How to Transfer Knowledge

We’re going to talk about a way to transfer new knowledge quickly and effectively to another person or into a work group.

We’re going to talk about a way to transfer new knowledge quickly and effectively to another person or into a work group. We will assume for the moment that the people involved want to learn the new knowledge, and save the motivational issues for another time.

Ever read one of those science fiction books where people have electronic sockets behind their ears? When you want to see a movie you plug in a chip. When you want to be an expert in something you plug in a different chip.

An article in a recent issue of Business Week (“Silicon Eyes”; 10/28/98) heralds the uses of new electronic vision chips. Recent experiments with a digital vision chip on eyeglass frames sent images to an implanted chip connected to the optic nerve and the blind patient could see large letters. The leap from sensory input to knowledge input appears to be something a lot bigger then feeding a few optical signals. But this is a start.

Cognitive science tells us that we assimilate new concepts only if they are within a small reach of what we already know—within the zone of proximity, as they say. This is why it takes so long to learn a new subject: we have to do the learning one step at a time, and each step has to sink in before the next can be built upon it.

When robotics were first introduced into the factory environment, re-training electrical service technicians to the level of competency took a long time, and many never made it because the new concepts of soft instructions and programming logic were just too far from past experience. Those that did found learning new robot models and new brands of robots successively easier. Like the difference between learning to drive your first car and then moving on to the second and third.

Though the brain can parallel process many input channels, learning appears to be a sequential biological growth process. One way to speed up the learning process is to use multiple channels effectively. Accelerated learning is an educational technique that mixes verbal story telling and reading, graphics and visual stimulation, sounds and rhythm, movement and physical experiment, and other forms of appropriate input while teaching a student new material - and significantly speeds up the learning process in both adults and children.

It isn’t just parallel input at work here, but also the concepts of multiple intelligences and different learning styles. We are not, for instance, all adept at learning by reading or by listening to a lecture; nor can all of us follow a global top-down explanation equally as well as a piece-by-piece bottom-up presentation.

In a sense, these accelerated learning techniques employ a shotgun approach, bombarding the student with multiple inputs—at least one is bound to be compatible with the student’s learning style. In reality, many will be compatible to different degrees since most of us are a mixture of all learning styles. And further, it appears that complex interactions among multiple channels promote and enhance learning to an even greater degree. In a sense, this approach presents information in a form compatible with the way the brain processes information into knowledge.

Plug compatibility allows us to hook any brand-name speaker up to a Fisher stereo system, put any producer’s light bulb into the living room lamp, and read almost any email on our computer regardless of where it came from. These three cases work because they share a common standard for both physical and signal characteristics.

The science fiction knowledge chip is a fantasy example that goes one step further - it is “meaning” compatible as well as physical and signal compatible. The chip transfers instantly usable understanding.

A respected theory is that cognition is shaped by culture in general and language in particular. When you think, you use words, and only those that your socio-cultural background gives meaning to. Add to this the proximal-zone concept, that knowledge is assimilated in small steps. Now think about your culturally diverse, or even global, corporation and its need to speed up the acquisition and mobilization of knowledge.

Your organization won’t try to solve this problem by eliminating cultural diversity; that would impair the important innovation potential (see this column Dec. ‘98). Language has some possibilities for standardization, though: some global companies, DaimlerChrysler for instance, are adopting English as the corporate language, though it may be awhile before production workers in Southern California can directly communicate new methods to their counterparts in Detroit, let alone Stuttgart.

What if we could take anyone in the flavor they came in, then mix in an additional common culture, an additional common language, and a new single knowledge pattern so universal that everything else they had to learn was only a small step away? Put like that, it sounds as far-fetched as the knowledge-chip fantasy; but bear with me as I move from the slightly exaggerated to the demonstrably possible.

Our objective is a way to package a piece of knowledge so that it can be quickly and effectively transferred from one person to another within an organization. Our method will utilize concepts of language, culture, and pattern proximity. Basically we adopt a plug compatible standard that will require some learning time, but not much, from everyone in the group. Once learned, it streamlines the knowledge transfer process.

Though there are many ways that this might be accomplished, I will use an example that I am familiar with and have portrayed here in some detail in past essays. I’m referring to a knowledge template I’ve called a local metaphor model, a cultural context of change proficiency, and a language of change issues and Reusable-Reconfigurable-Scalable principles structured for systems thinking and communicated simultaneously in textual explanation, bulleted synopsis, graphic depiction, and connected story example.

This packaging example presupposes that the knowledge we want to transfer addresses some real problem, and that the real problem can be adequately described in terms of the dynamics of change that it presents. We believe that most knowledge of interest to business organizations fits these presuppositions, or can be made to.

Let’s look at the language part. We’re not talking about a primary language as rich as the one we all use for thinking and communicating about everything, whether that be English or Swahili, but rather the concept of language as vocabulary and communication structure. Think of it as the plug compatible physical package that allows us to transfer data from one person to another. Like any language, it will take some time to master, but not a great deal of time as the concepts we wish to express in this language are very limited.

As to culture, we all have many already. There is the primary and greater societal culture we belong to as well as the usually-secondary work environment culture we belong to; and maybe the sub-cultures of the soccer team we play with on Fridays, the church group we meet with frequently, and the hunting lodge we visit in the fall. One may well be a subset of another but there are plenty of cases where seemingly contradictory cultures are embraced by the same person—like the religious physicist or the veterinarian hunter. The point is, we are all capable of embracing another culture. In this case, we use culture as a set of values and beliefs that give context and perspective. Think of this common culture as providing our signal compatibility, giving us a means to transfer information, something beyond transferring mere data.

Finally we come to the transfer of knowledge. Mainly we need a pattern of new knowledge that looks fairly close to old knowledge so that the knowledge receiver has ready-made hooks for attaching new information. Say you want to educate your design engineers on effective ways to gain value from direct customer interaction—something foreign to them. Help them build a local metaphor model packaged in the knowledge transfer format first, perhaps modeling the departmental new-hire interviewing process that they know and respect Then introduce the new knowledge packaged in the same manner. Assimilation is much easier because the general concept hooks are all the same. And with the language and culture of change proficiency, one local metaphor model is all that’s needed, no matter how many more and different new procedures, processes, and practices will come their way.