For too long, I have had Theodore Zeldin’s little book, Conversation, on my wish-list. Prompted by a colleague’s comment I finally tracked a copy down. (It is out of print, but extremely easy to find on Amazon or Abebooks.) I wish I had done so sooner.
The word ‘conversation’ is scattered throughout this blog. Like many others, I have made the assumption that people at work converse readily with each other and that one of our challenges in making knowledge use at work better is to capture those conversations or their product in as simple a way as possible. Zeldin’s argument is that in fact we do not know how to converse.
[T]he more we talk, the less there is that we can talk about with confidence. We have nearly all of us become experts, specialised in one activity. A professor of inorganic chemistry tells me that he can’t understand what the professor of organic chemistry says. An economist openly admits that “Learning to be an economist is like learning a foreign language, in which you talk about a rational world which exists only in theory.” The Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies [sic], established to bring all the world’s great minds together, was disappointed to find that they did not converse much: Einstein, a colleague said, “didn’t need anybody to talk to because nobody was interested in his stuff, and he wasn’t interested in what anybody else was doing.”
No wonder many young people hesitate to embark on highly specialised careers which make them almost feel they are entering prison cells. … Even a BBC producer I met in the corridors of Broadcasting House, when I asked how his job was affecting his brain, said, “The job is narrowing my mind.”
Poor quality conversations don’t just happen at work — Zeldin sees the problem manifested (in different ways) in the family, in love and generally across our social interactions. Our focus, however, is work. What is Zeldin’s prescription?
Almost everyone says that the more varied the people they meet at work, the more fun it is, though often they exchange only a few words. But creativity usually needs to be fuelled by more than polite chat. At the frontiers of knowledge, adventurous researchers have to be almost professional eavesdroppers, picking up ideas from the most unobvious sources.
Zeldin’s book was published in 1998. A year later, David Weinberger made the link between good conversation and KM.
The promise of KM is that it’ll make your organization smarter. That’s not an asset. It’s not a thing of any sort. Suppose for the moment that knowledge is a conversation. Suppose making your organization smarter means raising the level of conversation. After all, the aim of KM was never to take knowledge from the brain of a smart person and bury it inside some other container like a document or a database. The aim was to share it, and that means getting it talked about.
This view puts KM at the heart of business since business is a conversation. … It’s not just that good managers manage by having lots of conversations… All the work that moves the company forward is accomplished through conversations —oral, written, and expressed in body language.
So, here’s a definition of that pesky and borderline elitist phrase, “knowledge worker”: A knowledge worker is someone whose job entails having really interesting conversations at work.
The characteristics of conversations map to the conditions for genuine knowledge generation and sharing: They’re unpredictable interactions among people speaking in their own voice about something they’re interested in. The conversants implicitly acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers (or else the conversation is really a lecture) and risk being wrong in front of someone else. And conversations overcome the class structure of business, suspending the org chart at least for a little while.
If you think about the aim of KM as enabling better conversations rather than lassoing stray knowledge doggies, you end up focusing on breaking down the physical and class barriers to conversation. And if that’s not what KM is really about, then you ought to be doing it anyway.
One of the ways that we can encourage good conversations is to expose people to a wider variety of experiences and inputs than they would expect for themselves. I mentioned in a previous post how important this is for designers. It is important for all professionals. Likewise, one of the key factors improving people’s collaboration and knowledge sharing through better conversations is familiarity with other people. In most workplaces, it is obvious that different groups engage with each other in different ways depending on how their physical proximity and familiarity. We can influence these factors architecturally.
Steve Jobs basically designed this building. In the center, he created this big atrium area, which seems initially like a waste of space. The reason he did it was that everybody goes off and works in their individual areas. People who work on software code are here, people who animate are there, and people who do designs are over there. Steve put all the mailboxes, the meeting rooms, the cafeteria, and, most insidiously and brilliantly, the bathrooms in the center — which initially drove us crazy — so that you run into everybody during the course of a day. He realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen. So he made it impossible not to run into the rest of the company.
That’s great if one has the opportunity to influence architecture. What can we do otherwise? Zeldin might be able to come to the rescue. He has created The Oxford Muse: “A foundation to stimulate courage and invention in personal, professional and cultural life.” One of their projects is Muse Conversations:
At the invitation of the World Economic Forum held in Davos, we organised a Muse Conversation Dinner. The participants sat at tables laid for two, each with a partner they had never met before. A Muse Conversation Menu listed 24 topics through which they could discover what sort of person they were meeting, their ideas on many different aspects of life, such as ambition, curiosity, fear, friendship, the relations of the sexes and of civilisations. One eminent participant said he would never again give a dinner party without this Muse Menu, because he hated superficial chat. Another said he had in just two hours made a friend who was closer than many he had known much longer. A third said he had never revealed so much about himself to anybody except his wife. Self-revelation is the foundation on which mutual trust is built.
Even short of this, there are all sorts of small things that we can do. I think the important thing is to be aware (and to spread the awareness) that there are always more interesting things to know than what we already know, and that the people who know them are interesting in their own right. We just need to seek them out.
[A credit and an apology. The latter is due to Raymond Carver for corrupting a title of his. Mary Abraham is owed the former: colleague mentioned Conversation after I referred him to Mary's post, "Confessions of a Corporate Matchmaker", which underlines the point that those responsible for KM have an essential part to play in generating good connections from which good conversations should flow.]