posted 24 Jan 2011 in Volume 14 Issue 4
When answers aren’t clever
Sometimes the interaction provoked by questions can be more valuable than the answers themselves, according to Chris Collison
Naguib Mahfouz was a Nobel prize-winning Egyptian author, who published more than 50 novels. He died in 2006, aged 95. I have to confess right now that I haven’t read any of his work but I often cite one of his quotes:
“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.”
I think it nicely articulates some of the problems we see in discussion forums and other knowledge exchanges, and is one of the reasons that communities of practice are sometimes difficult to get started.
We can coach and encourage people to be wise – to be willing to ask questions and request help and advice – which is a healthy and valuable stimulus for discussions within a community.
However, often the person reading their requests can feel that they need to provide clever answers. All too often, that’s where it stops.
I recently spoke to a knowledge manager who has been supporting communities in her organisation for several years and has had particular success with her online discussion forums. I often find myself working with organisations that are struggling to sustain momentum with this kind of thing, so I was interested to see what was different in her approach.
She talked me though the way the forum worked: “… and this is our Q&R section,” she commented, clicking deftly through the tabs in the software. “Q&R? What’s that?” I asked.
“Q&R? Why, it’s questions and responses. We used to call it ‘questions and answers’ but we found that it inhibited people who didn’t feel that they had a complete answer, but were willing to offer some kind of a response,” she replied.
I think that’s a great insight. When we use the word ‘answer’ we raise the stakes for anyone thinking about making a contribution. But if I’m just being asked for a response, and the requester will make a decision on how to interpret and apply it... well, that’s a far less threatening proposition, both for the person answering and the person asking.
ConocoPhillips, another company whose KM activities I admire, structures its discussion forums under the banner of ‘ask and discuss’. ‘You want me to join in a discussion? That sounds fine!’.
In the last edition of Inside Knowledge, I wrote about a technique called speed consulting, which applies time pressure to a problem-solving meeting, so that sharing ‘consultants’ only have time to offer imperfect suggestions – rather than perfect solutions. It’s the same principle.
So let’s leave it to the people who ask the questions to derive their own answers from our responses and inputs into the discussion. After all, as Naguib would say, they’re the wise ones.
Chris Collison is an experienced KM consultant, owner of Knowledgeable Ltd and a member of the Inside Knowledge editorial board. He can be contacted via his website at www.chriscollison.com