This is the MIT CIO Symposium blog. We invite participation from speakers, sponsors, attendees, and interested parties.

The greatest benefit of conversation is that it produces five categories of responses, not just the answer

By annie shum | May 18, 2009

What Do We Get From Conversation That We Can’t Get Any Other Way?

This is an intriguing question because each time we think about contacting someone for help on an issue we face a choice; Do I email, phone, walk down the hall, twitter, text message, post on the community website? This post is about the benefits of choosing to have a conversation* through what ever medium we select. The greatest benefit is that with conversation we get “more than an answer.” That’s the title of a great article by Rob Cross and Lee Sproull. They did a study in 2004 that looked at the benefits that accrued to people who had a conversation with a colleague about a relatively ambiguous issue each was facing. These seekers were project managers in a large consulting firm. They had access to first-rate company repositories of best practices, case examples, reusable work products, methodologies and tools, discussion forums and expertise databases. In spite of such tools, overwhelmingly they preferred to take the issue they were wrestling with to a colleague.

Cross and Sproull conducted in-depth interviews with each of these project managers to explore what they learned through the conversations they chose to have. Then they sorted the responses into five categories, which I outline here. I’ve also embedded my own thinking related to the categories- so they are not pure Cross and Sproull.

Answers: Not surprisingly the seekers got answers to the questions they asked. Some of the answers were factual in nature. But more often what was asked for and received was procedural or methodology based. The seekers were looking for the application of facts or principles in order to develop a solution.

Meta Knowledge: This category was about where to go to get more information on the issue, or conversely where not to go because a certain report was out-dated, or superficial. Also in this category was the identification of specific work products and the names of other people who could be helpful, along with an introduction.
Meta knowledge is incredibly useful, but only if the source knows enough about the issues the seeker is facing to sort through possibilities based on 1) the seeker’s level of expertise (absorpative capacity) and 2) the applicability of the meta knowledge to the seeker’s specific situation.

Problem Reformulation: This occurred when the source suggested a different way to look at the problem or issue, a way that might even invalidate the original question. It tended to broaden the thinking of the seeker or approach it from an entirely different angle. Also in this category was helping the seeker become aware of potential unforeseen consequences of specific actions as well as increasing awareness of issues that were likely to be particularly sensitive. To gain meta-knowledge and/or problem-reformulation requires the source to be willing “to understand the problem as experienced by the seeker and then shape her/his knowledge to the evolving definition of the problem” and is best served by the give and take of conversation. And as Cross and Sproull point out, to provide meta knowledge also demands a strong enough tie with the source so that he or she is willing to invest the necessary time in the seeker’s issue.

Validation: This is assurance that the approach the seeker is taking is on course. And it is the expression of appreciation for the seeker’s thinking behind his or her planning. Validation builds seekers confidence and allows them to move forward with greater certainty and perhaps even be more self-assured when approaching a client. Validation also provides seekers the certainty that they have done enough background work, saving the seeker the time it would take to gather further data. Validation has an emotive content that comes across most fully through the facial and tonal cues we pick up in face-to-face conversations. Like most feedback, validation provides greater assurance when it references specifics rather than generalities. For example, “Great plan” is less validating than is, “The logic of your argument is well sequenced which adds to its face validity”. But to offer that level of specificity takes in-depth understanding on the part of the source.

Legitimizing: Legitimizing is the expression of approval by a person in authority or with known expertise, which the seeker can then use to influence others. As with validation, legitimizing can save the seeker time by reducing the amount of proof or data that may need to be collected before the client is willing to act. It also serves to head off arguments others might raise.

The greatest benefit of conversation is that it produces five categories of responses, not just the answer. We get so much more from conversation, e.g. an unexpected insight, a sense of affirmation that inspires us to new heights or, equally useful, having to confront a realization that we’ve been trying to avoid; deepening the relationship with a colleague or the introduction to a collaborator we would never have discovered on our own; and on and on. The multiplicity of benefits addresses the very real problem of not knowing what we don’t know. A problem that is so frequent when the issues we are addressing are ambiguous and complex.

I don’t think we enter into conversations expecting so many outcomes. Rather I think we come with a goal or question in mind and the rest emerges out of the interaction of the conversation. And that interaction is impacted by the nature of the relationship between the seeker and source. The source has to be willing to engage with the seeker to understand the issues; the seeker has to put him or herself in the vulnerable position of asking for help. On both parts that willingness requires a relationship of trust and respect. Paradoxically, in-depth conversations also serve to strengthen just that kind of relationship.

Imagine how much knowledge we would gain if we did enter every conversation anticipating that we would gain “more than an answer.”

Nancy Dixon, April 5, 2009

Topics: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Leave a Reply