Friday 8 January 2021

The importance of Conversation Management in KM

Why do we hear so much about Content Management in Knowledge Management, and so little about Conversation Management?

Image from wikimedia commons
CC licence
Attribution Dean Calma, IAEA

Happy New Year to all readers of this blog.
I have been blogging about Knowledge Management topics on an almost daily basis since early 2009 (weekdays that is, excluding holidays, and times when I was in China with no access to Blogger). As a result this blog has nearly 3000 posts, and it's beginning to be really difficult to find something new to say.
So from this point on, I will blog on a weekly basis, and many of the posts will be a reworking of older themes.
Today I want to talk about the Content/Conversation dimensions of KM, or  Collect/Connect as it is often known, or Codification/Personalisation as the old HBR article described.
I want to ask the following question:

If the subject material of KM is both Content and Conversation, why do we hear so much about Enterprise Content Management, and so little about Enterprise Conversation Management? 

We know that knowledge is either tacit or explicit - either in the heads, or codified. We know also that there are two parallel approaches to KM - the connect and collect approaches (connecting the people, collecting the knowledge). We know the means of knowledge transfer through connect and collect are conversation and content.

Yet increasingly the content gets the lions share of the attention. 
Why does the content get so much more attention than the conversations?

I think its possibly because content is far less messy to manage than conversation, and so much easier to automate. Also there are far more vendors working in the content space than in the conversation space, and you can do fancy things with content analysis. Conversation on the other hand is difficult to automate, and there are fewer vendors in this area. It often needs human facilitation or moderation to work well, or even to set up the conversations in the first place. Conversation management is harder and needs more human resource.
However conversation is as vital as content in KM, and in some cases, more so. 
  • It is generally accepted that the amount of tacit knowledge within an organisation outweighs the amount of explicit knowledge (figures of 80% tacit, 20% explicit are often quoted), and conversations are one of the most reliable ways of accessing tacit knowledge. If you manage content only, you only manage 20% of the knowledge. 
  • The classic study of  Haas and Hansen showed that for a bid team to reuse content from other teams was helpful in one one out of the 4 scenarios they described and actually harmful in the other three, while a conversation with experienced colleagues was helpful in 3, and harmful in only 1 of the 4 scenarios. 
  • If you use a few common dictums or principles, you can conclude that transferring knowledge through conversation is 14 times more effective that transferring it in written form. (Having said that, conversation is probably at least 14 times less efficient than use of content, but KM is not all about efficiency).
  • The remote working forced on us by COVID 19 has already shown that the impossibility of informal unplanned workplace conversations is most likely taking its toll on knowledge, with an impact on innovation capacity.
So focusing on content because it is easier to handle is rather missing the point. You ignore 80% of the knowledge, add value only in 25% of the cases, and are 14% as effective. It's the "Streetlight effect"; doing something because its easier rather than better, named after the old story of the person seeking for their lost car keys under the streetlight, not because they lost them there, but because its easier to look.
Conversation should therefore as much at the heart of our KM frameworks as content.  For example:
  • Conversations within communities of practice, through which practices are discussed and shared, and problems solved - either online or face to face conversations such as Knowledge Exchange
  • Conversations between experienced and less-experienced staff, as part of coaching, mentoring, and job handover
  • Conversations within project teams to identify shared lessons, such as Retrospects and After Action Reviews
  • Conversations between one project team and other teams, such as Peer Assist, Knowledge Handover and informal one-on-one conversations based on knowledge needs and knowledge gaps, to ensure Projects operate from a state of "full available knowledge". 
These are knowledge-specific conversations, all of them dialogue-based, and therefore different from action-specific conversations such as briefing and reporting, and different from the typical broadcast notification traffic seen on some examples of social media.   It is through these dialogue conversations that tacit knowledge is brought to light, shared, and co-developed. Managing, structuring and facilitating these conversations - making them routine, efficient, powerful and deep -  is a crucial element of knowledge management.
Content and Conversation are the King and Queen of Knowledge Management - they rule together. Content is something to talk about, Conversation is where Content is born and where it is tested. As Knowledge Managers, we should focus equally on both.

Please don't neglect Enterprise Conversation Management - pay it as much attention as Enterprise Content Management as part of a balanced KM approach, especially now COVID requires us to plan our conversation far more than we used to.

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