Thursday, July 05, 2007

Forget "Just The Facts"- Gimme the Knowledge!

I recently came across reference to a famous line from Sgt. Joe Friday on the 1950s series Dragnet, typically used when he was interrogating people. "I Just Want Facts 'Mam, Just the Facts" (or something like it) .

Many of us are preoccupied with information and data - facts and figures, dates, numbers, financial results, lists of accomplishments and that's all good but what about the "knowledge" behind it? The rationale, the thinking approaches, considerations etc. - the stuff more easily shared in conversation and stories, and rarely if ever captured.

I was reviewing my notes from Richard McDermott's KMWorld 2006 presentation, in which he shared some interesting perspectives and some good practical ideas on sharing deep knowledge and expertise.

He broke down knowledge into three types:

  • Specific knowledge of systems, tools, clients, structures, contacts etc. - useful but degrades over time. Experts build this knowledge through intimacy over time.
  • Analytic knowledge, gained through sensemaking of experiences - guidelines, processes, cookbooks - in essence "scaffolding" through which to understand the knowledge domain
  • Intuitive expertise - the ability to handle situations, exceptions and quickly improvise in real time

He elaborated a bit on defining expertise as the intuitive ability to use experience to solve problems. It is embedded in experience and doesn't use decision trees or pros/cons - experts can't often describe how they know. When faced with a situation, experts size it up, intuitively applying various models and looking for clues - then they identify possible actions, go through a mental rehearsal, and examining potential outcomes - then they take action (sounds a bit like a good chess player, doesn't it?) .

And offered suggestions for transfer in for each of the types:

  • To transfer specific knowledge, organize files, add metadata where useful, make existing knowledge more accessible
  • To transfer analytic knowledge, articulate basic work processes, develop guidelines, decision frameworks etc. which will help people think.
  • To transfer intuitive expertise, unearth how experts see the world and how they think

Richard suggested that one of the best ways to transfer expertise is through a "true master class", where the learners present their problems/ dilemmas, and think aloud about them - the expert listens and also thinks aloud - questions back and fourth draw out experts' lived experiences and allow learners to draw on them and build their own.

He reinforces that to build expertise, practice is critical. Learning through practice can include master classes, visiting masters coach on projects, collective reflection on different ways to approach a situation, simulations, serious games, cases and mini-cases.

If you'd like a simple experiment to try the "master class" approach, here is a simple "judgement-laden" example that I've tried with some very good success and feedback - improving fair and equitable application of managerial discretion in the context of corporate / business policy.

Many policies in a corporate environment are fairly straight forward and prescriptive, often based on legislation. Others are far more open to interpretation.

1) Bring together three groups in to a room

  • the key policy makers / "owners" who are intimately familiar with the policy, the policy framework and rationale, organization context, and likely awareness of how the policy is being regarded and applied across the organization
  • experienced mangers, who have much experience, good and bad, in the interpretation / application of the policy
  • a full spectrum of less experienced and new managers (from inside our outside the organization) with varying degrees of experience with the policy, and a need to learn more

2) Compile and present a number of real-world scenarios and examples, in a succession of increasing complexity.

3) Have mixed break out groups consider each scenario and come up with a group decision on the application of policy discretion.

4) Have each group present their decisions (facts), and most importantly, also have them also share and elaborate:

  • their thinking approach / process and why they used the approach
  • considerations and non-considerations and why they were such
  • contextual factors and external forces and why they were considered "in play"
  • assumptions and what they thought were facts in evidence
  • commonalities/convergence and conflicts/divergence during the group discussions

This is the "knowledge", or as Richard describes it, the "intuitive expertise." This simple approach exposes the experts viewpoint and thinking process in an interactive, dialogic way in the context of a meaningful issue / problem (or reasonable facsimile of one).

Final notes ..

I understand from Richard that he is working on an article based on the concepts from his KMWorld 2006 presentation. Watch out for it, it will be a good one.

And I see a strong synergy with the four quadrant model that Tom Davenport articulates in his book Thinking for a Living, and the concepts in Dorothy Leonard's book Deep Smarts.

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