A time to write, a time to talk...

Two things have got me reflecting on how we decide when to write and when to talk.

Yesterday I had the privilege of spending the day with a regiment in the British Army, helping them to apply knowledge management and organisational learning.  Over dinner in the mess, the officer next to me was telling me that he had overseen a successful social event for the regiment during the previous year,  and that he was passing on the baton to another officer to do the same this year. He was personally frustrated that he hadn’t yet considered what he had learned, or written any procedures for his colleague – and was unlikely to have time to do so. “Why don’t you just talk together over a beer?” I asked?
I won’t forget the look of relief on his face!

Such is the cultural emphasis on formal codification in his military experience that he hadn’t really considered a more informal method of sharing his knowledge. I got them together after the dinner over that beer and happily told them that ‘my work here is done.’

Secondly, this entertaining TED talk by Elizabeth Stockoe (Professor of Social Interaction at Loughborough University) illustrates so well the conversational richness which is accessible to an expert like Elizabeth, and the way in which it can be encoded and analysed – and how much I would have missed!  It made me appreciate afresh the knowledge we lose in codification – so much of the message never makes it into the written record. Bullet points really do kill knowledge.

So these two inputs have got me reflecting on this typical exchange:

“Can we have a chat about what you think about this project?”
“Let me email you some thoughts as soon as I’m back online…”

We make this kind of decision every day, often subconsciously.  Shall I send a message/email; shall I pick up the phone; should I drop by and talk face to face, or over a coffee?  Whenever we do this, we’re making a decision about the relative value ofcodification versus conversation.  In a sense, we execute our personal version of a KM strategy on a micro-scale.

Each approach has its own efficiencies and trade-offs:

Codification creates an record of the message, and provides an opportunity to multiply its reach for free, and releases us from doing anything at a specific moment in time.  Write (and edit) it once, when you have time – and then share your message with as many people as you like.

However – as Dave Snowden says – “we will always say more than we can write down” – so when I decide to ’email you some thoughts’, I am making the judgement that:

  • the tonality and visual cues which would present in a spoken conversation can be left out with minimal damage to the message;
  • that I can capture enough of the necessary detail unambiguously in writing in time for it to be useful to you,
  • that I can anticipate the questions which you might have have asked,
  • and any that new direction which a conversation might have taken probably wouldn’t have been of great value..

These four points would be addressed through conversation – but that requires us to agree a time to connect – so the exchange is no longer on my terms.

Other factors and preferences also come in to play:  Am I energised by social interaction, do I enjoy this person’s company, is this a relationship which I should invest in? 

I think we balance this equation subconsciously  – so  doing some of my thinking out loud here has helped me to examine the relative weighting I give to each factor.
All of which has led me to a new year resolution:

write less and converse more