Better Workplace Conversations

Quote of the Week

Knowledge is the only instrument of production that is not subject to diminishing returns.”
~ John Maurice Clarke

Better Workplace Conversations

by Loren Ekroth

The ability to create relationships of trust and sharing, so valued in family life, has taken on new importance in the workplace.  As our economy is based more on knowledge, the single most important asset in many organizations is the knowledge worker who has the ability to learn from others, create new knowledge, and transfer that knowledge to co-workers.

In organizations where informal conversation is seen as time-wasting, the rule has been to “Stop talking and get back to work.”   This rule may have been appropriate to the assembly lines of the industrial age, but it is not helpful in the workplace of the information age. The life-blood of the knowledge economy is conversation. Through all kinds of talk in the cafeteria and hallway, in bull-sessions around the water-cooler, phone visits, shop-talk over coffee, knowledge workers are often sharing critical business information.   Perhaps they’ll sketch a new idea on a napkin or ask a challenging question that will change another’s thinking so that a fresh insight comes to mind.

Data and information can be transmitted electronically, but it is nearly impossible to transfer knowledge by technological means alone.  That is because true “working knowledge” contains values, personal experience, expert insight, and emotion.

For one person to actually absorb knowledge coming from another person usually requires direct contact between people — what the military calls “face time.”  Second best can be “voice time” — contact by telephone.  To understand, we often need to get the “feel” of the knowledge as conveyed through all the senses.  Because knowledge is “alive” and has a personal flavor, it needs involvement of the heart and gut as well as the head.  It doesn’t thrive in hard-copy or electronic captivity.

Some time ago I had several serious computer problems.   I dutifully read through the detailed manuals and found some information that seemed relevant.   Then I spent a lot of time trying things — few of which I fully understood — worrying that I might create even worse problems.

Giving up, I came to my senses and hired a knowledgeable computer science student to help me for a few hours, and that made all the difference.  His “felt knowledge” conveyed a quiet confidence, and his simple, well-paced explanations made sense.  I experimented; he gently coached and corrected.  After a short time, I “got it” and was able to manage on my own with much more confidence than any manual could provide.

To share, acquire and even create working knowledge, we need the abilities to establish rapport and create trust, to suspend premature judgment, ask good questions, listen for connections among ideas, and honor diverse perspectives. And, certainly, we need to know when to talk and when to remain silent and receptive.   The new knowledge economy requires such conversational skills so that we can learn from each other.

Leaders in some of America’s most successful companies such as Intel have removed the barriers that used to discourage “learning conversations” and now actively reward employees for sharing knowledge.   They are encouraging “communities of practice,” informal groups where novices can learn from more experienced people.  They make it easy to have access to anyone who has the useful knowledge you need by arranging open spaces and eliminating closed doors.  Other companies are experimenting with new approaches like “Appreciative Inquiry,” an informal process for drawing out knowledge of what has worked best in the past.

Because the greatest portion of the knowledge assets in any organization is not in manuals and data bases but within the minds of its people, and because most knowledge transfer takes place informally, the “soft skills” for effective relating to other human beings will continue to be needed.  With the right skills and attitudes, a CEO can learn from a worker on the assembly line, a General Halftrack can pay attention to a lowly Lt. Fuzz, and left-brained engineers and right-brained customer service folks will be able to learn from one another.

Might a better rule for organizations in this new knowledge economy be:  “Stop working and talk it over”?

Loren Ekroth (c) 2010, all rights reserved. Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life. Complimentary newsletter, “Better Conversations,” at www.conversationmatters.com. Contact Loren@conversationmatters.com.

Coaching Call to Action

Where are you, as a business owner, encouraging communication and conversation between your employees?  What else could you do to take communication and knowledge transfer to the next level?  What’s possible for your company if people are truly sharing, talking and communicating with gusto?