posted 1 Jun 2011 in Volume 14 Issue 8
Arthur Shelley on the role of metaphor in effective conversations and knowledge flow
Knowledge is like electricity: provide a conductive environment and it can enlighten. However, also like electricity, knowledge flows can be dangerous or easily disrupted through insular agents.
The greatest conductor of knowledge flows is face-to-face conversation between people in an environment of mutual trust. Although there are many media through which knowledge can adequately flow, they are just useful sideshows in comparison to the power of a trusted professional (or personal) network. People will willingly share their richest insights with trusted friends and colleagues and (justifiably) feel betrayed if these are further shared without their consent. How we engage in conversations both makes, and breaks, the relationships we have. Good conversations build trust, which in turn increases knowledge sharing. This leads to enhanced use (and further growth) of the knowledge and ultimately to increased performance (for all involved). Knowledge application and flow are very interdependent on a wide scope of complex factors with behaviour and mutual respect being at the top of the list.
I often rhetorically enquire of my students and clients ‘Why do we move mountains for those we trust… and place them in the paths of those we don’t?’. Such questions do not need an answer as humans intuitively know. However, rich questions are the ultimate way to stimulate ‘conversations that matter’1. Such conversations are fundamental to optimise learning and professional development and can take us to places we never would have reached by ourselves. They lead us to new heights, fuelled by shared ideas that stimulate new patterns of thought and often generate new insights. Executive coaching and mentoring programmes are largely based around stimulating reflective conversations between coach or mentor and their client for this reason. It is far better to lead our colleagues through an emergent journey of discovery around unknown questions than to tell them what we believe the answer is. If we enter such a conversation with an open mind and willing heart, we usually emerge with richer insights, deeper understanding and stronger relationships with those we partnered in the activity.
The physical and emotional environment has a significant impact on whether a trusted conversation is likely to emerge and generate desired outcomes. It depends on who is (and is not) present, timing, the relationships between those involved, the level of participation and how the context was set. Context is important for the conversation to lubricate the knowledge flow. Everyone involved needs to know the purpose – why are we engaging, what the desired outcomes and outputs are and how they will be used later (and by whom and for who’s benefit). This is where metaphor and stories help us to engage. Metaphor and stories draw on our creative side and enable us to think outside of our established patterns. Games and role-plays have similar effects. They enable us to play and experiment a little, rather than stoically remaining in expected character. This authority to explore and behave outside our normal patterns softens the boundaries of our minds, enabling restrictions to leak out and new ideas and concepts to permeate in a contrived reverse-osmosis of the normal mindset.
For the most impact, agree which behaviours best match the context and purpose of the conversation. For example, a brainstorming conversation generates a list as an output; fun and insights as outcomes; and requires creative behaviours to be successful. This is a very divergent conversation in which analytical or critical behaviour is counter-productive. However, a risk assessment or prioritisation decision-making forum needs to be a convergent conversation, requiring analytical and critical behaviours and in which creativity is usually disruptive. My recent research2 investigating the influence of metaphor-based constructive conversations on behaviour has generated insights on how this works and why metaphorical conversation stimulates knowledge flow and improves performance. Participants describe how the metaphor interactions and games have provided them with new insights into their own behaviours as well as understand the behaviour of others. This has enabled them to take different approaches to remove knowledge flow blockages and build stronger relationships with stakeholders.
Start your next conversation with an appropriate metaphor and let me know how you get on.
Arthur Shelley is the founder of Intelligent Answers and the author The Organizational Zoo and Being a Successful Knowledge Leader. He also coordinates OZAN and KMLF professional forums and teaches postgraduate courses in knowledge management and applied research practice in