Trust in Transferring Knowledge

Trust me. Dr. Karen Stephenson, who I am still reading, like most business Gurus insist that human interactions flourish only when the trust level is high. Here again a short extract from her on “The Role of Trust in Transferring Tacit Knowledge”. I am fond of her story of a cocktail party to illustrate the social human behavior.

I have stated that tacit knowledge is the source of innovation. A catalyst for the creation of tacit knowledge is trust. Unarticulated, tacit knowledge can find expression in collegial discussions with others, in which experiences are shared. This knowledge transfer is subtle and mediated by the trust among colleagues. Thus, trust is the medium and knowledge the message. In this way, experience is transferred from those who have it to those who don’t.

This is the primary reason why mentorship and apprenticeship are critical practices of knowledge transfer, Mentoring is the oldest form of knowledge transfer and still the most efficient when exchanging knowledge between humans. It is made tangible by the trust relationship that develops between mentor and mentee. How does it happen?

To understand how mentorship works, let’s take a view from afar. Imagine a cocktail party which you have been persuaded to attend by your spouse. Your spouse needs your moral support at this business function as he or she plans the tactics for their next promotion and your subsequent vacation to the Bahamas. Being a selfless and loving spouse (and imagining the wind against your face on the beach) you go. Hundreds of people are in full party by the time you arrive. Lit faces, rooms and cigars create a three-ring circus. At the periphery you take a deep breath and give a sidewise glance to the space by your side that was filled by your spouse only moments ago. Now vanished, your spouse is working the room, making that promotion happen, So there you are. Stranded! A server places a glass of wine in your hand. You hurriedly gulp the wine to take the edge off your discomfort and have already started on your second glass when your feigned knowing nods and smiles invite the ‘small talk’ of others. “How do you know our host?’ and other bland queries lead you to a third, even fourth glass of wine and more meaningful discussions about such things as educating the next generation, public elections, neighborhood issues and global warming. By the time the fifth glass of wine is making its way to your brain and you no longer recognize your spouse, you’re in deep conversation about more intimate matters such as marriages, divorces, parenting, etc. These and other life -threatening situations are the times in which trust (and, sometimes trouble) are forged.

Let’s step back and analyze the situation closely. In the small talk of cocktail parties, humans are at random walk, desperately seeking points of similarity through visibility: height, girth, dress, gender, race, accent, hair and eye color, etc. Reading the audience and working a room are ancient skills encoded in us by our forebears who sat cheek by jowl around the campfire; an earlier and more primordial form of cocktail party. I confess to having attended countless cocktail parties and continue to be amazed how, after just a few drinks, I end up with people who are like me in some way – same experiences, same clothes same interests, etc. It’s not the alcohol talking, but the ancient drive of seeking similarity: ‘You look like me, you think like me, you dress like me … you’re one of us.‘ When people connect at this basic level, they are engaging in an embryonic form of trust with each other. What began as a room full of disconnected people may end up as a network of people connected in invisible lines of trust.

These invisible lines of trust don’t just operate at cocktail parties. They also surreptitiously galvanize people in an organization by connecting them to each other. These connections, or networks, of trust are the veins of a natural resource of knowledge, a honeycomb of collective consciousness which is mined for hidden sources of innovation. The challenge is to detect them, render them visible, understand their underlying structure and leverage them to increase productivity.

The practice that I have used and recommend to build trust and better human interactions in organizations as well as families is that of creating frequent occasions for cocktail parties or similar gathering activities. In the corporate world set up, the ‘small talk’ where important issues are discussed happens very often in the relaxed environment at the water fountain or around a cup of coffee or tea at the break.


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