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Sharing Tacit Knowledge and the Value of Storytelling.

by Donna Fitzgerald  |  December 1, 2009  |  1 Comment

How do we know what we know?  How do we take our experience and our on-the-spot judgments and translate them from our own internal sense of knowing (tacit knowledge) into something concrete we can share with others (explicit knowledge).  

 A friend asked me for some advice on a subject I’m generally regarded as being very knowledgable about, and I had to say that I couldn’t actually tell him how I did what I did.  I simply did what needed to be done, as circumstances required.  Given my role at Gartner it’s occassionally frustrating to realize that I can’t always articulate 100% of my reasoning on why I make the recommendations I do.  For example I often find it difficult to tell a client exactly what they should be looking for in a “good” portfolio.  Balance, Value, appropriate risk, enough innovation, a match between work and corporate capabilities, and the list goes on.  I certainly know it when I see it (after lifting the covers of course), but objectively I”m forced to admit that my judgement of “right” is completely subjective, based on the client, the company, the market the company is in, and any and all facts I’ve been able to glean about the situation at hand.
A long time go in a world far away, I taught a portfolio management class with 2 other highly experienced practioners like myself  We spent weeks coming up with material that we believed reflected as much real tacit knowledge as we could stuff into a three day class.  We discussed how to collect the portfolio, how to analyze it, and how to work with management to make sure they found value in the analysis that we wanted our students to prepare.  Imagine our surprise when our students told us the class wasn’t what they wanted.  They complained that it focused on too many soft skills and they didn’t care about anything soft. they just wanted to know how to prioritize the portfolio.  
I learned a valuable lesson that day.  Some things can’t be taught out of context.  Real portfolio management is all about politics and maximizing an inherently suboptimal state of affairs.  I learned on the job from people who taught me to be sensitive to these facts.  Trying to teach some things out of context means that only half of the information is observable (the mechanics and not the interpersonal subtleties).  This leads me back to the value of story telling.  The mistake we probably made in our class and the mistake I sometimes fear I’m making with clients is giving advice for which there isn’t a ready context.  Just because I have the experience to know that something generally works a certain way doesn’t mean the person I’m talking to does and if I can’t map the sign posts to something they’ve experienced then potentially useful advice either sounds like lecturing or needless pontification.  
I think the trick is having the right stories and knowing when to use them to illuminate or contextualize advice.  Stories that are quick and illustriative without sounding preachy.  The trick is also having the right forum to tell the stories in, because part of the value of the stories is the fact that they really are personal.
 Obviously I’m still circling around this issue (see my prior post).  It’s possible not everything is teachable but it’s an interesting challenge none the less and one I look forward to continuing to explore.

Category: pmo  project-portfolio-managemnet  

Tags: knowledge-management  project-portfolio-management  storytelling  

Donna Fitzgerald
Research Vice President
5 years at Gartner
31 years IT industry

Donna Fitzgerald focuses her research on strategies and approaches for using program and portfolio management as a way to create unique business value. Read Full Bio

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