Learning by talking (and listening): What I’ve realized about conversational techniques for knowledge management

Kate Fatta

USAID ASSIST Project, URC | Improvement Specialist for Knowledge Management

Working with facility-based teams of health workers in knowledge management on the USAID Applying Science to Strengthen and Improve Systems Project (ASSIST) and its predecessor, the USAID Health Care Improvement Project (HCI), my colleagues and I have come to recognize the importance of using conversational, small group techniques to draw out tacit – “how to” – knowledge and provide opportunities for meaningful sharing between people.

On ASSIST we work with many teams in multiple countries to improve the quality of the services they provide – whether they are providing anti-retroviral treatment to patients or ante-natal care to pregnant women. For example, one of the activities we are working on in Uganda is to integrate nutrition, assessment, counseling, and support (NACS) services with prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV (PMTCT) services in 22 sites in six districts. At the 22 sites, there are teams of service providers working to make this happen. While they are working on it, they are generating a lot of learning and new knowledge about this work and our challenge is to provide them with opportunities to come together and meaningfully share and learn from one another. We have already been doing this on HCI in the form of learning sessions, or meetings in which teams working on a specific activity are brought together to share what they have been doing, but in the past, we have often conducted those meetings in a very didactic, one person speaks/everyone else listens format.

Small group sharing

Photo by Kate Fatta, URC

However, as our understanding and use of knowledge management techniques have grown, we have come to see the importance of designing meetings so that people share in small groups and integrate new knowledge in the large group. Giving people the opportunity to share in small groups and ask questions of each other allows for greater exchange of tacit knowledge than a formal presentation does. By using techniques such as storytelling, field trips, and even poster presentations in small groups, the person sharing learns more about their work by explaining it and answering questions, while the person listening gets to ask questions and probe deeper. It sets the stage that everyone has something to share and everyone has something to learn, eliminating the expert/student feeling that can happen with formal presentations.

After working in the small groups, we have found that to integrate new knowledge back into the large group, instead of asking “what did you hear?” it is more useful to ask the group “what resonated with you?” and give them a minute to think about their response. While the difference between the wording of these questions might seem minor, people’s responses to them are vastly different. When asked to share what they heard, people tend to give a laundry list of things that were said. When asked to say what resonated with them – and given a minute of silence to think about their response – people connect what they heard with what they already know and create new knowledge and understanding that is meaningful for themselves.

“Experience is inevitable, learning is not. Learning from experience requires deliberate reflection.”

 – Nancy Dixon, www.nancydixonblog.com