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Conversations and narratives are the new documents

With the emergence of writing, physical presence was no longer necessary for sharing information. In other words, a person’s being there was not necessary for their influence to be felt. As typing replaced handwriting or when movable type replaced the hand copying of words, it became even easier to communicate with words that replicated ideas and simulated human interaction without face-to-face contact.

Cultures without writing used human contact as a means for interpreting shared reality. Information within these cultures was community-based and people tended to construct their identities in relation to the community. People were dependent on contact with others for information. Print cultures in contrast encouraged more individuality and less connectivity with the community. Literacy led to people looking for information through the relatively isolated practice of reading rather than through interaction.

When encountering anything for which we don’t already have a term, we turn to metaphor in order to make a comparison between the new phenomenon and a familiar thing. For example we display applications on our “desktops”, we place documents in “folders”, and we check our “mailboxes” for messages or we speak about “virtual” communities when we refer to groups of people communicating online.

Online communication has challenged our ideas of what a community can be. Social media allow people to relate to groups of people who live beyond the borders of location and time in the very same way that print once allowed information to be free from the constraints of location.

The Internet redefines what local is.

The view of online as a separate space, a “virtual” space or “cyberspace” is an unfortunate example of a misleading metaphor that makes it hard to understand what is going on today. Our social media tools are no more alternatives to real life than books; they are part of it — making life more meaningful. People who are concerned about the increasing use of online communication and digital media often express their worries about the decay of face-to-face contact, but in effect social media are reducing the transaction costs of group forming and supporting activities and are increasingly the new coordination tools for real-world action. It is all about a richer life!

Many of our behaviours are held in place not by rational decisions or desires but by present or bygone constraints. Our cultures are shaped as much by these constraints as they are by capabilities and aspirations. Luckily, changes often take place very fast when the constraints are removed. The challenge is that misleading metaphors are often the biggest obstacles to moving forward after the technological constraints are gone.

Change occurs not so much as a result of new information leading to individual learning but when the patterns of connectedness between individuals change. Learning as a result of the print revolution was seen as an individual process. Learning as a result of the Internet revolution is an active process of communication between connected people. Knowledge was earlier seen as being stored in content. Today knowledge is understood to be perpetually constructed in communication. Books could be transmitted from one person to another. People talked about individual knowledge they shared. Today knowledge is understood very differently: knowledge is the process of relating. It takes place in interaction. The technological constraints are gone; is time to get rid of the wrong, constraining metaphors.

Most professional occupations have been about individual competencies that in most cases had accumulated over years. This experience base, often called tacit knowledge, is then used to make sense and retrieve answers from memory and to independently solve situations arising at work. In order to help individuals cope with the challenges of everyday life, individual competencies needed to be developed. Our whole education system is still very largely based on independent individual learning and knowing.

What comes to human work, repetitive manufacturing is giving way to low volume production and solving problems that don’t have mass solutions. As a consequence, the content of work is changing from generic, repetitive practices to creative, learning practices. This makes the individual experience base, by default, too narrow a starting point for efficient work. Experiences can be a huge asset but experiences can also be a liability, creating recurrence where there should be innovation and learning.

Knowledge that used to be understood as the internal property of an individual should now be seen as networked communication. This requires us to learn new ways of talking about education, competencies and work itself. What is also needed is to unlearn the reductionist organizing principles that are still the mainstream. Work is communication and the network is the amplifier of knowledge. The process of communication is the process of knowing. Knowledge work is about a community-based cognitive and emotional presence. Bridging, bonding and belonging.

A dramatic shift is needed in the mental framework of information, communication and work. Without this changing mindset, no efficient implementation of the Internet and the newest technologies can be made in the corporate world.

Work is communication. Conversations and narratives are the new documents. Conversations cannot be controlled. The only way to influence conversations is to take part in them.

If we want to influence the process of knowing we need to develop new habits of participation and new habits of communication.

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