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The new conversation manifesto

This article appears in the issue November/December 2013, [Vol 22, Issue 10]


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New forms of online, offline and hybrid conversational settings have emerged over the years, transforming the way knowledge is articulated, communicated, shared and extracted. They range from world cafes and barcamps to unconferences and hybrid Twitterchats.

As KM moves on to embrace not just "stocks" of best practices but also "flows" and living networks, conversation is being seen as a key facilitator for peer learning as well as just-in-time learning.

"The most important challenge in this economy is creating conversations," according to Ravi Arora, KM head of Tata Steel, who explains that conversations help knowledge discovery and prioritization for global organizations.

Cliff Figallo and Nancy Rhine, in their book "Building the Knowledge Management Network," examined the use of online tools to put conversation to work. "A knowledge network is a technosocial entity requiring a good match between the tools supporting the conversation and the organization of the conversationalists," they say.

Conversations do not take place with the same ease and intensity across different units of an organization-sub-cultures also differ, and such variations need to be factored in. For example, in terms of conversational tendencies, sales may be open to conversing with customers, but the legal department may be wary of the revelation of proprietary information.

Challenges that can arise in the hyperconnected conversational setting with social and mobile media include dealing with the "fog of detail," information overload, fear of opening a "can of worms" with too many chaotic conversations, insufficient training and communication for moderators, and insufficient integration of conversational forums into working practices.

The creational and conversational space of the enterprise can also be reinvented through a clever blend of offline and online interaction formats. Good examples here are  the "hackathons" organized by Nokia to tap innovative ideas for mobile applications from social entrepreneurs, and by The World Bank to discover how the Internet and mobile media could be used to solve sanitation problems in a sustainable manner. The offline component involves actual creation of prototypes by developer teams, and the online conversation includes publicizing, submission, voting, ranking and rating of proposed solutions.

The analysis of conversation over extended periods of time can identify the different kinds of roles and situations of people in an organization-thought leaders, boundary spanners or connectors, subgroup leaders and isolated individuals. Such analysis helps identify opportunities where increased or improved knowledge flow will have the most impact, and raises awareness of the importance of informal networks, according to social network analysts like Patti Anklam.

Conversational competence helps improve an organization's responsiveness, ability to debate and innovate, bring about synergy between diverse stakeholders, and effectively validate and reuse existing knowledge.

As KM has matured, the importance of external knowledge ties is being acknowledged as a key success factor, not just internal knowledge networks. That also calls for increased capabilities for a range of external conversations, which need to be nurtured as ecosystems of knowledge communication.

"Conversation is the lubricant to knowledge exchange and, in the right hands, it is the most valuable knowledge management tool available today," according to David Griffiths (see  http://knowcademy.com/2013/04/20/improving-the-best-free-knowledge-management-tool). Nancy Dixon classifies conversations into four types, depending on the intent and outcome: relationship-building, mutual understanding, possibilities and action. To make conversations move beyond declarative and politic statements, she advocates the role of a "conversation architect," whose responsibilities include designing contexts, spaces, formats and durations for conversations as well as roles of participants and observers.

"One of the most powerful tools a leader has is the power to convene the tough conversations that need to happen in an organization," says Dixon. In an age of increasingly complex organizational issues, leaders cannot be expected to have all the answers; rather the task of leaders becomes convening the range of conversations that can come up with new answers.

A range of startups is also emerging to tap corporate conversations and narratives, such as KPoint, which helps index videos of conversations. In the coming years, companies will continue to experiment with new ways to make conversations discoverable, indexable, searchable and collaborative.

Ten components of knowledge communication

Organizational conversational capacity involves mastering the following 10 components of knowledge communication, which may well be regarded as The Conversation Manifesto in 21st century organizations:

1. Knowing how to ask questions.

2. Willingness to ask for information and assistance.

3. Willingness to give as well as accept knowledge.

4. Expectations of sharing knowledge.

5. Promptness in sharing knowledge and expecting responses within deadlines.

6. Giving feedback on received knowledge.

7. Handling conflicting knowledge responses.

8. Acknowledging, rewarding and acting on knowledge contributions.

9. Existence of conversational capacity at multiple levels within the organization.

10. Extension of conversational capacity externally for engaging other organizations.


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