Lost in Translation


I’m in Kuwait right now for a workshop with a client. On my way to the venue the other day I was chatting with my driver. We got to comparing notes about what happens when you live in another country for too long. He’s from Pakistan, and has been here for 30 years, I am from the UK and have lived in Singapore for 16 years.

He told me he goes back every year, but he could never live there again. Too much has changed, there is no easy way back in culturally or economically, and it’s too easy to get by and make a decent living in his now-home, Kuwait. He feels like a foreigner in his native land.

I went through something similar when we decided to set up Straits Knowledge five years ago. Singapore was the only place where I was sufficiently tuned in and networked for a services business to have any chance of getting rooted, I thought.

In fact, a couple of years ago I tried to test this by spending six months or so in London. I hated it, and made next to no headway in making real connections. (To be fair, I hated it the first time I lived there, back in the 1980s, but after a year or so I started getting used to it).

The same day I had a very similar conversation with a Kuwait colleague on the course, originally from Lebanon. She has decided after 20 years away (on and off) that it is time for her and her family to move back home. She knows it will take them a long time to tune back in, and realises she’ll have to grit her teeth and stick it out.

This chain of conversations made me think about a series of “lost in translation” problems I’ve been reflecting on over the past few weeks. They are partly summarized I think by the “curse of knowledge” phenomenon described by the brothers Heath in their book Made to Stick: why some ideas survive and others don’t.

The Curse of Knowledge essentially says that people who possess knowledge in a particular domain find it extremely difficult to imagine what it’s like NOT to possess that knowledge, even though at some stage they were themselves without it. Experienced engineers find it difficult to discuss engineering issues with novices, without (a) getting frustrated with why their interlocutors seem not to see something so obvious or (b) making the novices feel that they are stupid for not seeing the obvious.

This resonates because I am constantly coming up against this curse in various guises, both in personal communication with colleagues, and structurally in KM consulting engagements. When we do KM strategy consulting engagements, although it’s hard work helping a client to develop a strategy, and ensuring full senior management commitment, the hardest work of all is in helping them translate the vision and strategy into practical, workable, operationally significant interventions. They are intimate with their operational context and needs, but informed onlookers onto KM practice. We are intimate in KM practice, but merely informed onlookers onto their work practice.

Too often, to my seasoned eye, the steps seem obvious. To a relatively new KM team grappling with all these big ideas and the complex web of issues that KM needs to dance between, it just seems like a confusing mess.

Becoming seasoned and experienced in a domain like knowledge management is a bit like emigrating to a foreign country. The longer you’re in it, the more alienated you can become from your native land (the “real” world of work). And the harder it is to blend back in, speak the right language, or even feel comfortable there.

That, it seems to me, is a bad thing in knowledge management. Because if KM requires anything, it requires the ability to mediate between many contexts, the technological, the strategic, the operational, the organizational, the cultural.

So maybe this means that nobody should spend too long at any one stretch in the land of knowledge management, lest we become too comfortable in ourselves and foreign to the contexts we serve. Maybe knowledge managers, and KM consultants need to spend tours of duty outside pure KM in different contexts, to keep them fresh, alert, and still able to tune in.

3 Comments so far

Dale Arseneault

Great observation Patrick.. I think this same thing happens in other domains as well (HR, IT, etc.) as often evidenced in the “jargon creep” in written and oral communications between domain expert and business expert.  It happens almost unconsciously over time, as expertise deepens, or a community develops - hard to see and even harder to correct. Mea culpa.

Posted on May 05, 2007 at 12:52 AM | Comment permalink

In many uniformed organizations, officers go on job rotation between operations, training, and planning. If we were to apply a similar concept to KM practice, it would be good to be in operations, then KM practice (i.e. CKO and/or KM consultant) and going back into operations again. My sense is that a good CKO should come from line operations and not from outside the organization. Subsequent “tours of duty” in operations would see a more enlightened person in knowing how to make KM practice work in the real world. Personally, I have been through an operations - CKO - CKO - operations cycle, and my current operations job is so much more satisfying and productive in terms of applying KM practices.

Posted on May 05, 2007 at 10:35 AM | Comment permalink

Mark Schenk

Ditto with Dale’s comments. Too many times have we heard the KM practitioner lamenting ‘they just don’t get it’. The ‘curse of knowledge’ concept helps us understand why this might be and empowers us to do something about it.

Posted on May 19, 2007 at 07:06 AM | Comment permalink

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