I’ve sat in a few conferences where there has been a bit of ‘hand wringing’, about why this is such a difficult pastime. We all know that sharing knowledge and good practice is the right thing to do, but there’s just not enough of it happening. The “bad traveler” suggestion is posed almost as an excuse, hinting at something slightly beyond our reach.
Well, I’m not convinced. The model of good practice transfer I understand is based upon three straightforward parts:
Sharing: you need a source of good practice knowledge that people are willing to share.
Seeking: people who are looking for good practice, are prepared to listen and accept what is useful to them.
Process: simple mechanisms that allow the two groups to communicate.
Here are my top six suggestions for why good practice isn’t travelling and getting its passport stamped at every opportunity:
- Ignorance – people genuinely don’t know what to do. In a world of Google and Wikipedia I think this is nonsense. I’d change ignorance to ‘willful ignorance’;
- Hubris – “what can anyone possibly teach me?” Defined as an overconfident pride and arrogance. Hubris is often associated with a lack of humility and a lack of knowledge…..; and
- Not Invented Here Syndrome – a bit like hubris. The view that nobody else would be clever enough to understand what you are doing or the “special” nature of your organisation or service;
- Knowledge is Power - “if I share what I know, you will be as clever and as powerful as I am”, often seen with subject matter experts. I understand the need to protect intellectual property, but if knowledge is so closely guarded that very few people know, it gets self-limiting.
- Turf and Territory – a bit like knowledge is power. For some people, what they ‘own’ defines their power base and who they are. Giving up territory and turf is difficult.
- Ineffective Transfer Mechanisms – with so many organisations, professional bodies and amateur enthusiasts working hard to spread good practice, I’d argue that this isn’t a valid reason. If you want the information, it’s pretty much available somewhere.
This list has re-enforced for me the idea that knowledge transfer is a deeply social process. Almost everything I’ve listed is a human activity and I’d argue that the situation of ‘good practice being a bad traveller’ is a wholly social issue. At the end of the day, if people don’t want share and learn, it will never work effectively. As Dave Snowden says in his principles of knowledge exchange, “knowledge can only be volunteered it cannot be conscripted”. As we haven’t yet built a machine that successfully sucks the knowledge out of people’s heads, we need to acknowledge the social interaction element and get much better at it. Better we recognise this and direct our efforts here, rather than into ‘enabling’ IT systems.
For possible solutions, I’m only going to say one word (for the moment), trust. People are more likely to share information with someone they trust. It’s the reason why medieval torture machines (and computer databases) don’t really work. Better to have a chat together over a cup of tea (or glass of beer), and then I’ll tell you what you really need to know.
So what’s the PONT?
- Good practice knowledge exchange is fundamentally a social process. IT solutions are a diversion away from the critical issue.
- Knowledge can only be volunteered and never conscripted (Dave Snowden). If I trust you I will share.
- Good practice is only a bad traveller because we choose through our social processes to make it one.
If you fancy finding out a bit more about the social aspects of knowledge exchange and some of the incredible things that can be achieved have a look at http://www.thenewsociallearning.com/ and read the book ’The New Social Learning’, it opened my eyes!
Linked post: On why low trust in an organisation costs you money.