Accessing tacit knowledge and building pathways for two-way learning

… Contacts are of very limited value in this changing world — the name of the game is how to participate in knowledge flows.

… Large contact databases don’t particularly help in this quest and, in fact, can subvert our efforts to build the kinds of relationships that matter the most.

… Accessing tacit knowledge requires a learning disposition and an ability to attract, rather than simply reaching out.

… This often requires discussing publicly the issues you are wrestling with so others can become aware of them and seek you out if they are confronting similar issues. This can be very uncomfortable for most of us, because we are reluctant to expose provisional ideas and acknowledge that we are struggling with developing those ideas.

… Do you engage in these types of practices? What lessons have you learned in terms of being more effective at accessing tacit knowledge? What could your company do to encourage and support these kinds of practices?

John agel and John Seely Brown, Networking Reconsidered

Tacit knowledge: what we know but have not yet captured.

I think a lot about tacit knowledge, both sharing and receiving.

I need to share. I can’t help but share. I find meaning and passion in the act of sharing what I know and what I am learning. I work on converting tacit into explicit knowledge by writing things down and sharing them as widely as possible–usually, on this blog. I map my thoughts so that I can see an overview and find gaps. I write, I sketch, I speak. To speed things up, I’ve offered to mentor people. Questions help me access tacit knowledge. Other people’s perspectives help me learn even more.

It takes a village to raise a child, and the Internet is my village. Where there are gaps—the challenges I’m figuring out, the questions I haven’t even formulated yet, the things you can’t find on Google or in books—people step forward and share what they’ve learned. People are generous with their insights. Strangers pass through; some stay, become friends, move on. I remember the IBM ad of all those people teaching a boy, a metaphor for Linux. When I saw that ad, I thought: that is me as well.

Why does this work? Reciprocity? The serendipity of search engines and random connections? The asymmetry of communication? Reciprocity perhaps explains why people who have learned something from me—or from their own mentors—take the time to share their insights. Search engines mean that the knowledge flow doesn’t disappear with the end of a conversation or the geographic limits of physical interaction. Asymmetry means the network isn’t limited by my energy or courage.

I read a lot. I’ve read many, many books on networking. Inspired by those books, I used to set networking goals for myself. 300 “active” contacts that I’ve reached out to in the last six months, and so on. Now I don’t count. I just share.

I have not yet read a book that made sense of this new way of relating. We do something today that could not be done easily in the past. Not with this scale, not with this reach. There are many like me, and tools make our world even more densely connected.

There could be more. I need to find out what I’m doing right so that I can help others learn. I want to find out what we could do even better.

What are the key points of difference?

  • Motivation: I’m strongly motivated by gratitude and possibility: gratitude for what I’ve learned from others, and the possibilities of what we can do if I can help other people build on the foundations of what I’m learning.
  • Focus on creating value: I give first and freely. I’m more interested in how I can help other people than how they can help me. My own goals are straightforward and take time. Helping other people lets me learn more and get even more value out of my experiences.
  • Value: At work, I create value based on my adaptability, my workflow, and my network. None of these derive power from scarcity of information. In fact, the more I share, the better things get.
  • Tools: I focus on tools that scale easily. Writing is searchable. Sketches are quick and expressive. Recorded presentations and slides can be engaging.

How can I connect with people who are learning about sharing and help them share more effectively?

How can I connect with people who are curious about sharing and help them learn more?

(Hat-tip to Aneel Lakhani for sharing the link on Twitter!)

How to brain-dump what you know

Why

  • You’re going to need it. Why solve things twice? Write things down.
  • You can save yourself the time it would take to explain to lots of people.
  • You can save other people time.
  • You improve your understanding and your communication skills.
  • You can build your reputation.
  • You can meet interesting people and find new opportunities.
  • You can train other people to do your work. Replaceable = promotable. Also, you can move on to other roles without feeling stuck or guilty.

How

  • Just write. Paper notebook, big text file, blog, wiki, wherever. It doesn’t have to be organized. Just get things out of your head. Rough thoughts, doodles, step-by-step instructions, solutions—whatever you can. Don’t get into trouble, of course. Strip out sensitive information. There’s still plenty to share.
  • Plan for search. Number the pages of your paper notebooks and keep an index at the back. If you use a blog or wiki to store your notes, try using your tools to search. Add extra keywords to help you find things.
  • Be lazy about organization and refinement. Your notes don’t have to make sense to other people in the beginning. If other people ask you for that information, then you know it’s worth revising and organizing. Build links when you need them.
  • Share with as wide an audience as possible. Even if you don’t think anyone would be interested in what you’re writing, who knows? Maybe you’ll connect the dots for someone. Put it out there and give people a choice.
  • Write, write, write. You may catch yourself writing about something for the sixth time in a row because the past five times didn’t quite capture what you wanted to say. This is good. The more you write about something, the more you understand it, and the better you can communicate it to others.
  • Keep a beginner’s mind. Write earlier rather than later. Write when you’re learning something instead of when you’ve mastered it. Experts take a lot of things for granted. Document while you can still see what needs to be documented.
  • Think out loud. Don’t limit braindumping to the past. You can use it to plan, too. Write about what you plan to do and what you’re considering. You’ll make better decisions, and you’ll find those notes useful when you look back. Other people can give you suggestions and insights, too.

Other notes

Many people use these excuses to avoid sharing:

  • I’m new and I don’t know anything worth sharing.
  • I’m an expert and I’m too busy to share.
  • No one will read what I’ve shared.

If you’re new to a topic, awesome. Sharing will help you learn better. Also, as a beginner, you’re in a good position to document the things that other people take for granted.

If you’re an expert, sharing lets you free up time and enable other people to build on your work. You can make a bigger difference. You’re probably an expert because you care about something deeply. Wouldn’t it be awesome if other people could help you make things happen?

Don’t worry about people not reading what you’ve shared. You’ll get the immediate personal benefit of learning while you teach, and you might find it handy later on. You can refer other people to it, too. People can find your work on their own months or even years later, if it’s searchable.

Share what you’re learning!

Thanks to Luis Suarez, John Handy-Bosma, and John Cohn for the nudge to write about this!

Show your work

Show your work

In grade school, I got into a lot of trouble with my math teacher because I didn’t show my work. I wrote the right answer, but I didn’t show the intermediate steps because I was doing a lot of it in my head. After lots of missed points on tests, I eventually got the idea. I needed to show my work so that the teacher could  double-check that I was doing everything properly. Now, I show as much of my work as possible, and not just in mathematics – in every area that I can. I think out loud. I post my mind-maps. I publish my in-between steps. It’s probably one of my most useful habits.

There are a number of reasons why showing your work can help you work better.

Showing your work means that other people can check if it’s correct. This is particularly important when you’re learning. Talking through your processes helps other people verify that you haven’t missed a step or done things incorrectly.

Showing your work can also help you share your knowledge with less effort. If you publish your in-between work, people can learn from it and from your growth.

Showing your work helps you teach more effectively. As you gain experience, you take more and more for granted. Eventually, you might find it difficult to explain topics to people who are new to the field. Your records of in-between work help you remember and empathize with the challenges faced by new people.

You might be afraid to show your rough drafts. What if someone thinks you’re sloppy or indecisive? What if you’re wrong? What if someone steals what you’ve done?

What other things are stopping you from showing your work? We can explore those reasons in a future blog post.

What if sharing knowledge could make a difference between life and death?

Are there types of organizations where knowledge sharing is a matter of life and death, and what can we learn from them?

Travis Cord and Harold Jarche write about the social components of military training. Travis shares:

The formal pilot training course consists mainly of an instructor and student flying a specific lesson which the student learned as much as he could in the 1 hour flight.  It is expected that you take the lessons you learned in the air and share it with all your classmates, because there is no way to learn everything in the 1 hour flight.  It was never a good thing if one student knew a critical piece of information and the rest of the class didn’t.  The saying was always “Cooperate and graduate”.

This kind of knowledge sharing is critical in the field, too. It may be a struggle to get people in conservative organizations to share, but there are clear situations where sharing helps others and helps you.

Medicine is similar. Sharing knowledge and effective practices can save lives. In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande writes :

… the volume and complexity of knowledge today has exceeded our ability as individuals to properly deliver it to people—consistently, correctly, safely.

He describes how distilling shared knowledge into checklists (that include quick conversations between the surgeon, nurses, and anaesthetists!) can prevent missed steps and coordination errors that might have fatal results.

You might think that if you share what you know through a presentation or blog post, you still won’t save a life or make a big difference.

I think of it this way: sharing can help me make a bigger difference than I can on my own. Sharing also helps me helps other people make a bigger difference than they can on their own. Who knows, maybe through the magic of compounding knowledge, I can fit two or more “lives” into this one life that I have. Not as dramatic as saving a life, but it can still help build a better world.

So my question is: what if sharing knowledge could make a difference between a bigger life and a smaller life? My answer is yes, so I do.