When it comes to personal and career success, there’s no doubt that access is the key to career development. Richard Florida’s studies of the creative class argue that metropolitan regions with high concentrations of technology workers, artists, and gays exhibit a higher level of economic development—and that environment, in turn, attracts more creative people. No matter how you parse the environmental data, the creative class also tends to be near major colleges and research universities. That macro orientation clearly provides access to knowledge from high concentrations of creative people, cutting-edge organizations and research institutions.
Access, what John Hegel and his colleagues call “the ability to fluidly find and get to the people and resources when and where we need them” is more and more the key to fulfillment and career success. This is not nearly as easy or as straight-forward a task as many might think. Fact of the matter, you want to think strategically about where to go and whom to go to—or you’re liable to get screwed with bad or outdated information.
stock of knowledge
No matter where you live, your knee-jerk response to development may be the internet, social media and e-learning. There’s much to say for that because as our needs become more and more necessary and as competition heats up in our chosen fields, the web can provide insight to deal with our “stocks of knowledge” that have gotten outdated. But the internet, full of people and organizations hawking their wares, makes it very difficult for you to gain a trustworthy picture of the appropriate parameters, leading-edge issues and viable sources of knowledge. It’s a truism in business (and politics) that whenever occasions are so chaotic and indiscriminate that the community has no clear sense of the facts, people are given free rein to fantasize without inhibitions. So, can you trust the web? Well. . . yes and no.
Over time as I’ve gotten to understand the web, I’ve developed my own approach to its supposed merit. Here, then are a few suggestions for using social media to inform your discipline:
- Always start with your own set of facts before using social media. What do you already know? What might be changing? And, in general terms, what are you looking for? Mindful attention to those issues before you start your search in media will save you time. The more you know your own discipline, the better you’ll be able to use the resources of social media.
- Look for patterns of characterizations (do the same people keep cropping up as knowledgeable and others as plagiarizing know-nothings?).
- Keep a running tab on ideas that recur again and again. Are they basic, or just old-hat? If you pay close attention to a website, you’ll find that often what’s being offered is the same old stuff with new language.
- Do the ideas have application in more than one industry? Ideas don’t necessarily travel between disciplines and organizations.
- How do the ideas fit into your scheme of the discipline? Will they add something to your knowledge base?
- What ideas contradict your understanding of your knowledge base? I’m rarely trusting of conventional wisdom. The best ideas often contradict conventional wisdom.
- Always question the experts and expert institutions. I recently wrote a blog questioning a well-known “expert” from a well-known business school. His book was more of the same even though he had an opportunity to do something quite significant.
- If you’re looking for discipline insights, remember to check out the top business and technology schools for faculty blogs and research. But question those experts, too. On occasion I’ve found even Harvard experts behind the curve. Still, I rely on them and others from the top institutions.
Although digital opportunities can be exceptional, nothing beats face-to-face conversations. Your own organization, industry conferences, relevant institutions and groups can provide for excellent face-to-face development options. A lot of conferences can be mere re-runs, so chose carefully.
The difficult issue, however, is learning how to frame really good questions that can be effectively answered when the need arises. And that’s not nearly as easy as some suggest.
The best questioning process starts from a completely different place, different stance and even different theory than the population has been taught. Traditional questioning assumes that your task is to “discover” the information you want and need from others. It assumes that you know exactly what you want and that there’s a very specific answer to your question and that there’s another person who can spell out the answer for you. That rarely, if ever, is the truth in effective knowledge development. Rather than discovering information, effective questioning is creating information, actually innovating with the other person. That person may be expert, but effective dialog and questioning can develop insights out of the expert’s knowledge base (and your own) that even he failed to recognize previously.
Effective questioning is very difficult to map. But if it’s effective the other person will be adding information unrequested and will be interacting with you in unexpected ways, talking two to four times as much as you. That conversation can provide unique paths for you to pursue. It’ll also jog your own brain in unsuspecting ways. So the best I can say about the questioning map is that you start with a big funnel and slowly narrow it down. But you may find important detours at any point along the path causing the funnel to broaden again. Merely talking about what’s going on in the conversation also builds in new information. The best strategy, however, is to keep your direction in focus, but not your most concrete needs. If you narrow your expectations too much, you’ll miss a lot of great stuff.
Here are some tidbits that regularly crop up in innovative questioning: “I understand that you’re very familiar with. . . .” (Pause, wait for a response. Take one of the paths down the response, or explain your situation…ask what experience he’s had…pause, listen, take one of the paths down the response. . . explain yourself. . . narrow the funnel a bit if what you’re gaining seems to have further potential—but don’t be in too much of a hurry. . .) ”Let’s talk about. . . . What do you mean by? . . .” Or, “here’s what I mean by . . . I noticed you. . . “ grinned, frowned, curled your eyebrows, looked a bit disgusted. . . “help me understand. . . .What do you see as the results of this? Why does it happen that way? How does this fit in the overall situation? How will this go wrong? What don’t I know, what am I asking wrongly? How will I get in trouble?” By this time your “informant” should be asking questions of you and talking about your experience. Turn-taking is inherent in the new questioning.) As the conversation gets to a seeming climax, you can start summarizing, but even that often provides new paths and insights.
Typically, when organizational or personal development fails, the issue is about lack of thoughtful scenario planning and failure to understand and use the best questioning process. Conversational questioning is a fine art and makes possible more creativity and more learning than any other method.
Flickr photo: alexanderdrachmann