Partly out of a sense of drama and partly to make a point I sometimes find myself being dismissive of “collaboration” and “sharing knowledge”.
This is why.
First, social learning is first and foremost about – well – learning. Learning as a social enterprise. Say, write, or even think a word that you assume makes sense to someone else and you are engaging in something social. Coming to a shared understanding of what that word represents (or not) has been a process of social learning. That process hasn’t necessarily been smooth. The word has been contested, hijacked, distorted, re-interpreted, adapted, agreed, and disagreed on. Its shared meaning right now is simply a snapshot of its unfinished journey through social learning.
That’s the same with all artifacts, reifications, and processes that make up social learning in communities of practice. The ride to where they are today has not necessarily been smooth. There may have been some collaboration along the way, but it’s unlikely to be the full story.
What’s more, collaboration can be a euphemism for papering over disagreements and politics. It can be a way to silence voices or disregard issues of power. But disagreements, contestability, and awareness of power are all opportunities to enrich and maximize a community’s learning capability. It’s not necessarily collaboration you want, it’s the maximizing of your learning potential. And doing that requires an artful mix of engaging diverse voices, stimulating people’s imagination to what’s possible, and creating horizontal alignment among them.
What about sharing knowledge, the favorite child of collaboration? Forget it. What happens if you’re in a room (or a discussion forum) and are told to share your knowledge? Nada. But what if you are in a room with someone you can relate to who shares a problem they face? The chances are you will jump in to help – with stories of what you did in similar circumstances, what worked, and what didn’t.
We meet lots of community organizers losing sleep over the question of how to get people to share knowledge. If it’s going to keep you up at night, a more fruitful question is how to help frame an inquiry about what is not known. What is an issue facing a member that most people will relate to? How do you get them to tell a story about it in a way that invites a response? What kind of activity will deepen the inquiry – a debate? case clinic? role play? And how will you track and share how this leads that person to change how they “do business” and what happens as a result?
Framing the inquiry means tuning into the learning imperative (i.e. what we don’t yet know), doing ground work (who else shares this problem and what are the different perspectives that would be useful to bear on this?), designing a meaningful activity (one that will help push the inquiry), and keeping a record of the learning as it flows into practice and has an effect on the world (and feeding this back to the community).
So if you hear someone ask me about collaboration and knowledge sharing, be warned. I might just say boo!
11 thoughts on “Say boo to collaboration and sharing”
Thanks for this elegant summary of something I’ve been struggling with as I write my Thesis as well as something I struggle to explain when I talk to people I work with about “collaboration”. When I read your paragraph about “sharing knowledge” it makes me think about the knowledge management goal of making implicit knowledge explicit. It seems to be about coming up with ‘the right answer’ when what you describe is coming up with the right question — looking for the ‘right answer’ rarely solves the problem. Whereas deepening the inquiry usually surfaces all of the issues at play in the problem. In the process of figuring out how to address all of the issues, we all learn more.
I love that you follow your own advice — instead of telling us how to ‘share knowledge’ you ask questions to deepen the inquiry. Thanks!
Thanks, Barb. Yes, the problem with “making implicit knowledge explicit” assumes that someone somewhere has the answer even if they can’t articulate it. But nowadays, with increasing uncertainty, we simply can’t assume that. The most useful knowledge is that which we don’t have yet!
Bev, I can view your suggestions of “how to help frame an inquiry about what is not known” also as good ways of activating knowledge sharing:
1. What is an issue facing a member that most people will relate to?
2. How do you get them to tell a story about it in a way that invites a response?
3. What kind of activity will deepen the inquiry – a debate? case clinic? role play?
4. how will you track and share how this leads that person to change how they “do business” and what happens as a result?
I mean, if someone would ask me how to get people in the community share knowledge, I would answer that she could design interactions by means of those questions. Then, the interactions would have as a result also shared knowledge.
Hi Marco. That’s true.
I guess the question is: when does the term “knowledge sharing” get in the way and when does it actually help the process?
I think that knowledge sharing has become a proxy for social learning – I don’t think it’s a good one.
Thanks, Beverly, for sharing this interesting blog post.
It reminded me of what we learned in the Problem-Based Learning (PBL) approach of Maastricht University (NL) – in case you think you have no knowledge to share, you can always share at least a question with those that seem to have knowledge. In Maastricht learning facilitators (PBL tutors) helped us phrase such questions, e.g. by explicitly making it a learning step for our learning groups to phrase the core learning questions that we see underlying the issues we studied. In the next step, we then activated the given pre-knowledge in the group. Through challenging what others know, we did social learning, e.g. by helping them to reflect on their knowledge or by helping them to express it. … Similarly, I learned that Matt Andrews and colleagues promote in their Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach to keep checking whether we ask the right questions and to keep asking iteratively whether our knowledge (for example, about the context of reforms) is comprehensive enough. … What I have learned from such approaches is that facilitators have the role to help learners to reflect more on their learning and to keep questioning what they (and others) already know.
Also, learning facilitators have the important role to encourage learners to reach out with their questions to others (and to share their given knowledge), and not to be too ‘shy’ to reveal that they consider their knowledge still incomplete/limited. I guess a good start is to accept as learning facilitator that you don’t know enough yourself, and that knowledge is never complete or learning is never finished. Probably Socrates with his questioning was one of the first who tried to develop such skills.
I know this sounds easier than it is 😉 What limits our reflection and questioning skills? How much does our education system, the way we get raised, our cultural expectations to express our knowledge, our learning environment, etc. influence us in the way we learn, reflect on our knowledge, share our knowledge with others, and challenge the knowledge of others. I find your thoughts on learning citizenship (elsewhere on your website) in that regard very inspiring.
Best regards, Robert.
Hi Robert. Yes, I agree. There’s nothing like a problem to drive the learning. And I think Matt Andrews and colleagues would find our value-creation framework useful for doing PDIA.
Re learning facilitators encouraging questions, I agree – with one proviso. It shouldn’t be false. We would never advocate holding back your own knowledge – or getting others to hold back their knowledge – in order to get other people to find things out for themselves. I sometimes see teachers or facilitators doing that and I don’t think it’s helpful. I find it also a bit patronizing.
I think a good start for a learning facilitator – or simply a learning citizen – is to start from a position of *inquiry*, which is subtly different from telling people that you don’t know enough yourself. Appreciate what you and others know and have it as the start of the process of an ever deepening inquiry, not a full stop.
And I think you are so right about how we are not socialized into thinking about what we don’t know. That’s why we, in our theorizing, shy away from the word knowledge and why learning is our focus. Knowledge implies something that is known. Learning suggests that we are in the process of knowing.
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Apologies for joining the conversation so late – I’m not sure how I missed this… Collaboration is a word I am currently spending some pondering and will continue to do so for a while yet… It is a word that for me personally, has carried some baggage and was not necessarily one I would have seen myself engaging with to the degree that I must now. Interestingly, in the context of the industry I working with, which is Fire and Emergency Services (FES), the word, or at least their conceptualisation of the word has been particularly useful. As mentioned, it is not a word I would have necessarily chosen (in fact I didn’t), however, for a range of reasons, it has resonated with these folk, served to open a dialogue and allowed imagining in a way that has not previously occurred – so for the time being its a word we are embracing and running with. In more recent times, it has been the catalyst for robust discussions around power.
In the context above, we have not however had to specifically tackle the knowledge sharing chestnut. At this point in time it has not fallen out of the overarching idea of collaboration, rather collaboration has evoked a sense of the future and a space for the currently unknown, the things not currently done or tried to be done – perhaps one to look out for though…
Hello Bev. The main argument against specific collaboration above is that ‘it can be a euphemism for papering over disagreements and politics. It can be a way to silence voices or disregard issues of power. But disagreements, contestability, and awareness of power are all opportunities to enrich and maximize a community’s learning capability.’ I agree that if the word collaboration is used in this way, then this is clearly unhelpful. But I would argue that this is a mis-use of the term. Collaboration is simply ‘the process of two or more people or organizations working together to realize or achieve something successfully’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collaboration Collaborations may (or may not) deal effectively with ‘disagreements, contestability, and awareness of power’ – they may have other positive or negative attributes. Arguably the only point that is common to all ‘collaboration’ is the ‘working together to realize or achieve something successfully’. I would maintain that collaboration is therefore essential for international development and social justice. We need more of it, and at the same time we need to find ways of promoting collaboration that enables social learning, and vice versa.
You’re right of course, Neill. But it still behoves us to pay attention to the power dynamics behind “collaboration”. When a woman pushes back against “business as usual”, or a worker with a manager, or a young, black person with the establishment – are they collaborating or not? In whose interest is it that they collaborate?
“It still behoves us to pay attention to the power dynamics behind “collaboration””
“When a woman pushes back against “business as usual”, or a worker with a manager, or a young, black person with the establishment – are they collaborating or not?”
These examples are not defining characteristics of collaboration. I think it would be correct, however, to say that such power dynamics would be one of many factors that would *undermine* the possibility for successful collaboration.
“In whose interest is it that they collaborate?”
Collaboration, using the Wikipedia definition (‘the process of two or more people or organizations working together to realize or achieve something successfully’) implies that both/all people or organisations have a common interest in the realisation or achievement of the same end.