Dr Viktor Dorfler

Ask Viktor

Please post your questions for this week in the comments section below.

On the Wednesday of next week (Week 3), Dr Viktor Dörfler will respond to the most interesting, useful and/or popular questions. Please ‘like’ questions posted by other learners if you are also interested in having these answered.

I was reading the comments in this week with a great interest. Not only in the ‘Ask Viktor’ step but also throughout the week’s material. I was very happy to see interesting contributions and definite evidence of thinking – and thinking in the right directions. I would also like to ask you for the coming weeks that if there is something you find particularly interesting in steps other than the ‘Ask Viktor’, please repeat it there, as otherwise some of the most interesting stuff may pass unnoticed. I was very happy to observe that some of you started using terms that I have not introduced here but they are related, I write about them elsewhere, and you started using these the right way. Now I don’t mean to say that you have necessarily read my other work (although some did, and mentioned these), simply that you have achieved a level of understanding beyond what was directly covered in the course. This is the highest evaluation a teacher can get. Thank you.

This week I again address 5 topics – one of them I brought over from a previous conversation, as I find it particularly relevant.

Knowledge sharing vs. control

Frank has asked the single most popular question: ‘How can organizations strike a balance between knowledge sharing and information security? Similarly, Welhelmina is asking: ‘How should organizations balance knowledge sharing and competition?’ Now apart from the questions themselves, it is also interesting to examine the reasons of their popularity. My answer is that it is a problem that appears significant in many organisations – for a valid or putative reason.

Answer: First of all, to really understand knowledge sharing, perhaps it is worth reading a paper that I wrote with my former PhD student Igor Pyrko and my colleague Colin Eden. It is a little hard to read as it is an academic paper, but this paper was also the basis of what I was talking about in the knowledge sharing video. In this paper we introduce the concept of ‘thinking together’ as the highest form of knowledge sharing, which is a true meeting of minds, in which the thinking of the participants becomes so deep that it is impossible to distinguish who thought of what. We argue that this thinking together is the essence of communities of practice (CoPs) that are the embodiment of knowledge sharing. In fact, we go so far that thinking together is the essence of CoPs. In a subsequent paper that we are currently working on we use thinking together to define the concept of CoPs. Now this second paper is in which we actually answer the question posed by those who asked or liked the above.

We argue that CoPs (and thus thinking together and knowledge sharing more generally) are worth even if you lose control over knowledge. This is in the essence of the CoP concept as thus of the knowledge sharing process. CoPs are trans-organisational. This means that they not only may cross the organisational boundaries but they must cross them. The underlying reason is the sticky and leaky nature of knowledge; i.e. it sticks to the practice and leaks through the organisational boundaries. This also means that that sometimes knowledge leaks out but it also leaks into the organisation. Of course, this leads to a dilemma for the managers: support CoPs and loose some knowledge or control knowledge and loose what can flow in? The dilemma is actually more complex. If we don’t support knowledge sharing, we don’t only loose knowledge that would flow inwards but also knowledge that is created in the knowledge sharing process. There is a famous example of Xerox, who invented the personal computers, and their engineers told about this to IBM engineers who made it first. So the sad end, for those who are for knowledge control, is that we should prevent knowledge leaks – and by implication CoPs. I disagree. I think that they are missing the big picture: Xerox is an exceptionally successful company. I always argue for giving up the control, accept that some knowledge will leak out, and benefit from intensive thinking together and knowledge creation. As I like attaching new names to things that I find important, I call this Learning Organisation 2.0. I think this is the future.

Measuring knowledge sharing

Jesse asked: “Are there any ideas on measuring & rewarding knowledge sharing?” and Bharat and Irene also wanted to know about this. I also want to talk about this as this and similar questions keep coming back – and not only in this course.

Answer: Again the first thing is: why this question keeps reappearing? The reason is that the western thinking is obsessed with measuring. We almost never ask whether it makes sense to measure something, only how to measure it. On the conference of the British Academy of Management a few years ago, Mark Saunders finished his talk with a note on how executives were so unrealistic demanding measurements and quantitative answers more generally, about the topic he was working on with him. I was the first person to comment: Mark, we have caused this! These executives graduated from our business schools, and we taught that that they should measure everything! Of course, neither Mark nor I do this but our business schools generally do. And the sales people of analytical tools make it worse. These days the most popular topic is ‘big data’; my opinion can be summarised as this: ‘big data – small insight’. We do not need to measure everything. And most things that I am interested in (knowledge, competence, thinking, creativity, intuition) cannot be measured in any sensible way. This is one of the reasons that I was so happy about the emergence of MOOCs: there is no exam, only learning. There are some top executives who understand this, and there are many who don’t. I could actually point you into the direction of finding some ‘methods’ to measure knowledge sharing but I refuse to. Try to think through how you could benefit from knowledge sharing without attempting to measure it. It is not simply as I don’t believe it to be useful. I believe that it is far more dangerous than that: it can actually destroy the phenomenon that we attempt to measure. Like when a biologist wants to study a flower. First step: kill it. Then dissect it, put it under the microscope and measure features of the corps. If you measure knowledge sharing, you may also end up measuring a corps. I am sorry for the brutal comparison – but I really believe that it is that dangerous.

Knowledge-based view

Elsewhere Jesse initiated another topic that resulted in contributions from Chan and Blessing, yet Jess thinks that the question still stands as is – and I agree. The question was “if knowledge exists in abundance, why does it appear to be scarce? Is it an educational system issue, or a cultural mindset, or both? How do we ensure knowledge is abundant (as it truly is)?” Blessing and Chan were trying to find the answer around the ability to apply this knowledge; while this makes sense, it does not really answer the question.

Answer: I believe that there are several reasons for what you ask. The first thing is that we have an apparatus developed over centuries that is focusing on scarce resources. We have learned how to deal with scarcity – we have no idea how to deal with abundance. It is not that there is not enough knowledge around, it is that we find it difficult to find what we actually need. Here is a very important distinction between knowledge and information: if we find the information we need we recognise it as such. If it is knowledge, we may not. Additionally, we learned how to search for information quickly (we ‘Google it’), while when we need knowledge, we don’t know how to search for it. If we knew what we need, we would not need to look for it. Of course, the two come together in Meno’s dilemma: if we don’t know what we are looking for, how we will know that we have found it? This leads to the second issue about the time we need to spend to find that knowledge. Finally, we get into what some contributors mentioned that when you find the new knowledge you don’t know whether to trust it. Of course, if you wait until it is verified, your competitors will beat you, and if you adopt it too early, you may adopt something that will be later proven a mistake. So what do we do? All this is actually a validation problem. We are interested in whether the knowledge we find is of a good quality and whether it works for what we want to use it. A few months ago I gave a talk about this in Budapest on a conference following Charles Handy’s keynote talk. I have also published a longer version specifically in the context of coaching. The essence of my talk and paper is that there are 3 aspects of validating: (1) consistency is about whether the new knowledge makes sense in itself; (2) relevance means whether this knowledge describes the phenomenon I am interested in; (3) applicability tells us whether this knowledge can be used in the current case. The most important thing is that only the knowledgeable should validate. This is also the reason that I was bringing in the notion of coaching, and coaches are very helpful in finding new knowledge, validating it for consistency, and helping us validating relevance and applicability. But the key is the knowledgeable validator.

Shallows vs. New Alchemists

There were numerous issues raised throughout the week on the notion of Shallows – I am sorry but I will not use most names here, as there are too many. Many people recognised themselves as Shallows, and some found this scary – some not. There were questions about the role of technology in this, and also about ways of deepening our thinking, or, as Sasha said, about how to ‘un-shallow’.

Answer: First of all, I would like to emphasise again: Shallow ≠ Ignorant. This is very important. There is shorter attention span to be sure, but it does not necessarily mean less knowledge. The trickier question is whether it is possible to achieve the highest knowledge levels as a Shallow, as it is not only about the amount of knowledge, but also about much higher level of complexity, and we don’t know whether this high level of complexity can be achieved in the ways of the Shallow. Knowing a little about lots of things is in line with most of the jobs today, and particularly with virtually all managerial work. As Ella said that “’Shallow knowledge’ has a real function, just like deeper knowledge.” I agree. I also believe that a balance may be possible. I have not seen a Shallow achieving the highest knowledge level, but I have seen people who were deep thinkers, who achieved the highest level of knowledge, and then became Shallows in many other things. So we could say they know a lot about a few things and a little about many other things. They are not as wide as a typical Shallow would be, but they have some sort of balance. The difficulty in a Shallow achieving the highest knowledge level is that they did not develop the capacity for deep thinking. But I do believe that if a Shallow finds something (s)he is deeply interested in, they may pursue it and develop their deep thinking in that area. But don’t forget: we need very few New Alchemists, and lots of Shallows.

It is an interesting question what the role of the technology is in this. Someone mentioned that it is not only the internet, but the television as well. Well, yes and no. If we mean having 300 channels and switching channel every minute or so, it is definitely Shallow. As there is more advertising in the US, there I can easily follow two channels, if I can find two where the adverts do not coincide. However, if you are watching the great movies, not doing anything but immersing yourself in the movie (no Facebook, no texting, not even a bit of Googling), it leads to deep thinking. Regarding the internet, it also works multiple ways. Of course, often it is distracting attention and it is so easy to click on something else… However, our attention spans are already really short. Live we can pay attention much longer than using technology. I delivered a 1-hour talk a few months ago, and I was able to keep my audience on their toes for the whole hour. The talk was also recorded, and nobody can watch it for an hour, including those who immensely enjoyed it live – and not even me… However, I have a very interesting example of how the technology can actually help with deepening your thinking: the example is this MOOC. I only realised this today, as I was reading through your comments. The comments are short, and perfectly fitting with the Shallows’ attention span. However, they are all about the same topic. And I noticed that there are people reading through all contributions for a topic, then continuing to the next topic, and they must spend hours at once engaging in it – they seamlessly slipped from shallow into deep thinking, which I could also see from the deeper and deeper comments they were providing. So technology both helps and hinders us in thinking, it is up to us how we use it. I personally love to get super-fast access to the few things I want to deeply engage in and then also to quickly access, use, and forget what I have to engage in but am not interested.

So what should you do if you want to see whether you can be Deep? Choose any topic that you are interested in, take the best book on that topic (try a recommendation of a knowledgeable validator you trust), put everything away and try reading for hours… If you do this, please post about your experience in this step. I will come back to this page when the course ends, and will check if there are any messages waiting for me.

Thank you.

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding Modern Business and Organisations

University of Strathclyde