Expert: Knowledge lies in narrative

Many organizations could boost the value of their knowledge management initiatives if they tried a new approach to gathering information, according to one consultant.

Knowledge management systems are intended to make the expertise of top-performing individuals available throughout an organization, so it can shorten the learning curve for new or less experienced employees.

But it is not necessarily easy to capture such substantive information, said Gary Klein, chief scientist at Klein Associates.

People often make the mistake of assuming that subject matter experts can rattle off the policies, procedures and data points that make them so effective in their jobs. Unfortunately, experts are not necessarily conscious of their real expertise, Klein said.

Their success comes from “beat knowledge that people often cannot describe,” he said, speaking Wednesday at the Knowledge Management conference sponsored by FCW Media Group.

Asked how they know what to do, experts tend to talk in terms of experience, hunches and intuition, or they cite existing policies and procedures, even though they do not necessarily follow them.

The trick, Klein said, is to think in terms of narratives. Instead of focusing on generalities -- asking questions that begin, “How do you…” or “What do you…” -- ask them about specific cases in the recent past and have them describe what happened and how they reacted.

A narrative approach makes it much easier to delve into experts' thought processes, which is where real knowledge is to be found, Klein said.

When experts are faced with a particularly vexing situation, they do not approach it blindly. Instead they use “mental models,” based on their years of experience, to sift through and interpret the available information and decide what steps to take next or figure out what additional information is needed.

Although they sometimes talk about mental models in terms of “tricks of the trade,” experts often act on them without thinking about it. But in the course of discussing concrete examples, they often reveal those mental models to others.

That was the case when Klein worked with a group of nurses assigned to a neonatal intensive care unit. Some of the nurses had a much better track record of identifying and heading off potential health problems, and the hospital wanted to capture their knowledge to share with other nurses.

The successful nurses appeared to pick up on clues that others did not see. But they “couldn’t describe it when we asked the question at an abstract level,” Klein said. So he pulled up a recent case and said, “Tell me the story of that baby.”

In the process of discussing specific events, Klein’s team was able to compile “a laundry list of symptoms that these nurses were paying attention to,” he said.

Narrative is also important when it comes to sharing such information. Organizations often try to “proceduralize” everything they learn from experts, Klein said. But when that happens, the tacit knowledge that makes experts successful is often lost.

It is usually easier to teach people by developing a series of vignettes that bring that tacit knowledge to life for others. That is the point of knowledge management. “It is not enough to elicit information,” Klein said. “You have to be able to represent it so other people can use it."

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