Monday 4 October 2010

In praise of dialogue

Hand signals at the Dialogue
Originally uploaded by ILRI

• Why do children go to school to learn, rather than staying home and reading books?

• Why, if you have access to the best cookery books in the world, do you still need to take personal tuition if you want to be a cordon blue chef?

• If you have a street map in the car, why would you ever need to stop and ask for directions?

The answer, in every case, is that knowledge transfer is a social process, and if you want to transfer detailed knowledge you have to engage in dialogue with another human being.

Dialogue allows you to ask questions, seek clarification, test understanding, and look for that "aha" moment when the knowledge is really transferred. Dialogue allows access to the deep tacit knowledge - the knowledge that people don't even know that they know - and it allows you to check whether you are really understood the knowledge. Any good teacher knows that discussion and dialogue in the class is far better at developing understanding than teaching by rote. Any cook knows there are tricks you can’t pick up from any book. Any driver knows that there comes a time when the map is not enough, and they need to wind down the window and ask a real human being with local knowledge.

Dialogue is a question-and-answer process by which people exchange knowledge. It is hard to imagine effective knowledge exchange without some form of dialogue

Dialogue is one form of conversation, in which the participants are trying to reach mutual understanding. It is a process of exchange of views and of knowledge, of asking questions and of listening to the answers. It is a combination of listening, advocacy, reasoning and consensus-seeking. It differs from argument, which is all about confrontation of views. There are no winners or losers in dialogue; you can't say "I lost the dialogue with Peter”. It differs from debate, which is all about testing the validity of a proposition rather than testing whether it is understood. It differs from interrogation, where all the questions are one-way, and only one person stands to profit from the exchange. It differs from discussion, which is often about analysis of detail rather than searching for common understanding. Nancy Dixon, in her book “Dialogue at Work” says
“In my view, dialogue is talk -- a special kind of talk -- that affirms the person-to-person relationship between discussants and which technologies their collective right and intellectual capacity to make sense of the world. Therefore, it is not talk that is one-way, such as a sales pitch, a directive or a lecture; rather it involves mutuality and jointness.

This “mutuality and jointness” lies behind the application of dialogue in many work processes; for example Dixon mentions Future Search Conferences, Open Space Technology, Action Learning, and Real-Time Strategic Change. These same attributes lie behind the application of dialogue to knowledge transfer.

The majority of knowledge within any organization is held in people’s heads. Indeed some would claim that ALL the knowledge is in people’s heads, and that anything which is written down becomes information, rather than knowledge. However for the purposes of this article we will call written knowledge “explicit” and “head knowledge” will be referred to as “tacit”.

There are two sorts of tacit knowledge in anyone’s head – the knowledge which they are conscious of, and the unconscious knowledge, the deep knowledge of which they are unaware.  The bulk of the useful knowledge is likely to lie in the box of unconscious competence, where the people who have gained the knowledge have not yet taken the time to analyse what they have learned, and make it conscious so it can be transferred to others.

Under these circumstances, the transfer of knowledge from one person to another is not an easy thing to achieve! The person who has the knowledge (the "knowledge supplier") may only be partially conscious of how much they do know. The person who needs the knowledge (the "knowledge customer") may only be partially conscious of what they need to learn. The knowledge supplier has both conscious and unconscious competence, and the knowledge customer has both conscious and unconscious incompetence. Also the knowledge supplier doesn't know what the customer needs, and the knowledge customer doesn't know what the supplier has.
Dialogue is needed, in order to

• Help the knowledge supplier understand and express what they know (moving from superficial knowledge to deep knowledge)

• Help the knowledge customer understand what they need to learn

• Transfer the knowledge from supplier to customer, and

• Check for understanding

The knowledge customer can ask the knowledge supplier for details, and this questioning will often lead them to analyse what they know and make it conscious. The knowledge supplier can tell the customer all the things they need to know, so helping them to become conscious of their lack of knowledge. As pieces of knowledge are identified, the customer and supplier question each other until they are sure that transfer has taken place.


Atle Iversen said...

Interesting - dialogue is important, but in this age of Social Media where talking and sharing is everything people talk about, I think we also need to focus a little more on some other key words like *thinking*, *learning* and *reflection* as well.

With more thinking, reflection and independent learning the knowledge transfer will go much smoother as the knowledge supplier actually knows what s/he's talking about, and the knowledge customer actually *understands* the knowledge s/he receives (if s/he doesn't understand it, it is only "information" for the customer ?)

People are getting used to want *more* information *now*, but never takes the time to *understand* the information....

Thanks, nice food for thought :-)

Nick Milton said...

Very little interchange on social media is dialogue.

Much is serial monologue, sometimes its alternating statements. sometimes its argument.

For me, thinking and reflection, and seeking to understand, are what sets dialogue apart from other, less productive, forms of conversation.

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