Wednesday, 21 March 2012

'We Need To Talk': Conversations and KM

Barriers to communication

My first post was about jargon, which is a very effective barrier to communication within an organisation. In this post I want to discuss the importance of face to face communication. If knowledge management is all about capturing the personal experiences of people, then I would suggest that one good way of extracting it is through human interaction – that is to say an old fashioned conversation. But first we need to overcome some problems.

Virtual Distrust?

Electronic methods of communication (inclusive of emails, texts, DMs, any other social media, LinkedIn etc, blog messages) are necessary in a global business environment. When used effectively to link people around the globe, you wonder how we managed without them.

For general information based exchanges such as sending instructions, feedback, summaries and provision of raw data, a plain, unambiguous email is perfect. Yet how many times have you had a troublesome matter go back and forth by email, only to be solved in a couple of minutes just by picking up the phone? It’s better than a deluge of increasingly frustrating messages.

The problem arises when electronic communications become the normal way to have conversations in organisations. As Edward M Hallowell in his article on the need for Human Movement in business categorically states, ‘its absence can lead to organisational chaos. When ambiguous and confusing communications abound, trust withers, anxiety and mental fatigue flourish, and bad decisions ensue’.[1]

An organisation in this distrustful, anxious state cannot possibly be in the position of entertaining any form of knowledge management. So what can an organisation do to overcome these barriers?

Trust in the physical

According to an academic paper, the evolutionary process has endowed us with sophisticated abilities for ‘face to face’ communications – or to put it another way, we are really good at ‘having conversations’.[2] Our innate skills, not only in understanding language but also non verbal communications such as facial expressions and body language mean we get more from a human encounter than just words.

Culture and the way it affects language and communication is a very hot topic at the moment with two fascinating books being published in the past few months.[3] Mark Pagel states in his book that the more you share somebody's culture, the better you will be able to predict their behaviour, and the easier it will be for you to decide whether you can trust them to act in your interests in any given situation.[4]

A couple of examples

Take a meeting with a publishing company representative. They have just been assigned to you. You may have exchanged a few emails, however until you have actually met this person (over a coffee, in my case with reps), there is little or no rapport so how can you make a judgement about them? You need to trust this person to reliably pass on information, provide insider industry knowledge, exchange news about your counterparts in other organisations and get the best service from their company. After a successful meeting, subsequent electronic communication is far less impersonal.

What about internally within companies? Knowledge managers are invaluable in helping non IT people and IT specialists communicate because: 1. they have an understanding of both; 2. and an understanding of the different group’s language. So when a knowledge manager is acting as a conduit, for example explaining how an aspect of a document management system can be used in a more efficient way to a group of lawyers, a physical presence is invaluable. Any confusion, ill feeling or tension can be diffused and all parties reach a certain level of understanding. A KM/Information Manager can be relied upon to connect people/ideas and build trust.


Communications technology is essential. However do not exclude real life social interaction. Having a conversation with someone in the office or industry creates an environment of trust which enables you to learn, exchange ideas and make sound business decisions.

[1] Edward M Hallowell, ‘The Human Movement at work’ Harvard Business Review (Summer 2010) 74-82, p77
[2] Ned Kock, ‘Evolution and media naturalness: a look at e-communication through a Darwinian theoretical lens’, 2002 Twenty-Third International Conference on Information Systems, 373-383
[4] Review from the Independent 16/3/12

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