how the article started:
“I am always fascinated by the idea of creative-writing courses. I completely accept that you can teach the craft, that you can give instruction how to structure a book, how to vary the pace and tension, how to write dialogue. But what you can’t teach, it seems to me, is the right kind of observation or the right kind of interpretation of what has been observed. It worries me to think of all those earnest pupils who have diligently mastered the mechanics, wondering with varying degrees of misery and rage why the finished recipe just somehow hasn’t worked.”
We can have perfect information, we can have perfect knowledge and we can have mastered the mechanistic skills to do our jobs but there is no guarantee that we will make wiser decisions or put our knowledge to productive use.
Part of the problem is that we focus too much on the mechanics of business life and, in Joanna Trollope’s words, not enough on ‘observation and interpretation’ or in my words, not enough on ‘awareness and understanding’.
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. We refuse to talk to other people in case they question our decisions. We override them when they do.
There are no single solutions to problems such as these but one element is too often missed and that is the role of conversation.
There are two barriers to conversation. 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 effectively communicate our different perceptions. If we wish to improve our knowledge and make it productive there is one fundamental thing that we need to learn to do and that is to converse openly. This will raise our awareness and our understanding of our organisational world and all that follows will benefit.
Let me leave you with one last quotation from David Weinberger, one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto:
“… the real problem with the information being provided to us in our businesses is that, for all the facts and ideas, we still have no idea what we’re talking about. We don’t understand what’s going on in our business, our market, and our world.
In fact, it’d be right to say that we already know way too much. KM isn’t about helping us to know more. It’s about helping us to understand. Knowledge without understanding is like, well, information.
So, how do we understand things? From the first accidental wiener roast on a prehistoric savannah, we’ve understood things by telling stories. It’s through stories that we understand how the world works.”
In other words ‘conversation’.
David Gurteen is the founder of Gurteen Knowledge and a member of the Inside Knowledge editorial board. He can be contacted via his website at www.gurteen.com