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!)

It’s not what you can’t write, it’s what you need to share

This entry is part 7 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

We like scaring ourselves out of complex opportunities. Take sharing, for example. Sharing too much online can backfire badly, so many people don’t. College graduates worry about drunken parties and griping about jobs. CEOs worry about disclosure and giving away competitive advantages.

We like scaring other people, too. It’s because we worry that they’re not smart enough to avoid mistakes, or that they can’t deal with growing pains. News articles warn people about the workplace consequences of personal blog posts. TV shows rant about Facebook and Twitter.

The infinite memories of search engines and Internet archives scare most people into silence.

People fear loss more than they get excited about gains.  This can screw up your decision-making.

Whenever I talk about sharing, people often bring up that fear. It’s a valid concern, but it’s the wrong focus.

The real challenge isn’t dancing around what you can’t write. The real challenge is figuring out what you need to share.

What can you share that can save other people time?

What can you ask that will open up new perspectives for other people?

What can you express that will let other people recognize themselves in it?

You don’t have to come up with something universally and timelessly insightful. Just share one thing that one person may not know. Just share one thing that you didn’t know a year ago.

Sometimes it’s the littlest thing that solves someone else’s problems or sparks someone else’s epiphany. Sometimes that someone is you, six months down the line.

It’s not about what you can’t write. It’s about what you can. As you explore that, you’ll discover your passion—what you need to share.

When you’re focused on the negative spaces – all the embarrassing things that you don’t want others to know – it’s hard to see the good stuff. When you’re focused on the good stuff, you’ll be too busy sharing to worry about the bad stuff.

It’s very hard to share the wrong thing when you’re focused on making people’s lives better. And if you happen to do so, well, that’s part of the learning experience. Sometimes it’s the other person’s ruffled ego. Sometimes it’s you, unconsciously blaming others, or stepping over a line you hadn’t realized. The conflict helps you understand more.

When someone challenges what you’ve shared, you can think about it more. Sometimes you’ll change your mind. Sometimes your thoughts will become even clearer.

Changing your mind is good, too. You’re human. Change is a sign of growth.

So don’t worry so much about being embarrassed. Focus instead on finding out what you can share with others. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it. You’ll see the benefits at work and in life.

Focus on the good stuff, and share as much as you can.

Thanks to Devon Jordan for the nudge to write about this!

Series Navigation« Where do you find topics to write about? How to have tons of topicsShare while you learn »

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.

Exponential awesomeness

 

@smeech I recently built an entire workshop around Sacha Chua‘s Teacher’s Guide to Web 2.0: http://ow.ly/160X0 Watch/Do/Teach was our mantra

@sachac Sacha! Your presentation provided a perfect, low-stress, socratic & fun contextual frame for my day-long workshop. We had a ball!

 

kjarrett on Twitter

@sachac LOVE your stuff! I use a couple of your slideshares for an online Web 2.0 class I facilitate. GR8 job! Keep em coming!

jdornberg on Twitter

This is why sharing is so cool. Even if I don’t have the time, ability, or network to explore the opportunities opened up by what I’ve learned, I can share those thoughts with other people, and they can go and do something awesome.

I put together the Teacher’s Guide to Web 2.0 at School because I needed to make a presentation to kick off the school year for 90 teachers. Since then, it’s been viewed over 20,000 times. More than 150 people have shared it on their blogs. I haven’t explored it further. I haven’t even posted any notes. In particular, slide #25 probably needs more explanation than the few keywords I put on there to help people remember after my talk. But it’s enough to tickle people’s imaginations, and the simplicity lets them fill in their own insights.

I like this. The more I share, the more awesome things I get to see, and the more inspired I am to share.

What can you share so that other people can build on it?

Notes about business communication

Don Cameron is working on a book about business communication, and I’ll be talking to him on Friday to share what I’m learning. In his initial e-mail, he said that he wants to learn more about my educational and career background, and my business communication insights. I figured I’d write about it here so that we can save time, use the interview for follow-up questions and interesting thoughts, and demonstrate the value of sharing. We can also translate this into printable quotes, just like I used my blog to draft informally-written sections of my thesis before I translated them into academese. <laugh>

Business communication insights

Share while you learn. This is probably the key thing that differentiates the way I work. Many people think they need to be experts before they can blog or share what they know. I think that being a beginner is fantastic for sharing, because you don’t take things for granted. Writing and drawing and giving presentations helps you think through complex topics more effectively. Along the way, you create these resources you can save for yourself and share with other people. If you can make it easier for other people to learn, they can build on what you’ve shared with them to learn even more, and you can learn from what they can do.

It’s like the difference between climbing a rope and building a staircase. Rope-climbing is hard. Not everyone can do it, and it can be difficult to get yourself up. But if you build a staircase, not only can you go up more easily and more safely, but you help other people go up too.

Share while you work. Here’s another big difference. Many people think about knowledge-sharing as something you do after you work, and they wonder where I find the time to blog and do all sorts of other things. The trick is to make sharing part of the way you work. Why?

  • You can save time. Sometimes I post a quick update about what I’m working on, and someone I would’ve never thought to ask posts a tip that saves me hours of work.
  • You can remember more. Saving the reflection and sharing for after your work means you’ll have a better perspective, sure, but you’ll have forgotten many things or taken them for granted. If you take and share notes along the way, your post-project summary will be clearer and more precise.
  • You might not find the time after you’re done. When you finish a task, you’re usually thinking of the next one. This is why consultants have such a hard time writing down lessons learned from projects – it’s hard to focus on an optional task for a project that’s already finished when you have other priorities.

Scale up. I think about scale a lot – getting more value for the time and energy I put into something. That’s why I share things as widely as I can. Presentations and blog posts reach more people than e-mail, which is more reusable than phone calls. Taking an extra couple of minutes to share something in a wider medium can mean reaching many more people and creating much more impact. For example, I almost never give a presentation without posting the presentation online, either on the Intranet or on our company intranet. One time, I prepared a presentation on Web 2.0 and education for about 90 people. That presentation has been viewed more than 26,000 times online.

Archiving your work is a great way to scale up. If someone likes one of my presentations, they often check out my other presentations, and that helps me get even more value without more effort. I have blog posts going back to 2002, and people often come across my old posts by searching or browsing – again, more value without more effort. I might have a great five-minute conversation with a new acquaintance, but if they check out my blog, they can learn so much more about me and our common ground than we can find out in hours of interaction. Social networking tools help me get to know and keep in touch with many more people than I might be able to meet or talk to, and they scale up the effort that I put into them. 

Be human. Sharing and archiving scares a lot of people. They’re afraid of making mistakes or changing their minds, and having the infinite memory of the Internet used against them. I think learning is one of the best parts of life, and you can’t learn unless you take risks. Sometimes my blog posts have typos or factual errors. Sometimes my code has bugs. Sometimes I change my mind. This is good. If I didn’t share things, I might have remained quietly ignorant. Life is too short to rely on just my ability to figure things out, or to let other people struggle through everything on their own.

Being human also means making that connection. Don’t hide behind jargon, passive sentences, and text-heavy bullet-points. Tell stories. Surprise people. Provoke them. Help them grow. Connect. If you need to make and communicate tough decisions, take responsibility and show empathy.

Work really changes when you bring your whole self to it. I bring my happiness and passion and enthusiasm to work. It’s amazing to hear from people around the world who get inspired by that – and who then inspire other people around them. There’s tremendous joy in doing great work, and you can have a lot of fun doing so. I started hand-drawing my slides because it was fun for me, and I continued doing it because other people found it fun and engaging, too. I learn and share because it’s fun and it builds on my strengths. I build tools because I love building tools and helping people save time. Find your strengths and share them with others.

So, how did I figure these things out? What’s my story?

Educational and career background

Blogging changed everything, I think. I wasn’t particularly interested in writing until I realized that I could do more than write essays for school.

In my third year of university, while taking computer science, I decided to challenge myself by contributing to open source. One of the projects I worked on was a personal information manager that had a good note-taking feature. I added the ability to publish a blog, and I used that to share my class notes and my notes on open source. I discovered that not only did people read my blog posts, they found them useful, and they gave me suggestions on how to do things better.

My passion for building tools and helping people improve the way they work also drove me to start giving presentations. Here’s what I shared in The Shy Presenter: Why conventional advice on learning public speaking sucks, and how to really get started:

True story. The only reason I got started in public speaking was because some friends of mine were organizing a conference. By the third call for speakers, they sounded pretty desperate. I said, hey, I’m just a student, but I can talk about this if you really can’t find anyone, and I’m playing with that as a hobby. They booked me for two talks. I learned that even as a beginner, you can help other people learn.

I discovered that public speaking was a fantastic way to start conversations with hundreds of people at a time. It was the perfect networking method for an introvert like me. I could write about what I was learning, refine those thoughts into a presentation, prepare and practice my talk, and rely on my passion for the topic to get me through the nervousness I felt about talking to hundreds of people. Afterwards, I didn’t have to awkwardly stand around trying to figure out how to start a conversation – people would just walk up to me and start talking! (This was so cool, I made it one of my key tips in The Shy Connector: How to get strangers to talk to you).

I continued to blog and give presentations as a teacher at the Ateneo de Manila University and as a graduate student at the University of Toronto. Blogging about my IBM-sponsored research into using Web 2.0 to find expertise helped me meet a lot of people who were interested in social networking tools, and I learned about so many resources and tools that I would probably never have found on my own. When I decided that I wanted to continue working with such amazing people, I asked for their help in finding just the right position for me. I joined IBM in October 2007 in a role that was customized for me. Here’s how I got that awesome job.

Writing, presenting, and connecting have helped me learn from, and help lots of people. I still struggle with the idea of starting conversations in hallways or elevators, but I’ve figured out some things that work really well for me, and I look forward to trying more.