Friday, July 17, 2009

Conversations that Click...!

I had an intellectually stimulating conversation with a friend from the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) this morning. Such conversations don’t, however, come too often. Left me wondering “why not?”. Obviously, if you know me well, you might have guessed by now that I am likely to view such a topic through the “KM-glass” (knowledge management).

KM passionately advocates the sharing of knowledge. But the sharing of knowledge is definitely not a one-way process. It is about two-way interaction and conversations. It is not enough to just share what you know. You need to follow up to know if what you shared has reached the other person. You need to encourage questions, be open to the other person’s views and be ready to learn from her. You need to be totally engaged in the conversation in order to transfer and enhance the knowledge that you started with and create new knowledge. But, admittedly, things are not as easy as they seem. To document what you know may be with you the work of a moment but letting that evolve into something else via intense conversations is a challenge for many of us. More often than not, conversations are either abandoned, or result in no meaningful outcome, or are dominated by one of the parties, or involve two parties on two altogether different tracks that refuse to merge etc. On rare occasions, the conversations click and begin to make meaning. On unique occasions, such conversations further lead to a Eureka moment - what might be called an inspiring outcome that subsequently results in effective action or learning. So, what does it take to be involved in conversations that click? Or rather what does it take to create an environment that make conversations click? What does it imply for KM?

  • A lot of us use the term “wavelength” pretty frequently when it comes to conversations and relationships. We supposedly get along well with people who “share the same wavelength”. I believe that this does not necessarily mean people who have a similar cultural or educational background. I think it goes beyond that and into a spiritual realm. There are some people that we can relate to irrespective of whether we share their views or not. We find it easy to listen to them and vice versa. We are able to have a strong argument without contemplating gifting a coffin at the back of our minds. Maybe it revolves around what we think are the intentions of the other person or the respect that we have for that person or something else on these lines. Which, by the way, is closely related to the topic of (natural and unconditional) trust.
  • A lot depends on the frame of mind that we are in at the time of the conversation. What time of the day is it? What else is on your mind? Is something else bothering you and not letting you concentrate on the current conversation? Are you physically/mentally tired? Do you have the energy needed to be completely involved in a conversation? Are you in the “flow”?
  • Obviously, your involvement and interest in the topic are major criteria. It not only decides the time you’re ready to invest in the conversation but also the ideas that you are capable of generating. Sometimes, it is the other person’s ability to draw your attention and inspire you into the conversation even if it isn’t a topic you understand too well. If the topic really excites you, you might even persist until the conversation clicks
  • Another obvious factor that determines whether the conversation will click or not is based on the prior knowledge you have on the topic and more importantly your ability to understand your knowledge levels and accordingly dictate or listen to the other person

So, is there something that organizations can do to make conversations click or at least make them more tangible? Is it possible to get everyone on the same wavelength? That sounds ridiculous but not everything that sounds ridiculous is actually ridiculous, what? It may be quite possible to ‘find’ people who are tuned into the same thing and yet keep the population diverse enough for creative thinking. After all, this is the art and science of many start-ups.

One immediate thing that comes to my mind is the role of knowledge and social networking tools such as Linked In, Facebook, and Twitter. These can help people find others who share the same wavelength from anywhere in the world. Organizational equivalent of such tools can help find people from within the organization (especially when it is a large one). [Meanwhile, some people are lucky enough to bump into humans in the same wavelength zone in their own teams/neighborhood etc but that’s a rare thing]

Increasing the frequency of conversations is something that may help improve the opportunities to have conversations that click. This will have to be via conferences, workshops, mixed-audience training programs etc. Encouraging a culture that values and celebrates conversations would certainly have an impact. The management must not only promote such a culture but also allow employees to act upon what is invented/discovered amidst such conversations. It may influence employees to engage in serendipitous conversations and act upon their pet ideas. [Google is a universal example for such an atmosphere – 20% employee time on pet projects]

Any thoughts? Stories about stimulating conversations you have had with people? What do you think is required for conversations to click?


Nick Milton said...

Re conversations

The key is opennesss, and dialogue. Dialogue is not the only form of conversation - discussion is also possible, as is debate, as is argument, as is verbal fight. If a company wishes to promote conversation as one of the levers of KM culture, they need to introduce dialogue-based processes into the work structure, such as Peer Assist, After Action review, Retrospect, Community Knowledge Exchange, Knowledge handover etc.

Not conferences please - conferences tend to be "show and tell" rather than conversations. Not Twitter please - how can you have true dialogue over Twitter! Nor are social networking tools ideal for dialogue - look at the exchanges on Linked-IN - they are exchanges of views rather than dialogue.

Conversations need to start face to face, and need to be well facilitated. See here for more details

Nimmy said...


Thanks a ton for leaving your thoughts here. Much appreciated. I completely agree with you on the need for methods like Peer Assist, AAR etc to promote conversations.

When I wrote about the need for tools like Linked In and Twitter, I was not talking about having full-fledged conversations via them but I was talking about their role in helping people find others who share similar interests! The same is the case with conferences...the presenter may be preaching about something, but you have a great opportunity to find and establish contact with someone worthwhile when you're taking a tea break! I've personally had some great conversations at conferences because many of the people in it are in a mood to discover and share knowledge and debate over issues!

But yes, if I were to expand this post to cover more about the intricacies of having conversations, I must delve into the methods you refer to!