Friday, 28 August 2015

"Knowledge transfer" - the wrong metaphor?

Knowledge transfer, when illustrated graphically, often looks like the picture below - knowledge leaving one head and entering another. 

image from wikimedia commons

This model is wrong.

Firstly when knowledge is shared, it doesn't leave the first head - it stays there. You do not lose anything when transmitting knowledge to someone else.

Secondly, in many or most acts of "knowledge transfer" the giver also learns and gains.  A Peer Assist is a prime example - the people who come to share their knowledge often some away with more knowledge than they started.

Knowledge is more often co-created than it is transferred in a one-way direction.

Think of the following examples;

  • A Peer Assist, where peers from all over the organisation pool their knowledge to create new solutions and insights for a project team
  • A meeting within a Community of Practice where SMEs come together to create best practice, pooling their knowledge to create something new
  • A Knowledge Retention meeting between a senior and a junior - theoretically for the junior to learn, but where skilful questioning means the senior develops new insights into the practice
  • An After Action Review where the team comes to a collective understanding of the lessons from an activity
  • People collaborating on a wiki find that the wiki contains knowledge supplied from many people, and combined into something none of them knew individually.

In each case this is not the transfer of something from one head to another, but co-creation of knowledge, or co-learning.

Perhaps Peter Senge said it best, in the following quote

"Sharing knowledge is not about giving people something,or getting something from them. That is only valid for information sharing. Sharing knowledge occurs when people are genuinely interested in helping one another develop new capacities for action; it is about creating learning processes."

The process therefore looks more like the picture below

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