Collaboration: knowledge sharing

So there you are, five hours into work on that new project, only to find out that your colleague already did that same work or had information you spent a lot of time trying to collect.  Or maybe you were talking with someone about your organization’s or business’ less than satisfactory outcome to a tough problem, only to find out that this person had another piece of the picture or a different approach to the question that you’d never considered … and this person was none to pleased that you never asked them for their input in the first place!

Sound familiar?  It’s pretty common in our individualistic, competitive, put-out-the-most-recent-fire world that information critical to achieving our collective objectives isn’t shared … despite lengthy and unproductive meetings, or talk of more and better communication.  It’s ironic that as individuals we’re so thirsty to be heard, to have someone value the information or contribution we have to make.  And yet, in our organizations we seem to expect that individuals should already know what’s needed, and, if they have to ask (god forbid), they should ask targeted questions of the “expert” to get at the minimum they think they need to respond to the problem of the moment.  (And don’t you dare suggest another meeting!)

Call me an idealist, but imagine for a moment that the people you worked with recognized that you and they all had an important piece of a dynamic puzzle, and that continuous sharing of useful information with each other was fundamental to achieving your group’s objectives, improving products or services, and increasing employees’ or members’ sense of buy-in and empowerment.  Mmm …

Curiosity & play

So, what would it take?  I’m not an expert on action research, knowledge management or collaborative learning, but I think we have a lot to learn from all these fields to improve the knowledge sharing in our organizations.  And, just to get you started, here are a few of the ideas I’ve successfully worked with:

1) Bring in more voices – For example, at your next meeting include a supportive (open, not dismissive or “going through the motions”) go-round with input from every single person in the room about a challenging question.  Or ask stakeholders who haven’t previously been involved to come up with three criteria for what would successfully address the question, or at least ten possible (even if crazy) brainstorm ideas related to the issue.  Or try a mind map to identify related approaches or concepts that might inform the discussion.

2) Recognize and appreciate learning – Create specific times and spaces for sharing information (for example, include it in job descriptions, schedule specific time or resources available to support learning or knowledge sharing, do lessons-learned exercises, start a listserv, blog or lunchtime discussion group, etc.) and value the learning that is shared (express appreciation for learning and sharing efforts, identify the concrete effects of that knowledge and possible next steps, create rewards, etc.).

3) Be purposeful – Learning is great, no matter what, but with limited time and resources, you can collaborate more effectively by identifying the particular questions or issues that you want to learn more about, and the specific benefits you hope to achieve from that learning .. and then evaluate how you’re doing and consider what will give you a better chance of meeting your goals.

4) Recognize and leave space for resistance – Ours is a culture which values “experts”, and valuing everyone’s knowledge and input can feel like a threat to an “expert’s” status quo, a challenge to those unused to speaking up, and an inefficient way of doing business (“we already tried that”, “everyone knows that doesn’t work because …”, etc.).  So acknowledge the resistance, leave time and space for individual reactions, and patiently focus on creating environments where we learn from expertise, and still leave space for new ideas or approaches that may indeed better fit the current context than the old tried-and-true “truth.”

Collaboration requires this collective learning.  And in that spirit of collaboration, how would you add to this list of ways to strengthen knowledge sharing in your organization or business?

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Training for me or you?

So if you’re a trainer like me, occasionally you get carried away researching exciting new people or ideas, eagerly compile information on three different models or approaches, amass an armload of handouts and materials, and then trip into the training setting … only to be met by blank stares and a few looks of distress.

Might remind you of the need for that pesky old needs assessment.  You know, the one that would have told you that the goal of this group is not what you envisioned, that this group has a lot of participants whose preferred learning style is most definitely not abstract models, that this group doesn’t even recognize the issue your fancy models and ideas are addressing (awareness, attitudes – anyone?), or that this group really wanted some tools for a very particular type of situation which you aren’t prepared to address.

You, of course, are quick on your feet, and adjust your design on the fly … and sometimes we get away with it.  And sometimes we don’t.  And sometimes, at heart, we’re not sure we want to – because boy are those materials we pulled together awesome, these folks really need to get this.

Enter here, Paulo Freire and his critique of the banking model of education, where we trainers and teachers (or consultants, or managers, or …) fill the heads of our participants (or co-workers, or clients, or …) with what we care about, and implicitly, with our version of the current world.  There is implicit in the trainer or consultant role something which can suggest that we decide what others need to learn or develop.  And that doesn’t instill or nurture empowerment.

And so, fellow “experts,” let us put those handouts and models into our toolboxes, and close them up for a moment as we listen to those with whom we are working.  What do they want to come out of their interaction with us, and which of our many tools will best serve that purpose?

There is good info out there on needs assessments.  When I was co-teaching a course on Training Design, we used an excerpt of J. Barbazette’s Training Needs Assessment:  Methods, Tools and Techniques.  But there are some good resources on the internet, some of which look at needs assessments in a variety of non-training settings.  Check these out:

Any recommended needs assessment resources to add?  Welcome your comments and additions below.

And if you’d like support in doing a needs assessments in your organization or business, contact us – happy to see what we can contribute!

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Cultural fluency … beyond international business

From a quick look around the internet, you might think that cultural fluency was a tool wielded largely by international business folks.  I wouldn’t disagree that business success depends in part on cultural fluency, but I am disappointed that cultural fluency might be seen as limited to the business world and a few other realms like human resources offices and diversity organizations.  (Not to mention that “cultural fluency” might be (mis)-interpreted as simply knowing whether to shake hands, make eye contact, be more fluid with time or more respectful of the “big boss” … but that’s another story.)

My angry faceLet’s look at a non-business example —  awhile back, I got pretty angry during a meeting to plan some upcoming events.  First knee-jerk reaction, I blamed “them” for being disorganized and difficult.  Next came blaming myself, wondering what I should be doing better.  And then (and when I’m lucky, this transition is quick!), I move out of the blame realm altogether and can get curious about what’s happening.

On the one hand, this meeting’s participants were individuals, with unique combinations of traits and behaviors and attitudes based on all the individual experiences they’d each personally had.  But thinking about this unsatisfactory meeting with that individual “personality” lens can leave me feeling discouraged … they’re just difficult people, we have a personality clash, it’s just the way that individual is (or was born) … nothing to be done, just grit your teeth and move on.

Lens, curiosityBut what if I considered one of those individuals from the lens of the groups they belong to, their social identities, their cultures?  Let’s imagine that one of the  (fictional) participants was female, about twenty years older than me, an experienced “expert” on the topic at hand, a freelancer, and has spent considerable time living outside of her home country.  Each of those groups (females, people of a certain age, experts in this field, freelancers, expats, etc.) has its own culture, which would give a very particular spin to how this person approached the meeting I was in.

And it might be that given the type of meeting we were in, her freelance culture was near the top of the list of possible influences she might have felt.  And what if I imagine that  her freelancer lens made her value networking in this particular setting?

(This is all supposition, mind you …  without asking, I would have no idea which of the many, many identities and cultural labels I might have been tempted to assign to the people involved would have been ones they embraced at least partially, or ones they thought were prominent that day during the meeting  … and which ones were offensive or completely out to lunch!  But I am certain that whichever cultures were in the room that day, they affected how we conducted our meeting.)

So how does focusing on cultures affect my attitude toward the situation?  For me, one of the first things that happens is that it depersonalizes the situation … oh, this is about culture, a culture is not right or wrong, we’re just each seeing a different part of the elephant (know that story?).

Then I can say, OK, so from her freelancer lens, those troubling detours about connecting with other groups make sense.   We can come up with some ideas about how we might approach getting her networking needs met … and then do the same for me (my technocrat self seeing a long agenda and not much time for the meeting was valuing efficiency and clarity of focus – so how might my needs be met?).

I could have extended curiosity and creativity to this person as an individual, but I might miss out on a piece of who she is (we are at least in part who we associate with, no?) and I personally sometimes need the shift in focus to get past the “difficult personality” obstacle.  And to the degree I have any information about a particular culture, a cultural fluency lens helps me anticipate what attitudes, needs or approaches I’m dealing with.  Even if I’m wrong in my reflections, going through this thinking makes me curious, more open to understanding what is going on for others and for myself.

Group, culture of duckiesIf we think of culture as the shared understandings of a group that shapes who we think we are and how we interpret what happens, then all of us are interacting with lots of different cultures every single day, in every setting.  There’s the culture of our book or social club, the supermarket or church, our work or volunteer place, our family, our socio-economic class, our gender … and the list goes on and on and on, far beyond nationality, ethnicity or color of ducky.

I recently gave a workshop on culture, conflict and identity, inspired in part by Conflict Across Cultures: A Unique Experience of Bridging Differences by Michelle LeBaron and Venashri Pillay, and co-authored by Tatsushi Arai, a professor of mine from SIT Graduate Institute.  Their inspiring and practical model of developing “cultural fluency” (greatly simplified, and as I understand it) involves:

  1. Building knowledge and understanding of other cultures,
  2. Recognizing the embedded meanings in our own cultures (and the impact those meanings have),
  3. Learning to express (and assist others in expressing) underlying cultural influences, and then
  4. Negotiating and acting effectively in cross-cultural situations.

I love that this book was written by a culturally diverse team, and that part of the book is grounded in their own experience of learning to work well together.  Just as they had to go through these cultural fluency steps to successfully publish a great book, I could probably improve my next meeting with my group by learning more about, and articulating the impact of, my and other participants’ cultures in relation to the meeting’s agenda topics.

Will I use my cultural fluency all the time with everyone I meet? Of course not.  And yet developing cultural fluency skills is critical to effective collaboration in whatever the setting, and practice helps, no matter whether it’s at a neighborhood gathering, talk with a partner, political meeting … or even in a business negotiation.

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Collabolution takes off!

And just what is “collabolution”?  As you’ve no doubt guessed, collaboration is certainly part of it.  And for today, with this new-ish year in mind, we’re thinking about collaboration and resolutions.  Many of us start off the year (or at least think we should do so) with resolutions, intentions, goals or plans, and now, six weeks into the year, find ourselves slipping, diverting, or wildly careening away from what we had hoped to be doing.

Normal, right?  But discouraging – there were some pretty important needs or desires behind those resolutions, and we hate to see our dreams dissipate or get so tattered, so very quickly.

Which is where collaboration comes in.  Yes, I mean the obvious “tell someone what you intend or resolve to do” – that way, we may feel accountable to others for doing what we say, other people can support us emotionally or practically, and for some of us, just the process of articulating our resolve out loud to at least one other person gives it more value and power.

But collaboration can have a deeper meaning.  When I tell you or others about my resolution, say to publish this blog on a regular basis, exploring how collaboration works in our lives, I’m speaking out based on my hope to contribute to a world in which deep and creative collaboration makes all of our lives better.  I want more of us to be collaborating more frequently and effectively.

Sharing the beliefs or values behind my resolution, and hearing about what motivates your intentions, I believe we may find that we have underlying needs in common.  And in connecting with you around those underlying needs, I’m likely to find more profound support, inspiration and determination to pursue my own original intention.  Talking and working together with our resolutions, we may come up with even more brilliant and enchanting strategies to get our mutual needs met.  Now wouldn’t that be a collabolution?

Any thoughts on how our resolution around this blog might support something you’re working on?  We’d love your input and comments below.

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