Tuesday, 19 August 2014

5 things Knowledge Managers can learn from Samaritans

Samaritans is a UK charity that provides emotional support to people in crisis, including those that may be feeling suicidal.  There are many similar organisations worldwide that offer people an opportunity to explore their feelings in various ways, such as face-to-face, over the phone or even via text message or email.
I worked as a Samaritan for a number of years and found it both a rewarding and challenging experience.  As well as being in the privileged position of being trusted to hear people’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, I learned many things, about myself as well as skills that I have used in my career as a Knowledge Management (KM) consultant.
On a bike ride this morning, I thought about the relationship between KM and the work of Samaritans and I think many of us working in Knowledge Management have much to learn from this particular line of work.
Judge not, lest ye be judged
Samaritans do not judge those that get in touch, seeking their help.  Samaritans may hear things of which they disapprove, be they attitudes, opinions or things that people have done that have harmed others, perhaps in unbelievably cruel ways.  But there is never any judgement from the person taking the call.
In KM also, objectivity is vital.  KM people and teams should remain impartial as they learn (and facilitate wider learning) what has worked and not worked in their organisation.  Whilst the KM team has to appear somewhere on the org chart, they should be beholden to no-one whilst helping everyone equally.
Listen, then listen again
Listening is at the heart of the work that Samaritans do.  They create and provide a supportive environment in which callers or visitors can open up and express thoughts and feelings that they may not yet have actually heard out loud.  Samaritans know that sometimes silence is the most effective way of getting someone to speak – few of us will resist the urge to fill that vacuum.  Also, the way things are said is sometimes more important than what is being said.  Listening – really listening – can help Samaritans pick up on tone, mood and emotion. 
In KM, listening is essential.  Creating an atmosphere that enables people to express ideas, concerns and suggestions alike is an important element of a KM framework, through and around which knowledge can flow.  When running lessons capture meetings or knowledge retention interviews, listening – really listening – tells you far more than just ‘what was said’ and can inform where the discussion goes next.
Who you are doesn’t matter; what you say does
When they contact Samaritans, people can give their name if they want, or another, or none at all.  Anonymity helps people open up, as does the knowledge that what they say will be treated in confidence and will not be shared with anyone outside Samaritans.  It’s easier to share things that might be embarrassing or shameful with someone that we don’t know and will never know.
Anonymity and confidentiality have their place in KM also but must be used carefully.  A key part of knowledge management is the enabling the connection between people that need knowledge with those that have it – hard to achieve at the best of times…even harder if people remain anonymous.  Nevertheless, diagnostic tools such as KM assessments and surveys are a good way of getting under the skin of an organisation and people are more forthcoming if they know they can speak freely.  Similarly, lessons capture meetings may be recorded to help transcription of the discussion but the recordings are discarded once the lessons are typed up.
Sharing is a good in itself
We can never know for sure but there is a strong argument to be made that suicide sometimes occurs not as the result of bad feelings (i.e. shame, guilt, depression, grief, worry etc.) but because of the apparent inability to express or handle those feelings.  It is the ability of Samaritans to get people to share these feelings that helps them and can reduce the temptation of suicide.
At its heart, knowledge management is all about sharing.  KM people see the sharing of knowledge as a good in its own right and work to facilitate this, through: the recruitment, training and retention of the right people; the development of supportive processes; the procurement of useful technology and the creation of a governance structure and culture that encourages sharing and discourages hoarding.
The harder you push, the greater the resistance
One of the central tenets of Samaritans’ work is the recognition that everyone has a right to make their own decisions, including whether to take their own life.  In practice, this means that all callers are asked if they are feeling suicidal and, if they are, the call proceeds in a sympathetic but straightforward manner.  This may seem counter-intuitive but one of the things that makes Samaritans different from friends, family, colleagues and others is that they will not try to talk people out of suicide.  Samaritans don’t want people to take their own lives, any more than anyone else would.  But they know that attempts to ‘talk people round’ usually fail, they create resistance and they indicate to the caller that even Samaritans just don’t get it.
KM practitioners benefit from an awareness of the way feedback loops work (i.e. part of ‘systems thinking’).  This approach acknowledges potential resistance to initiatives and works to develop ways of reducing it – as opposed to ‘pushing even harder’.  Such efforts will almost always fail, or will leave all parties bruised and battered.  Asking people about their concerns and fears can reduce them.

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