Nuts and Bolts: Is Important Knowledge Hiding from You?

One of my goals in writing Show Your Work was to help people overcome the “silo” problem in sharing tacit knowledge, particularly the frustrations it causes: You finish a project and find out someone in another building already did it. You struggle to learn a new technique, or software, or skill, only to learn that someone in the next department over has a degree in it. But there are other aspects to the silo problem, and other solutions we can employ to overcome it.

Have better conversations

I was accustomed to working in a very open public sector environment—we’d been told to use social tools as it made us more transparent to the taxpaying public—when IT issued a sudden edict that we were no longer allowed to use Skype, which was not yet an enterprise product. I was a heavy Skype user, and at the time there was really no good alternative to it. So I printed out several Skype conversations (one of which had saved the taxpayers about $150 in long distance phone call charges to a colleague in Europe) and my manager and I drove over to the IT building to talk about why I needed Skype. At the meeting we learned two things:

  • No one had ever—ever—contacted IT to have an adult, business-focused conversation about why they needed a particular tool. More usually someone was angry that they were being refused something they felt entitled to, unable or unwilling to articulate why and how the solution was necessary.
  • It turned out IT’s real concern had to do with Skype’s file transfer capability. Although there are dozens of other ways to share a file, at that moment it was Skype that was on the IT radar. I promised not to use Skype to transfer a file. End of conversation.

Participate

While researching Social Media for Trainers I joined a Facebook group populated and managed by some of our prison guards. I joined with full disclosure of who I was and why I was there. A common discussion topic was interest in advancement: “How can I find out about training?” “What do I need to do to move up to management?” Now, that information is widely available on the web via HR sites and such. But these employees weren’t looking there. Where was L&D? Why was L&D thinking that posting information on a web page was enough? Why was I the only L&D person in the state participating in this group? Why in the world would L&D not want to be positioned to respond when a worker said: “I’m just saying I’ve got some motivation and I want to know more.” To better connect with our audiences we need to participate, not just push out content. And in case I sound too self-congratulatory: I was only initially there because I was researching a book. Lesson learned: Go where your audience is.

Watch out for absolutes

  • No one in our organization can use social media.” I hear it all the time but, well, that’s not usually true. Very rarely these days would you find a company in which advertising or marketing or the public communications office is not using social media. Someone is allowed to use it. Someone made the case to management. Find that someone and figure out how to hitch your L&D wagon to that star. And speaking of silos: I also recall the time I was speaking at the local office of a federal agency and was met with the hue and cry of “we can’t use social media”. Then I showed the screenshot of the memo from their agency head directing them to do just that. It came as a complete surprise… because middle management didn’t pass the information on. Who are the gatekeepers? What can we do to educate or circumvent them?
  • We don’t have any use for [insert technology here] in L&D.” Maybe your own L&D shop doesn’t. Take, for instance, artificial intelligence (AI) as an example. Maybe in a small training shop or as a freelancer you don’t have access to the volume of data most AI initiatives require. What’s your company doing? The eLearning Guild’s recent report on artificial intelligence focused what real industries are really doing, now, with AI. We intentionally looked at industries in which L&D staff often express limitations at using technology, like insurance and banking and construction and government. Do you know what’s happening down the hall? Over in the engineering building? The fact that L&D isn’t using a new approach doesn’t mean no one else in the company is. To wit: Chatbots are now commonly replacing human customer service agents, formerly one of our largest training audiences.

Start where they are

What do people want to talk about? I had a student in a social and collaborative learning class recently, someone offering leadership training for medical doctors who would be supervising newer doctors. He said he couldn’t get physicians in his audience to talk. Another person in class said she worked with doctors and offered a long list of topics they were eager to talk about, among them: social justice issues, such as gun safety; problems with pay structure—hospital doctors paid to order tests rather than promote wellness, perceived as a conflict with their oath; television advertising for brand-name drugs; and too much competition for limited resident slots. The class generated many ideas for tying the doctors' interests to leadership topics, including ethics, values-based practice, decision making, and negotiation and assertiveness skills. But the person struggling could not see past her lesson plans and learning objectives to find ways of starting conversations where her audience wanted to talk. As I said above: find ways of participating rather than just pushing your own content.

Better managing our relationship to silos—ones we live inside, ones we are standing apart from, and ones we create for ourselves—will help us become more effective and confident, have more productive conversations, and ultimately enhance our practice.

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