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The question of questions

This article appears in the issue July/Aug 2000 (100 Companies) [Volume 9, Issue 6]


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Knowledge is a question, not an answer.

Knowledge isn't a matter of having lots of smart content stuffed in your head. Or if that's what it is, who cares about it? Imagine that everyone in your organization is full of mental content but is unable to express it. They can't explain a thing. They can't answer a single question. They may be geniuses, but who cares? You've got an office full of know-it-alls. Flee! Flee!

So, if knowledge isn't a matter of having content, then what makes a company smart? I'd suggest that it's what makes a person smart: He or she is able to answer questions and has great conversations. Those are closely related.

The most interesting questions bring you to answers you hadn't already thought of (another reason to think that knowledge isn't content). Sometimes you get there by thinking. More often, you get there by asking some questions of your own. A conversation ensues. An answer emerges. Now *that's* fun, and *that's* being smart.

It is, in fact, the origin of philosophy and of dialogue itself. Remember Socrates? His dialogues tried to uncover the truth about a topic by asking questions organically related to one another; they grew out of the previous questions, making his dialogues structured like narratives in which the ending is contained in the beginning, just as the tree is contained in the seed. Truth, biology, nature, essence, storytelling and questions--that is the right context for talking about knowledge.

Questions are a deep structure in our thought and language and social nature. When we ask a question, we not only express an interest, thus exposing our own passionate natures, but we also have some sense of the type of answer we're going to receive. At the dessert bar we don't ask, "What forced you to take the brownie?" and when we ask why our computer hates us, we know we're making a sort-of joke. As Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" made so clear that it's seemed obvious ever since, a paradigm shift (the real ones, not the buzzwordy ones imagined by vendors trying to inflate the importance of the fact that their paper collator now collates at 110 pages per minute rather than 95) is characterized by an influx of new questions and new types of questions. For example, when Aristotle asked why a plant grows, he looked for an answer that had to do with intentions and values.

Questions are also primarily social. We may ask ourselves a question the way we may sing in the shower, but first and foremost, a question is something we ask someone else. And rarely is it in a pure question-and-answer format, like a transaction with a knowledge vending machine. Because of the organic nature of questions, they grow best in the light of conversation. They head us in a direction and illuminate the way ahead, but they are not deterministic ... except when we're taking exams or responding to our bully of a senior manager who at a meeting demands snap responses to questions such as "Who are our real competitors?" and "How are we going to get back our market share?"

Real questions, like real conversations, require mutuality and equality. Behind every real question is the preface: "Here's something neither of us know, but I respect you enough to think that spending time with you will lead us toward an answer neither of us may have anticipated. Let's surprise one another! Let's get some sliver of delight while we can!"

The implicit promise of the phrase "knowledge management" is that we're gonna corral some of them knowledge puppies, rope 'em, brand 'em and build up our ranch. Yeehah! Now compare that to the implicit promise of a question. No cowboys, no spurs, no whiff of the manure-rich committee meeting in the wind. Just great questions, undiscovered directions, wisdom larger than any one cowpoke can contain and the miracle of time unfolding the way it only can in great stories.

Every pleasure in life worth having comes in the form of a question. Doesn't it?


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