From information to conversation

January 14, 2011

People often need to act and make decisions in situations in which causality is poorly understood, where there is considerable uncertainty and people hold different beliefs and have personal biases. However, people very reluctantly acknowledge that they face ambiguity at work. Problems in organizations tend to get labeled as lack of information. It feels more professional to try to solve a knowledge management problem that is called lack of information than a problem that is called confusion.

Knowledge workers are often put in a position where they have to negotiate some understanding of what they face. The same event means different things to different people and just getting more information will not help them. What will help is a setting where they could negotiate and construct fresh ideas that would include their multiple interpretations of what they experience. The challenge is that managers often treat the existence of multiple views as a symptom of a weakness rather that as an accurate and needed barometer of uncertainty.

A mix of stimuli always surrounds people. The stimuli have no meaning apart from what the individuals make of it. In other words, the environment is a product of the persons, not something outside of them. People are selective in what they attend to in any situation and what is attended to become the environment. The reality is not an objective set of arrangements outside us, but is continually constructed in daily interaction.

If people want to create shared meaning, they need to talk about their experience in close proximity to its occurrence and have a common platform for conversation. They need to see their different views about the experience as richness and a prerequisite to learn what is going on.

Because any information can mean a variety of things, meaning cannot simply be discovered. Information does not help. We have to talk! Many meetings that are directed at the problems of ambiguity fail to handle it because potentially rich views are silenced by autocratic leadership, norms that encourage harmony or reluctance to admit that one has no idea what is going on.

A crucial property of creative work is that situations are progressively clarified in iterative interaction. Our reality is an ongoing accomplishment that takes form when people together make sense of the situations in which they find themselves.

Therefore our own joint sense-making actions are the determinants of the meaning that situations have. They are the true contents of our learning and development. Quoting Max Planck: “When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.”


Thank you Doug Griffin, Jeffrey Sachs, Karl Weick, Stowe Boyd and Ralph Stacey

Background: Does more information mean we know less?

5 Responses to “From information to conversation”

  1. The most brilliant, beautiful and important thing i have been reading in a long time. Interpretation of meaning – different meanings and shared meaning – need to be in focus for knowledge workers.

    I will steal this text!

  2. Ulla-Maija Uusitalo Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtprovoking post. On a philosophical note, I find myself pondering that what is truly needed is to bring the human being back in into management practices. Sense-making, confusion, imagination and creativity are all properties that are inherenty human. However, adding these human components into the equation we find ourselves questioning the basic premise of “Homo Economicus” or the rational decision maker that encompasses most of contemporary management research. And this premise, of course, forms the steely structure of the “iron cage” that permeates the contemporary workplace: plans, methods and metrics, such as BSC, budgets or project management tools. Even most IT-systems assume a rational user. How can we translate human agency into organizational practices, and transform the current artefacts and structures into relevant ones? Maybe a topic for a new post…?

  3. […] From information to conversation by @EskoKilpi It feels more professional to say there’s a lack of information rather than we’re confused […]

  4. Mikel Says:

    Nice proposals … but what about HEARING ?
    Not just talk, we need to hear.

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