Tuesday 15 March 2011

Questioning the question

Question EverythingSomeone said something very important at a meeting last week in Washington, that got me really thinking.

We were talking about knowledge transfer between two people, and the power of questions in eliciting knowledge. And she said "as a librarian, I have been taught, and made it a habit over many years, never to accept the first question".

She went on to explain that when someone came to her asking for reference on birds, for example, she always asked for clarification. Why do you want to know about birds? Are you a chicken owner, looking for advice on keeping chickens? Do you want to identify a bird on your garden? Are you writing a study paper on bird biology? The choice of books that she recommeded, depended completely on understanding what the person was looking for, and that was seldom apparent in the initial question.

The questioner needs knowledge in a particular context, and if you don't understand the context, you can't answer their question effectively.

Also sometimes the questioner doesn't know what they don't know, and you need some dialogue to help both of you clarify what is needed.

The lesson is clear - always question the question, so you both have a better idea of what knowledge to seek for or to share.

But how common is this as a habit? How often do even the experienced KM people question the question?

I had a quick look through some of the Linked-in question-led discussions in the Knowledge Management groups (KM Experts, CKO forum etc). In what percentage of these discussions do you think anyone questioned the question?

Well, out of the 30 discussions I checked, in 26 cases nobody questioned the question. They just dived in and assumed they knew what the questioner wanted.

In 3 cases, the first reply to the initial question was a return question for clarification. In one more case, the second reply was a question. That's 13% of the examples I looked at. In the remaining 87% nobody questioned the question.

I think this is a habit we are all going to have to learn, if we want effective knowledge transfer to be a more common ocurrence.


gerald said...

Simplifying knowledge=information+context. Most often the information is transfered in the first question, however it takes more questions to understand (for the receiver as well as the sender) the context.


Anonymous said...

Great point.

When I thought about how I apply this myself I realized that I almost always do this when someone comes to ask me a question in person, but somehow I rarely do it when someone asks a question in online fora.

I don't know if this is typical or specific to me - but it made me wonder if some means of communication/interaction are more conducive to this important step of clarifying what the questioner is really looking for. And if so, is there anything to be done to improve the quality of interaction in the case of discussion fora apart from self-awareness, and discipline to make ones self ask clarifying questions.

Nick Milton said...

I don't think it's just you, Ian, it seems to be endemic in Linked-In. I haven't had the chance yet to review other unfacilitated online forums, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a lack of "questioning the question" there as well.

As a result, these forums become less a dialogue, and more a series of expressions of opinion. I think the only thing that can be done about it is careful and sensitive facilitation. The facilitator, aware of these biases, plays an active role in developing the conversation, inserting questions for clarification as and when required. "Why do you say that, Andy" - "What do you mean when you say ...., Sue?" - "Ahmed, that's an interesting question, what's the reason why you ask it?"

Jack Vinson said...

I like this line of thinking. Librarians call this the reference interview. It's an interesting observation that we don't tend to ask those clarifying questions.

Jean-Louis Lieutenant said...

Thanks for this good post Nick.
For me, your advice largely generalizes S. Toyoda's "5 why's" method (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/5_Whys )to
- broader problems than identifications of root causes
- go from 'problem solving' to the actual start of collaboration and generation of initial trust between partners.

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