Knowledge workers in any organization have a wealth of insights that are available to their organization to address the difficult issues the organization is facing. Drawing out those insights requires bringing knowledge workers together in meetings that are expressly designed to take advantage of collective knowledge. Over the years, as I have designed such meetings, I have come to rely on seven principles that work together to make the most of collective knowledge in conference settings as well as in-house meetings. The principles have been assembled from the work of many researchers and thought leaders. Where possible I have identified the sources.
1. Connection before content
Knowledge workers attending a meeting or conference need to get connected to each other before they try to construct new ideas together (Peter Block). In order to work effectively with others, they need to know:
a. who is in the room
b. what knowledge others have
c. how others think about the issue of the meeting, and
d. the group’s strengths and weaknesses
In a business context, connecting is best accomplished by engaging knowledge workers in small group conversations about strategic organizational issues. To build connections, those conversations have to be structured in a way that allows knowledge workers to frame themselves in a positive light, relative to their experience and successes. Icebreaker type exercises are less useful when the intent is to leverage collective knowledge because they do not provide adequate understanding of others’ knowledge and experience.
When a group has come together many times, the period of connecting can be brief, but not neglected altogether. Just as two friends typically engage in “small talk” for a few minutes each time they meet, any group that comes together regularly also needs a brief period of re-connecting before turning to content. In both situations the “small talk” affirms the relationship and the readiness to engage the topic.
2. Circles connect
Circles represent unity. They help individuals in the group view themselves as part of the whole. For example, the UN meeting hall is designed in concentric circles to provide a visual representation of what the UN stands for – unity among nations.
I was reminded of the benefits of seeing oneself, and being seen, as a part of a whole, when I conducted an exit interview with Lieutenant General Maples, then Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He told me that one of his first actions as Director had been to remove the large rectangular conference table in his office and have it replaced with a round table. He very clearly understood the difference a circle would make to the many, very difficult conversations he would have in the coming years.
It is a useful symbolism to begin and end meetings with chairs in a circle. It can be a big circle of 30+ or many small circles of 5. Ideally it is a circle of just chairs, without a table. Knowledge workers have a profoundly different experience when they converse in a group, absent a table.
3. Learn in small groups – integrate knowledge in large groups
We learn and create new ideas through our conversation with others in small groups. A small group is 3-5 members. This is the size that produces the richest and most in-depth thinking. It is large enough to contain diverse views yet small enough for members to engage each other.
Engaging each other means asking questions to clarify the meaning another has expressed and it means challenging as well as building on others’ ideas. The give and take of the small group serves to exchange existing knowledge as well as generate new knowledge.
In meetings designed to draw on the organization’s collective knowledge, after small groups have been in conversation, their ideas are brought together in a large group setting to integrate their insights into the thinking of the whole. In a lengthy meeting, small and large group discussions regularly alternate.
4. Diverge then converge
Any meeting that is focused on collective knowledge must first diverge in order to draw new ideas out and to stimulate thinking. “Knowledge diversity facilitates the innovative process by enabling the individual to make novel associations and linkages” (Cohen and Levinthal). Meeting leaders who want to leverage collective knowledge, intentionally invite people from other disciplines, stakeholder groups, and outside experts to introduce that diversity.
Without time for divergence the many differences within a group are not expressed and without their expression they cannot be made use of by the group. It is in the critical space that lies between divergent ideas that innovation often emerges (Scott Page).
Knowledge workers are reluctant to turn their thinking to what they have in common until they have had an opportunity to give voice to their differences (Marvin Weisbord). The way the human brain works is to first recognize differences and only after those are clarified to focus on similarities.
The first part of a meeting, whether it is half a day or 3 days, is dedicated to divergence. The second part of a meeting converges to put those divergent ideas to work in terms of a complex issue that needs to be addressed.
5. Outside experts inform the thinking of others, not provide them answers
Bringing outside experts into a meeting can provide much needed cognitive diversity, but experts cannot provide solutions. It is the knowledge workers of an organization, who function within its context and who together understand the complexity of its issues, who are uniquely capable of developing workable solutions.
Experts can stimulate the thinking of knowledge workers by talking about what others have done in similar situations. But any practice from another organization or team always has to be adapted, not adopted. Even the best of examples have to be modified to fit a new context.
Fifteen minutes is adequate time for an expert to stimulate a group’s thinking. A presentation by an expert needs to be immediately followed by a period of time dedicated to participants connecting what the expert has said to their own knowledge and to thinking with others about how that knowledge can be used. Without committed time for processing, an expert’s ideas are forgotten within a couple of hours. Unfortunately, the ubiquitous Q&A does not provide the needed processing time; rather what is needed is time for colleagues to talk with each other in small groups.
6. Connect new ideas to what knowledge workers already know
Processing is about moving new ideas from short term to long-term memory by connecting the new ideas to knowledge worker’s existing knowledge. The term, absorptive capacity (Cohen and Levinthal), references the ability of knowledge workers to recognize the value of new, external information, assimilate it, and apply it to their organization’s issues. An individual’s or an organization’s absorptive capacity, is a function of their prior knowledge. That means that without related knowledge to connect new ideas to, new knowledge will not be absorbed.
In meetings designed to exploit collective knowledge, a more robust environment for knowledge linkages to be made is provided when knowledge workers from varying disciplines are present. A knowledge worker from engineering, for example, will have different prior knowledge than one from R&D, and different yet from a knowledge worker from legal. The greater the cognitive diversity of prior knowledge in the room the more likely that new knowledge, from outside or internally, will be connected to prior knowledge which will spur insight. To process new knowledge, group discussion, made up diverse participants, is most effective. If the group is small (3-5 participants) each knowledge worker has enough airtime to put their ideas into words – which leads to the last principle.
7. We learn when we talk
This principle is central to leveraging the collective knowledge of a group. Listening provides us new ideas but as long as those ideas are just swimming around in our heads, they are neither fully formed nor implementable. It is only when a knowledge worker puts an idea together in a way that allows him or her to explain the idea to others, that the idea takes shape for the knowledge worker, as well as for the person the knowledge worker is talking with.
Johnson and Johnson, researchers at the University of Minnesota, have shown that we organize information in a different way when we are preparing to explain our thinking to others. The information not only becomes more logically organized, but new connections are made, often in the act of speaking. It is fair to say, “We don’t learn when we listen, we learn when we speak,” or write, or even create a visual representation of our understanding. Giving knowledge workers the time needed to put their thinking into words, not only shares the organization’s knowledge, but creates it.
Implementing these seven principles requires considerable change in how we design meetings and conferences - but then the idea of leveraging collective knowledge itself requires considerable change. More expansive thinking about who within the organization has valuable knowledge with which to address organizational issues, necessitates new approaches to how we meet and work together. These seven principles, tested through research and practice, provide a way to design those new approaches.