Better conversations, please

Dave Pollard's written a good piece on the failings of Knowledge Management. I like his emphasis on the need for good one-to-one conversations.

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

Rob Paterson’s New Bedford post linked to a long article by Dave Pollard. This is the bit that most engaged my attention. (Dave’s great reporting my italics for the bits that really jazz me)

What is the problem KM [Knowledge Management] has been trying to solve?… I surveyed the people of Ernst & Young about this three years ago, and here’s how some of them answered this question:

1 “We don’t know how to effectively organize, manage and find the information we have now, in our offices, on our laptops, and in the few shared databases we use, so we waste a huge amount of time ‘looking for stuff’.”I heard this a lot, and only personalized, one-on-one coaching, can alleviate this problem.

2 “We don’t know who to talk to, to get information we need quickly, inexpensively and effectively.” I heard this a lot, too, which is why I’m such a fan of expertise-finders and other social networking applications, even though the first generation of such tools fall short.

3 “When we do know who to talk to, we can’t get hold of them.” It’s a tragedy that we have these wildly over-engineered communication tools with 1001 useless functions, but no one has grappled with the very human, critical problem of setting priorities for conversations, and getting the people who most need it access to the experts quickly. There has to be a better answer to telephone-tag and e-mail tag.

4 “Meetings, training courses, presentations and other group activities are largely a waste of time — they’re badly managed and often unnecessary, but we participate because we’re told we have to. Teaming and collaboration are largely management myths — the real, important, effective, valuable work is individual or one-on-one, and we know how to do it.” Many business-people spend up to 30% of their time in group activities scheduled by others.

5 “We need to find ways to stop doing a lot of things that aren’t important.” E-mail and other new technologies are causing people to spend more and more time doing things that are urgent but not important, and sometimes things that are neither urgent nor important but easy to do, so the important things get deferred and added on to an already long and onerous workday. Paperwork from management is another contributor — front-line people say it’s all one-way communication (up), that most of it is unnecessary or automatable, and that cutbacks in administrative support staff simply shift this administrative work to front-line people, adding to their job.

6 “We don’t know what we don’t know. When we fail (to win a proposal, to complete a project on time or on budget, to keep an important customer or employee etc.), it’s almost always because of what we didn’t know, not because we did our jobs badly. If that knowledge was available, we’d have it, and we’d never fail. It’s not, and nothing anyone can do will change that. The famous saying ‘If only HP knew what HP knows’ is wishful management thinking — HP does know, 99% of the time, what HP knows. And in the other 1% of cases, the problem is size and bureaucracy, not bad knowledge management systems.”

7 “We’re past information overload, we’ve reached information exhaustion. There’s not enough time in the day to read everything we should, let alone everything we’d like to.” How can we help workers filter and rank the material in their various reading stacks and inboxes, and how can we get it to them in more succinct form without sacrificing important context?

8 “We spend far too much time wordsmithing and writing, and not enough time talking to people — customers, employees, colleagues, experts and thought leaders in our field.” ‘Face time’ is a critical factor in relationship building, in selling, in customer and employee satisfaction, and in learning effectiveness. Key decisions are made and key contracts won more often on a few well-spoken words than on a finely-crafted written report or proposal. And most workers’ oral communication skills — one-on-one and in group settings — are sorely lacking.

I don’t know about you but that makes a lot of sense to me. My italics draw attention to the need for really good one-to-one conversations, instead of superficially efficient but clumsy mega-systems and more blankety-blank conferences. That final point about obsessive wordsmithing really resonates. That’s exactly where so many brand consultants waste their time and clients’ money: in ridiculous perfectionism about copy and fonts, as if they control how people respond to the brand. The good brands (in my life, anyway) are the ones where I feel like I can have a good conversation with the people.

The trouble is, as I’ve moaned before, is that organisations tend to reward grandiosity and clever-sounding, complicated proposals over much less pompous, simple interventions that are just common sense.

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