Making the Invisible Visible

conversationsAlan Webber suggested over 20 years ago that the core work of knowledge-based organizations is conversation – the creation and exchange of ideas, information, knowledge, and even wisdom (see “What’s So New about the New Economy?Harvard Business Review, January-February 1993).

Then Webber asks and answers a really important question about the role of management in a knowledge-based business:

If the new work of the company is conversation, then what is the job the manager? Put simply: to create an environment where employees can have productive conversations rather than counterproductive ones, useful conversations rather than useless ones.

In my humble opinion, we should be spending far more energy than we do focusing on the quality of corporate conversations, and on teaching managers at all levels how to start and foster meaningful conversations that ultimately produce value for both customers and employees.

Clearly, we human beings are social animals; we connect with others and develop our understanding of what’s right and wrong – and our sense of what should or shouldn’t be – through the conversations we engage in. The cultural norms and values that control our behaviors and our mindsets are formed primarily during the conversations we share with our colleagues every day, far more than most of us realize.

Conversations are the way we learn about each other, understand what’s going on, make sense of the world we live in, make connections and build relationships. Yes, we also read newspapers and books and we write letters, post on Facebook, and send out tweets – but there is little question that we are also talking with (and at) each other more than ever.

For me, the quality, and tone, of those conversations in the workplace is what makes organizational experiences either upbeat, energizing, and engaging, or depressing, draining, and disengaging.

As we explore the nature and quality of conversations at work, we also need to be clear about what we mean by culture, why culture matters, and in particular why conversations are such a central part of any organization’s culture.

There are many formal definitions of culture; some apply at a national or ethnic level, while others are focused more directly on communities, organizations, and small groups like project teams or functional departments within larger entities.

For me, the best formal way to describe culture is this:

Culture is an integrated system of learned behavior patterns that are characteristic of the members of any given society.  Culture refers to the total way of life of particular groups of people.  It includes everything that a group of people thinks, says, does and makes, its customs, language, material artifacts and shared systems of attitudes and feelings. Culture is learned and transmitted from generation to generation.

The book from which I extracted that definition, Global Work: Bridging Culture, Distance, and Time (by Mary O’Hara-Devereaux and Robert Johansen) adds this more focused description, which captures the essence of the idea for me: culture is “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group.”

Culture is something most of us understand intuitively and don’t think about very often. It’s the collection of norms, values, and “should’s” that guide (and often constrain) the behaviors of individuals and groups within a larger community or organization.

Some cultures are much stronger and more intense than others. In a strong culture the norms defining what’s acceptable and what’s not tend to be more explicit, and they usually carry much stronger forms of “punishment” for anyone who behaves unacceptably. In addition, the range of acceptable behaviors is typically much narrower in a strong culture.

Why is this important?

Put simply, the way people in any organization or community speak to and with each other is a direct reflection of their shared beliefs, values, and assumptions about the way knowledge and power should (or should not) be shared, challenged, or developed.

And yet, as important as conversations are to 21st century organizational performance, they are virtually invisible to most of us. And if we don’t see something Dealing With Invisible, Turn It Offit’s awfully difficult to change it.

What if we worked on making the invisible visible? While I don’t want to make you overly self-conscious about every word that comes out of your mouth, or that you hear, isn’t it time to pay more attention not only to what you say, but to how you say it? And, of course, to how others respond to what you say.

If we invested only half as much time learning how to listen and contribute meaningfully to conversations as we do learning how to use technology in the workplace, I’m convinced our organizations would be more engaging, more productive, and ultimately a whole lot more fun to be part of.

Contact me today for a free 30-minute conversation about how you can make all your meetings and conversations both functional and fun. Please download this brief overview of my new service offering for making meetings matter to explore what’s possible.


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