Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Trust, Tacit Knowledge and Social Business


As I read the post on Resolving the Trust Paradox by John Hagel, I was reminded of two things—the talk on the power of vulnerability by Brene Brown and what Morten Hansen says about tacit knowledge sharing in his book Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results. I had written about the latter in my post Molotov cocktail = Weak ties x complicated knowledge.

Hansen explains Molotov cocktail in the context of network building and explains how weak ties can be detrimental to the transfer of tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge (by definition knowledge that is un-codified, not visible and sometimes, not “articulatable” in very black and white terms) requires strong ties to be shared. Strong ties—as we know—are based on trust.

With complexity, chaos and constant change taking over and becoming the norm, we can expect codified knowledge stocks to have a shorter shelf-life. A constant state of flux will give rise to ambiguity, uncertainties and questions—all of which will exist in the form of tacit knowledge in the minds of people as they encounter real world challenges, device innovative ways to deal with those, make mistakes and learn from them. We have moved from an age of best practices to emerging practices and no one can be intelligent on their own any more, as rightly quoted by Michele Martin in her post Learning Together. I loved the quote so I have pasted it in its entirety below:
(Socrates) introduced the idea that individuals could not be intelligent on their own, that they need someone else to stimulate them. . . His brilliant idea was that if two unsure individuals were put together, they could achieve what they could not do separately; they could discover the truth, their own truth, for themselves.  ~Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity
The complexity is further compounded by the nature of distributed organizations. In today’s model of a global organization, teams are often scattered, employees work onsite or from home, road warriors are always “on the road”—in short, the concept of teams working shoulder to shoulder every day, literally and metaphorically standing by each other, talking over problems and challenges at their desks are slowly being replaced by virtual teams who interact via social tools and platforms, use Webex for meetings, get into teleconferences to talk over issues and update each other via emails. In this context, how do we build trust? Given that knowledge sharing and knowledge building are much more than an exchange of information and updates and involves the realm of tacit knowledge, it is critical that we build trust first.

Enter social business! Emergent social platforms made communication and knowledge sharing easy even among people residing on opposite corners of the planet, total strangers to each other. We suddenly had access to all the experts whose books and posts we had read with admiration. Twitter changed it all. Seeing how individuals adopted the entry of e2.0 for personal growth and development, organizations decided to jump onto this bandwagon, and with good reason. Adopt, adapt or be annihilated!

But very soon organizations treading the path of social business realize that a “platform does not well-knit organization build”. What is required is a move toward a trust-based, dialogue-driven culture that will facilitate the evolution of new ideas, reshaping of the old and the spread of the new. Collaboration in an enterprise is very different from collaborating with individuals for one’s personal goals. As Hansen explains in Collaboration, organizational collaboration is meant to achieve certain goals—whether it is to resolve a tenacious problem, come up with a new product line, or to make a breakthrough discovery.  However, matters become sticky here. All of these situations require the sharing of tacit knowledge, a willingness to express half-formed thoughts, safety belts that allow people to make mistakes publicly and learn from each other. And the overarching quality that can make this happen is trust.

And in the context of a distributed workforce with workers who have in all probability never met each other, how easy or challenging is it to build trust? Can we engage in meaningful conversations via a social platform with someone we have never met before and share those half-formed thoughts?

Even as organizations invest in social platforms to conduct their day to day to business, online communities are taking over real world teams. This does not automatically make the former more efficient, it is just the way it is going to be. We can no more fight it than we can prevent the sun from rising. And this is where I think one of the biggest behaviour changes is needed. As John Hegel says in the post, “It turns out that the very practices that helped us to build trust in the past are now contributing to the erosion of trust.” If we continue with practices that helped us to foster trust in an environment where we met each other face to face almost daily, those practices are not going to be very effective in an environment driven by activity streams, social tools and apps, and conference calls.

When the very premise of communication has changed, we have to re-think and re-imagine our efforts at building at trust. It will require a great deal more courage to come forth and express our fumbling ideas on a social platform for all and sundry to see and comment on than it did to express it within the safety of a room with five other people of one’s team. 

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