“What do I know, Who needs to know, and Have I Told Them,” what I will abbreviate as WWH, is more of a cliché these days than a statement with any real meaning. Many leaders quote this cliché , but very few leaders follow it or even fully understand its true implications in today’s information and knowledge-age environments. What does it really mean to know something? How do we discover who else needs to know what we know? By what means can you get what you know to others who need to know? These are the questions we should ask ourselves when tossing around clichés like WWH. The idea I’d like to suggest and will further clarify is that we can tie each part of this cliché to an important aspect of the organization, for a number of reasons, which will be made clearer in this discussion. Those organizational aspects of importance are as follows: “What do I know” is tied to learning, “Who needs to know” is tied to collaboration, and “Have I told them” is tied to reporting. I cannot highlight the importance of this enough. We collaborate on what we know in order to report what we know to those who need to know it.
In order to understand what I know, I must first understand what and who I am. This understanding places what I know in the right context for adding meaning and value to the things I know. What and who I am is defined by the organization’s mission and vision. The strategy, vision, and mission of an organization act as guides, aligning personnel with the objectives of the organizations. With these tools in hand, we can decide if what we know supports what we do.
What does it really mean to know something?
We develop knowledge through learning, we learn from experience, we experience by perceiving…there are many ways to describe how we develop knowledge; how we come to know a thing. Plato describes knowledge development as a succession of steps. We begin first by perceiving the world around us. We proceed from this perception, after much contemplation – as a result of the internal conflict that takes place as what we perceive is compared against our faith, to developing understanding, which we then apply reasoning to, developing knowledge. This is not a direct process, but a very dynamic one in which several of the phases in the process of knowledge development repeat several times, because, as many of us have come to understand, it is through repetition that we actually learn a thing. Plato states that this is a process of “successive steps [where] she (in this case, our developing understanding) descends again without the aid of any sensible object, from ideas, through ideas, and in ideas she ends” (Plato, trans. 1998).
It is important to note that the process of knowledge development represents change and change comes through a process of destroying the current state of being in order to replace it with the new state of being. In an example, Plato describes people in the process of developing knowledge of the world around them in which they “suffer sharp pains… unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows” (Plato, trans. 1998). This journey of developing knowledge and learning throughout our lives takes considerable effort. According to Plato, “…the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being, and learn by degrees to endure the sight of being” (Plato, trans. 1998).
So, what does it really mean to know a thing? It means or rather requires considerable effort on the part of the knower to truly understand a thing, and this understanding comes through learning by experience. There are many ways to develop experience. The best known way, of course is to learn from someone else who already knows and can teach. Lacking the right environment and support, however, can cause many to give up or worse, fake it. This doesn’t have to be the case though. As human beings, we come equipped with special abilities to develop experience using very little of the aforementioned support many think is essential to learning. How is that, you ask? We dream. Yes, I said it, we must be dreamers. Our ability to visualize serves as a way to, in a sense, create the environment we need to develop experience. It is a proven technique in sports and in some management circles. Like the coach of any team where the coach tries to get the team to visualize themselves executing their sport before they physically do it, management is beginning to address the vision of the organization as it relates to a particular project in order to affect the right response from the team. This, of course, requires a foundation of knowledge from which to build on, but is possible to improve using such methods.
Another useful tool is mimicry. Neuroscience research proves that we can continue to learn through mimicking. In the documentary entitled Athene’s theory of everything, we are presented with information that describes how this mimicking works. We have different types of neurons in our brain, but there are a special type called mirror neurons that allow us to learn by simply watching (AtheneWins, 2011), essentially allowing us to use our social environment to become what we observe. Mimicking doesn’t have to rely on someone physically performing the task. Again, here, the art of visualization can be brought to bear. This could take the form of reading explicit directions on how to do a thing, visualizing that thing being done, and then physically doing it.
How do we discover who else needs to know what we know?
Understanding how the organization is organized is one key tool we can use to discover who else needs to know what we know. This statement really points to two activities in the organization: reporting and collaborating. We’ll discuss the means of reporting next, but here we should define who needs to receive the reports and what does the report need to contain. The “who” of reporting can be defined using the organization chart as most charts are hierarchical, denoting not only lanes of responsibility, but also denoting lines of communication for reporting. Reports move up the hierarchy while tasks move down.
The “what” of reporting can be defined through collaboration on those tasks that come down the hierarchy. People generally work in teams to accomplish tasks, but everything a team does, does not need to fill the pages of reports. Another thing the organization chart points out are the functional areas or those areas in the organization where specific skills are arranged. Many teams are cross-functional teams because tasks require the support of different skilled personnel from across the organization. Consider the way we piece together data to form information we need to make personal decisions:
The task: Determine whether or not I should wear a coat today. In order to address this task, I must pull in information from different areas of the brain captured from the different senses of the body: sight (it looks cloudy), sound (the wind is blowing fairly hard), touch (it feels really cool); and fusing this information with what I may already know (it’s the middle of November) I provide a report (based on information retrieved from the different divisions of my mind, I’ve determined that it’s going to be a cold day) my brain can use to make a decision (let’s wear our coat today).
The point here is that defining the “what” of reporting is a team effort and is guided by the task which provides some idea as to what information is needed to make a decision.
By what means can you get what you know to the others who need to know?
Using the simple WWH cliché, many probably assume or only consider using the phone and face-to-face discussions as the means of getting information to those who need to know. However, what if those who need to know number somewhere in the hundreds for a large organization? Many things will influence how you get information to those who need to know it. Notice here that I did not say “those who need it” as “those who need to know it” suggests that the persons receiving the information must also go through some level of learning to understand what they are receiving and therefore to “know it.” This adds a new level of complexity to sharing information many never consciously consider when using the WWH cliché. How complex? Diversion…
Consider an organization with many tasks and, as a result, many teams to work the tasks. An organization with few “knowers” (people able to understand the information they are receiving) will have a difficult time accomplishing its many tasks. I digress, but what’s important to point out here is that organizations need to foster learning. According to Meister (1998), “Through action learning, an organization can convert individual learning into organizational know-how by addressing real-life business issues.” In one example, Meister (1998) talks about the leadership development program at one corporate university where “participants devote a significant amount of time to demonstrating their ability to apply concepts to real challenges through some form of action learning.” In my organization, few team participants are truly capable of applying concepts to the organization’s challenges, or those challenges that fall outside of the scope of the would-be knowers understanding. Once more, my organization is doing nothing to address this lack of performance, suggesting that either the leaders in my organization are like the would-be knowers aforementioned or they have chosen to simply overload the few true knowers we do have – a short-term solution for an increasingly debilitating problem.
Ok, my apologies for that diversion. I’ll have to address that in more detail in a separate post. So, what you should understand so far is that using the tele or doing a face-to-face meeting with the knower, although the best method for sharing information, isn’t always the best means for sharing information. The point here is that there are many other means both physical, virtual, and somewhere in between for creating the shared awareness needed for decision making.
We now circle back to our cliché “What do I know, Who needs to know, and Have I Told Them.” You should now understand that knowing something requires considerable effort, discovering who needs to know requires strong collaborative teams of learners, and sharing what you know with decision makers may require more than a simple phone call or face-to-face meeting. Knowing and learning are different but mutual supporting, if not essential, organizational and personal efforts. People change daily as a result of personal experiences. Organizations must be capable of doing the same if they are to become agile and achieve the ability to do more with less. This is not an issue we can simply pay lip-service to and expect results from. Change takes time and requires a champion at the executive level who can get other decision makers to see that they, like the emperor, are not wearing any clothes.
AtheneWins (2011, Jan 23). Athene’s theory of everything. [Video file] Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2F99edA2Eg&feature=related
Jowett, B. (Translator). (2008). Plato’s republic. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1497/pg1497.txt (Original work published 1998)
Meister, J. (1998). Corporate universities: lessons in building a world-class work force. McGraw-Hill