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Tell Me What You Know. Wait: Mime It Instead.

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Nancy Dixon & Is there a best way to transfer knowledge?

Lecture is not effective.

As one who has lectured and been lectured unto, I’ll insist that listening is hard work when seated before a droning human. Sermons are the same species. Occasionally sermons are more spirited than lectures but both have roughly the same effect. Maybe there is a continuum for lecturing: previous generations felt ripped-off if the person in front did not speak at length and without interruption. For the generations I teach, 15 minutes is the absolute maximum before reengaging with questions or activities or just standing and moving chairs around the room.


Working alongside someone is amazingly effective at transferring knowledge. To have a common task with a colleague or mentor bypasses much of the resistance and passivity that comes with the classroom “listen-to-me-I’m-the-expert” experience. The focus is on the doing and learning takes care of itself.

Nancy Dixon in her Common Knowledge: How Companies Thrive by Sharing What They Know (Harvard Business School Press, 2000), breaks the transfer of knowledge into manageable buckets as she shows how organizations do the work of helping teams and individuals learn. She starts by making a distinction between tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge: tacit knowledge is what we just sort of know. It’s the multiple bits of knowledge that would be difficult/impossible to write down. Explicit knowledge is written: it’s explicit in the sense that someone could pick it up, read it and know. Dixon cites five ways teams have successfully transferred what they know:

  • Serial Transfer: team does a task and then does the same task again in a different location/venue. The team collects and discusses what they learned between, so each time they do the task a bit more efficiently.
  • Near Transfer: Transferring knowledge from a source team to a receiving team doing a similar (routine) task.
  • Far Transfer: Transferring tacit knowledge from a source team to a receiving team doing a non-routine task.
  • Strategic Transfer: Knowledge transferred impacts an entire organization rather than just a team. Maybe that knowledge comes from the entire organization.
  • Expert Transfer: Team facing problem beyond scope of its knowledge reaches out to an expert or expert team.

10032013-08_F_01_121100_common_cpI like how Dixon positions the expert as a sort of higher-order transfer: where the audience is engaged and invested and eager for the solution. I also like Dixon’s discussion of knowledge as both dynamic (knowledge is less of a warehouse and more of a river) and also becoming more of a group phenomenon.

Working alongside learners and experts is a great benefit of day-to-day work, though we don’t always appreciate it.


Image credit: exploitastic via 2headedsnake

Written by kirkistan

October 3, 2013 at 9:34 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] the courses should unfold and about how I can get more discussion and less of that nasty blathery/lecture stuff from me. I’ll be thinking about writing projects that move closer to what copywriters and […]

  2. […] few days back I pointed to Nancy Dixon’s book Common Knowledge and her useful notion of tacit vs. explicit knowledge. Dr. Dixon’s recent […]

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