Stuck like glue: how knowledge powers business relationships

How does knowledge affect business relationships? It’s a matter Ross Dawson has written a whole book about. In this post I’d like to share my thoughts on knowledge in business relationships and related matters like advising (internal) clients, or even friends for that matter.

What do you bring to the table in your (business) relationships?

Knowledge needs food to grow

Tree of knowledge? Image HikingArtist.com

  • Knowledge. By this I mean your personal set of experiences. Not just your education, because your peers share much the same background.
  • Time – which may seem in short supply so you’d rather spend it on activities that add value than on stuff that really isn’t that important but “management say they want it so go do it”.
  • Social skills (if I’m being presumptuous please let me know).

It makes sense to invest your time in building a good relationship with your (potential) clients and allies. Apart from your subject matter expertise (SME), focus on extending the knowledge you have about your client:

  1. Listen carefully to what’s being said.
  2. Listen even more carefully to what’s not being said.
  3. Ask away.
  4. Keep asking.
  5. Be open about the way you work (from the start), and
  6. ask for structural feedback to help finetune your actions. When you plan your activities for a client, include a continuous feedback loop from and to your client. If that’s not possible, plan regular feedback moments.

Focusing on the interaction, on the knowledge you and your client need from each other and produce as a result of your conversations, steers you away from ‘just’ delivering your service or product.

What does this advisory role demand from you?

The interaction with your clients demands that you take the conscious decision and then muster the patience to get genuinely involved. Getting involved also means sharing knowledge, and that may lead to the following situation:

  • If you’re a veteran in your branche, you may have grown used to skipping steps. It’s been so long since you wondered why you do what you do in this specific way. But to the non-expert there is no “obviously”. There is no obvious reason for doing anything. Or for doing it in this way. So add all the steps your client needs.
  • Having someone ask you questions and giving you feedback may well point you toward things you had overseen! Listening to your clients’ questions may well teach you a lot about yourself as well as about your client. Once you’ve learned anything you need to review what you thought you knew. Improve, tweak. Review. Learn, and unlearn! Knowledge building will guide you and your client by showing you should stop doing one thing and start doing the other.

How does knowledge power your business relationships?

By getting involved and being open about your methods you will:

  1. learn a lot about your client. You’ll understand better than anyone else what makes them tick. What worries them. What stumps them.
  2. build trust. Your client gets a genuine sense of what you know, how you think, who you are as a professional and as a person.
  3. get feedback from your client about details in their particular situation that might affect the results of your efforts.
  4. have a chance to review your own business
  5. improve your own skills as an advisor
  6. accumulate heaps of richly detailed cases you can use as examples with other clients.

There’s just one thing to watch out for. And that is getting too comfortable knowing what you know about your clients. Knowledge needs to be fed regularly if you’re to reap its fruits. Neglect your knowledge and it will lose its connection with reality. Your reality. And your clients’ reality. If you find that your attitude stands in the way of really listening to your clients – if it prevents you from being a good advisor, tell yourself to stop being a [fill in appropriate noun here].

And two (this point occurred to me thanks to this picture): remember to harvest the fruits of your labor. The point of knowledge is not having it – but using it.

Read more:

How would you describe the relationship you have with your (business) connections? Leave your thoughts about knowledge, business, clients and relationships (and possibly about glue and apples) in a comment – I will reply to anything non-spammy 😉

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Towards a ‘natural’ knowledge management (part 2, nature of knowledge)

Knowledge is almost by default inaccurate, incomplete, unreliable, partially outdated, and changing… The reason it’s all of these things is because it’s personal. What does this mean for knowledge management (KM)?

Knowledge Management Needs a Plan

KM takes a bit of planning… great image by HikingArtist.com

If you’re a knowledge manager you’re basically faced with the task of managing people. Unfortunately their manager is already managing them.

Let’s assume you convince a team to get a handle on their knowledge. What, out of all their knowledge, do you want to document in some system? And what can you document anyway? I’ve talked about these questions in my earlier post Why knowledge management is like herding cats. Things I’ll mention here are best practices, process-related content, and knowledge about your clients.

The nature of knowledge versus knowledge management initiatives

One of the (old?) ways organizations have tried to manage knowledge is by making employees enter stuff they know in a system. But knowledge tends to disintegrate into information inside a system.

  • It’s no longer knowledge transferred from one person to the other. There’s a non-intelligent medium involved which takes away the non-verbal feedback, the adjustments one makes during a conversation.
  • You need to describe your knowledge outside the context where you actually need it.
  • Often there is no real recognition for the effort you put into it.
  • If you show some hesitation, you may well hear convincing arguments like “look, the bottom line is, you have to”.

Just because your company’s interest is in squeezing the last drop of precious knowledge out of your brain before they let you go doesn’t mean it’s got to hurt. The process of entering your most precious asset into an indifferent system on pain of ‘pain’ is not exactly motivating, is it?

The nature of knowledge: learning and expertise

The learning process you’ve undergone in the course of many projects has resulted in your professional expertise. You have learned, re-learned, and even un-learned (check part 1 for more about un-learning). The ‘meta’ level of your knowledge is the veteran professional’s treasure and its the bit that tends to be missed the most when you retire.

To make knowledge sharing more personal, dynamic, and fun, your alternative is to put professionals together and have them talk about their projects, clients, and the like. My impression is that most organizations start doing that kind of thing after they notice:

  • that knowledge can actually walk out the door
  • that having a beautiful system to capture knowledge doesn’t make their problems go away.

In short, they don’t start moving until they notice what’s happening on their watch – and what that could mean for the organization. Last time they noticed some KM guy suggested a system. This time it’s clear that either the system doesn’t work or there’s more to KM than a bit of software. At this point, it’s really important to snap out of the “sh*t-we-need-knowledge-management-NOW” reflex!

One way to make knowledge management ‘work’ (I hope)

What if we tell everyone to spend 5% of their time sharing what they know with others? It could work, but it’s still something “you just have to” do.

Would a culture in which anyone can achieve the position of ‘mentor’ work? In order to avoid it turning into a punishment, I think there are three aspects which may support each other.

  1. Becoming a mentor should be a natural step in one’s career. (Let HR figure out how to make it happen.)
  2. Give ‘mentors’ the resources to document their knowledge. Which means you give them the time they need, away from their other duties. And it means arranging things so they can share their knowledge in a format that suits them.
    1. Writing (blog, article, web page, data in a system)
    2. Talking. One way to get around the ‘stupid (KM) medium’ is being interviewed and capturing the conversation on video.
    3. Training colleagues in a workshop
    4. Making a presentation
    5. Drawing cartoons (here’s a nice one on Mark W. Schaefer’s {grow} blog)
  3. Mentors need to take part in projects with others. Their sole aim is that of identifying areas where expertise is still lacking (to a degree). They either share the necessary knowledge themselves or help find the right people and learning materials to remedy any knowledge issues. Plus they will log what they found and how they resolved it. This way you form an understanding of what people in your organization need to know, but don’t.

Some people have a knack for teaching/mentoring. You don’t need to make it to senior manager before you start sharing what you know! How will you share your knowledge today?

Why the nature of knowledge frustrates knowledge ‘management’ (part 1)

What do we know about knowledge? This is the kind of question that bites its own tail. Even so, thinking about the nature of knowledge may give you some idea of how managing it might work. Since there’s a lot to the topic of knowledge management this is going to take more than one post. Not because it wouldn’t fit into one post, but because I’m still thinking…

The central question in this post is:

What is the nature of knowledge?

Let’s skip definitions and get down to a few basic rules that seem to apply – unless you prefer a holistic, universal view of knowledge.

Knowledge is personal

Ladder Of Knowledge

Ladder Of Knowledge, Barcelona [Click to view Flickr image]

  1. Limited to a person. If you bend over sideways, knowledge tends not to run out of your ear as the by-product of an intellectual ear infection.
  2. Limited in subject matter. Some people seem to know everything about everything, but omniscience is usually attributed to a single divine being. Humans spend their whole lives accumulating knowledge. We tend to know a lot about a little, and a little about a lot of things.
  3. Based on your own experience. It’s rare to run into someone who’s actually reviewed every bit of new information on its merits. You live life, bumping into random facts, and construct an image of what the world is like.

(Talking about the ‘personal experience’ aspect: you can see the need to get the world sorted out in kids of 3 – I have a handy specimen upstairs in bed. It’s quite a challenge to pry bits of fresh knowledge out once they’ve found a way into such a little head. Offering a bit of context, or examples where newly found truths don’t hold up, is often the only way to influence loudly-stated facts.)

What other characteristics does knowledge have?

Knowledge is subject to change

Knowledge evolves. You’re always learning. Which means you find and assess new information. You end up acquiring knowledge. Sometimes that means you need to review things you knew (things you thought were true).

In the book Dune by Frank Herbert, Paul Atreides got some unexpected advice upon reciting what he’d been taught. He was told that he had some ‘un-learning’ to do. Somewhere around the age of 20 young adults go through a phase when they assume they know how the world works. I know I did, and I’ve witnessed the same thing in others. In many cases that opinion is revoked or at least toned down a bit some 5 to 10 years later. A mature brain is one of nature’s wonders, and running into a few of life’s metaphorical but painfully unyielding walls sure helps too.

Knowing ‘everything’ is something you will only achieve if you live in a stable and uncomplicated environment which only changes in nearly unnoticeable detail (until the volcano erupts, anyway). If you’re reading this blog, that place is probably somewhere else.

Knowledge can be taken beyond its original context

You learn certain skills or ‘facts’, and at the same time you learn the methods you need in order to learn, or in order to solve a problem. Whether or not you take those methods and learn to apply them in different contexts depends on the environment in which you live and work. In a more or less static environment you may never need to apply your knowledge to any other field than the original one.

Examples of when you need to take your knowledge one level up:

  • When changing jobs, especially if it involves moving into a different branch, if you switch to a different career or start your own company, you may find yourself scraping the bottom of your knowledge barrel for anything you can use in your new situation. This is the moment when even the most unlikely bits of knowledge can prove useful. You’re forced to get creative.
  • At university you’re supposed to acquire an academic attitude towards information, methods, knowledge – but it’s still up to you to actually make the connection between one specific situation and others. If you do, you find yourself zooming out to see similar situations in which your knowledge applies, and then, if you’re very lucky (intelligent?), zooming out still further to notice how scientific methodology is relevant outside the academic realm. As a final step in this recipe, don’t forget to add a dash of social skills to avoid looking like a total wise-ass off campus. But that’s a different story 😉

Read more:

If you feel I missed anything major about the nature of knowledge, or if you have any other thoughts on the topic, just let me know. In my next post I will briefly (if possible) discuss a few ways in which knowledge management teams have tried to herd the curious cats of knowledge, and go into a central issue that has to do with the nature of knowledge management – and probably with a couple of other recurring business issues as well.