The Tao of Knowledge Management

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The other day  I sat down to share a cup of coffee with a couple of engineers I work with. One of them happens to be one of the most participative employees in KM. In fact, I can’t remember any knowledge day in which he hasn’t participated as a speaker. As we drank our cup of coffee we discussed a lot of issues regarding some of the key problems they were facing in one of their projects. A lot of lessons lessons learned had come up and they felt the need to share them not only through a written report but also through a knowledge day. I came to learn that the second engineer had experienced many of the lessons first hand but unlike his partner, he wasn’t ready to share them.

I asked him if it was because he felt uncomfortable to talk about mistakes and other negative aspects of the project. He quickly answered that he didn’t have a problem and felt that it was part of his responsibility.

He explained that he didn’t feel that he had the right competencies to teach others and address large crowds. Looking at his partner, he mentioned how he envied him, and how he wish he had the same energy when confronting an audience, how hard it was for him to prepare a presentation without using too much text and being able to adequately structure his ideas and thoughts. He also mentioned several episodes at school and university where he had to speak about a certain topic and couldn’t do so without having to look back at the presentation several times. Public talks simply weren’t his thing.  I think at some point or other we all have gone through similar experiences.

I thought about this for awhile and began to think about other engineers that may feel the same way. The tacit nature of their designs makes knowledge transfer really difficult and it becomes even more challenging when people don’t develop the right competencies to do so. But then I looked back at the other engineer and remembered that he didn’t face this problem. In fact, his talks look like something TED may want to publish in their page.   Engaging audiences and transmitting content with passion and commitment weren´t his problem.

I decided to ask him what his secret was.

He described knowledge sharing as a journey which he had undertaken many years ago when he became a teacher at a local university. At the beginning, he faced many fears, similar to those described by his partner. Overcoming them took him several years but due to the university’s efforts to train him and help become a teacher, he learned to structure ideas and adequately organize his presentations in order to facilitate tacit knowledge transfer.

He told me that teaching techniques are a big help but don’t contemplate how to face audiences and overcome nerves. In order to do so, he combined several Tao techniques in order to calm his nerves and help steer the energy from his body and reach higher levels of concentration. Later I learned that Tao techniques are used by singers, actors and other professional speakers in order to train their voices.

Taoism is a philosophical and religious tradition that emphasizes living in harmony. Some are more familiarized with Taoism due to the ying-yang perspective and its key stone work: Tao Te Ching. Over the years many forms of Tao spiritual exercises and techniques  have been developed which serve various purposes.

For example, Stephen Chun-Tao’s book “the Tao of the voice” describes over 30 exercises which may be used in order to train the voice. Striking the right vocal cords is vital for knowledge sharing. In fact, the other engineer mentioned that one of the main reasons as to why he felt he couldn’t approach large crowds was his voice.

His voice, (as described by him) didn’t come anything close to Morgan Freeman’s distinguished tone. In fact he said that after 10 minutes of carrying out any work session , he observed how his team yawned and grasped their eyes trying to overcome the sudden sleepiness. Telling a few jokes didn’t help either. It was just the tone of voice: dull, slow, and without rhythm.

The way I looked at it, is that I was sitting alongside one of the most senior engineers of the company and getting him to effectively transfer his know how to others wasn’t just a question of providing him with the adequate space and audience. Successful knowledge transfer requires something else because people don’t always buy what they hear. They buy the way it’s said.

So based on the other engineers experience, I understood that it’s vital that we help employees to develop knowledge transfer skills. Sharing knowledge involves transferring values, passion, inspiration and anecdotes to build upon. The energy of knowledge lays in these elements and we need to be prepared in order to do it.

However doing a one-on-one job will result in an endless task and the amount of time required would also demand that we steer efforts away from other KM tasks. Besides, I don’t see many organizations carrying Tao like sessions every morning to help employees garner knowledge sharing skills (although I must admit it would be an interesting thing to see)

What we need is to develop regular training workshops, provide employees with tips and general guidelines as to how they can develop effective presentations. Also provide them with a suitable knowledge base so that they won’t spend too much time trying to find information and if possible get someone to overview their presentations in order to identify weak spots.

To maximize success we also need to look at other aspects that contribute in developing a knowledge sharing culture also.

Let’s think about the TED speakers. I have often wondered what really motivates them to get up there and share their ideas with others. I believe that the power of knowledge sharing lies in the audience and in the end result of the shared knowledge.

TED speakers understand that they will not only address large audiences but also that their ideas will be embedded in TED’s page so that anyone may watch it later on. Having an audience which will not only listen but will also shape their future actions based on the knowledge they receive, gives any speaker an additional motivation to willingly share his knowledge.

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George Ayittey’s classic TED Talk (2007)

ImagenTed speaker Nic Marks 

Therefore KM has to guarantee an audience and help to pave the way for shared knowledge to become a renewable source of action. This way, employees who participate will feel that the time they have invested in sharing knowledge is not in vain. Success requires a long term view and other forms of recognition must also be in place.  I believe that senior leadership recognition is vital so you need to get them involved (in case your KM program is suffering from senior leadership absenteeism).

Heading back to the coffee conversation which ignited this blog entry, I asked both engineers to give me their insight as to how we could improve on this. I asked them if it would help to have someone assist them in preparing their presentations. Both smiled and told me that as engineers the effort behind every design gave them an overwhelming satisfaction because they knew that they had prepared it firsthand. Although developing a presentation takes time it´s clear that ownership is vital.

Nevertheless we can´t ignore the fact that some assistance is required and they suggested workshops and guidelines. I thought it would be more complicated but I realized that sometimes we tend to oversee the small things that make a huge difference.Indeed, knowledge sharing is an art. It can take many years to master it.

So we might as well begin to study Tao.

©Jose Carlos Tenorio Favero

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5 responses to “The Tao of Knowledge Management

    • Simply looking at production isn’t compatible with the scale of development that markets demand. We need to go beyond production and start aligning competencies that promote knolwedge sharing and a learning culture. Otherwise, even the best engineers will spend time reinventing the wheel and overlook past errors.

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