Serendipitous connections, butterflies and swimming pools

I love to hear how a serendipitous connection has rippled across someone’s professional practice and made a difference to their work, like the flapping butterfly from chaos theory.

People’s totality of knowledge (comprising all their academic learning, first-hand experiences at work and second-hand learning from other people’s case studies and discussions) is often referred to as a “well of knowledge”. Personally, I think it is more like a personal swimming pool, which can become stagnant if it isn’t “shocked” occasionally with the chemicals of difference. It is the envelope-pushing, head-scratching diverse interactions that lead, after a period of analysis and reflection, to innovation.

How did I end up an advocate for serendipity, challenge and diversity?

Before I became a Knowledge Management specialist, I was a lawyer, and lawyers are well-known for being risk-averse. I find that although one may have read and understood research (which confirms the link between diversity and innovation), it only becomes compelling when one has lived experience of that situation or hears someone’s story.

This is my experience.

I have always been interested in a technique, devised by Michael Soto and Jon Kingsbury at Nesta (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) called “Random Coffee Trials” (RCTs). In KM terms, the aim of the RCT is to improve the strength of the trusting network of personal connections inside an organisation, necessary for the sharing of complex knowledge, by forcing people outside their silos and creating bonds in entirely serendipitous directions, through a simple process of pairing staff members for coffee meetings entirely at random. Law firms can be very hierarchical and siloed places which need complex knowledge shared around, so this technique works well in my sector.

I have spoken about RCTs to many groups and written about them several times. Through this, my name came to the attention of a group of Canadian Knowledge Mobilizers who were interested in RCTs. A webinar/online discussion later (“A conversation about conversations”), a UK academic specialising in Knowledge Mobilization contacted me and invited me to attend their UK Knowledge Mobilization Forum.

As you can imagine, given that the UKKMb Forum is primarily for health and social care practitioners and researchers, I wasn’t sure about attending, but, tempted by the opportunity to shock my own pool of knowledge through exposure to those chemicals of difference (and, being honest, the low cost) I went.

From the pre-event RCT, which connected me to a health researcher for a fascinating virtual conversation before the day, to the morning’s ice-breaker of “conversation bingo” (I had to speak to a lot of strangers to find someone who hadn’t watched Game of Thrones), to the practitioner key-note about knowledge sharing amongst those working with teens in care, to the posters about research findings that I’d never come across before, to running my own, entirely off the cuff, conversational group about tactics to get complex and tacit knowledge shared around organisations, to the presentation about knowledge sharing that was entirely based around cat pictures, it was all delightfully different to the usual conferences I had previously spoken at and attended for KMers in the legal sector.

I spent the following weeks buzzing with ideas.

Afterwards, I joined the committee and have helped arrange other UKKMb Fora, at which I have heard about knowledge sharing through development of haikus, junk modelling, Lego serious play and even a Thomas The Tank Engine style board game.

Whilst I accept that many in the legal sector would respond terribly to these ideas, there are often aspects of each unusual idea that I can bring to my practice to improve it and, most importantly, they keep me questioning and re-evaluating.

If I have persuaded you to try something different and step outside your professional comfort zone, what next?

Join a virtual RCT. Join a conference or training event for a different sector to your own (now is an ideal time for this, with so many lower-cost events online). Read a book from an allied but different topic (Psychological Safety, Organisational Learning, AI, data analysis). Join a professional group such as CILIP or BAILL. Maybe even sign up for my newsletter or email me for a virtual coffee and chat.

I hope to see you serendipitously sometime.

This article was first published in Information Professional Magazine, where I write a regular KM column.

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