Monday, 18 November 2019

Why transferring knowledge through discussion is over 10 times more effective than written documents

Connecting people is far less efficient than Collecting while being far more effective - but how much more effective?

Knowledge can be transferred in two ways - by Connecting people so that they can discuss, and Collecting knowledge in written (explicit) form so others can find and read it (see blog posts on Connect and Collect). 

Connecting people is less efficient than transferring documented knowledge, but more effective.  We can never be sure about the absolute effectiveness of knowledge transfer without some good empirical studies, but there are 2 pointers towards the relative effectiveness of these two methods. These pointers are as follows;

First, the often repeated (and sometimes challenged) quote that “We Learn . .
  • 10% of what we read 
  • 20% of what we hear 
  • 30% of what we see 
  • 50% of what we see and hear 
  • 70% of what we discuss 
  • 80% of what we experience 
  • 95% of what we teach others.”
This is similar to Media Richness theory, which ranks media on the basis of it's richness, with unaddressed documents as least rich, and face-to-face as most rich.

Second, David Snowden's principle that

  • We always know more than we can say, and 
  • We will always say more than we can write down
Our assumptions

Let's make two assumptions here, firstly that the percentages in the first list are correct, and secondly that we equate the "more than" in Snowden's principle to "twice as much as." OK, the fist assumption is highly dubious and the second is entirely arbitrary, but I want to see what the consequences are.


With these assumptions, the effectiveness of the Connect route (knowledge transfer through discussion) is as follows
  • I know (100%)
  • I say (50%) 
  • You learn through discussion (70%)
The effectiveness of transmission of knowledge through Connecting is therefore 35% (100% x 50% x 70%) provided there is discussion involved.

If you connect people through video (seeing) the effectiveness drops to 15%. Through hearing only (eg podcasts) it drops to 10%. The most effective way to transfer knowledge would be to work together, so the knowledge donor does not need to tell or write, they just have to show, while the knowledge receiver learns by experience. That way you minimise the filters.

The effectiveness of the Collect route for knowledge transfer through documents is as follows
  • I know (100%)
  • I write (50% x 50% = 25%)
  • You learn through reading (10%)
The effectiveness of transmission of knowledge through Connecting is therefore 2.5% (100% x 25% x 10%)

Transfer through discussion is 35% effective, transfer through documents is 2.5% effective. In the first case you can transfer a third of what you know, and in the second case you transfer one fortieth.

Therefore transferring knowledge through Collecting is 14 times less effective than transferring knowledge through Connecting people.

If we change the proportions in Snowden's principle then we change this conclusion. If for example 
we always know 3 times more than we can say, and we will always say 3 times more than we can write down, Collecting becomes 21 times less effective, and so on.

I know all these figures are arbitrary and inexact, but what we are looking at here is some sort of estimate of relative efficiencies.

Note that this does not mean that Collecting knowledge has no place in Knowledge Management - quite the opposite. Despite being very ineffective, it is very efficient. Knowledge has only to be documented once, to be re-used one thousand times. Efficiency can trump effectiveness. However we can conclude the following
  • Because of these relative efficiencies, Knowledge should shared in explicit form (the Collect route) only when it is relatively simple and when it can be codified with minimum loss of context. 
  • Where efficiency is more important than effectiveness (i.e. broadcasting relatively straightforward knowledge to a large number of users), the Collect route is ideal.
  • The Collect route is also necessary when a Learner (a recipient for the knowledge) cannot be immediately identified, so no Connection is possible (see "speaking to the unknown user").
  • Even then, it is worth "keeping the names with the knowledge" so that readers who need to know more detail can call the originator of the knowledge and have a discussion.
  • Where knowledge is more complex or more contextual, it should be shared through discussion (the Connect route) - for example through conversational processes such as Peer Assist.

Given that transfer of knowledge through documents is so ineffective, choose your KM strategy carefully!

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