Language Lessons

Cradle Of Knowledge

Knowledge mobilization is the latest offspring of a school of thought that dates back to the 1960s and spans the fields of linguistics, computers and artificial intelligence, as well as management. The most prominent figure in the field is Fernando Flores, a former political prisoner in Salvador Allende's Chile who is now an international entrepreneur, management consultant and influential writer on information systems.

One of Flores' theses is that language is the medium through which people learn from each other, form communities and build commitments. Specifically, explains Peter Denning, a computer science and engineering professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, Flores breaks communication into four types or stages:

1. Requests for information, action or some other response.

2. Negotiations following requests.

3. Performance when the information or action is delivered. In this case, action may be considered communication.

4. Reports from the recipient on his or her satisfaction with the transaction.

Businesses get into trouble when they fail to complete this loop when dealing with customers and co-workers, Denning says. "The most common type of response people make to a request is to ignore it and not respond at all," he notes. "That usually comes back to get you later."

Students of knowledge mobilization learn more than why it's important to respond to all requests. They are also taught to respond in a particular fashion. For instance, appropriate responses to a request include accepting, declining, negotiating or deferring a response (saying you'll get back to someone), says Denning.

These communication tools can help in a variety of business situations, such as requests for reports from managers or calls for help from customers. For one thing, understanding the language of commitment helps employees avoid making commitments when they don't mean to, says Denning.

When they do mean to make a commitment, knowledge mobilization's stress on the importance of follow-through helps employees avoid many problems, Kenny says. When an employee is going to be late delivering a report to you, for instance, a common way for that worker to deal with the situation is to simply let the deadline pass without mentioning it. This damages trust and contributes to politicking and finger-pointing.

Instead, it's better for him or her to call you ahead of time to let you know the project will be late. That way, the employee will improve his or her reputation for reliability while making your workplace more enjoyable.

"If you teach people how to manage their commitments without destroying trust," says Kenny, "you create a context in which people can talk to each other and remove themselves from the politicking that drains the enjoyment out of work."

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This article was originally published in the May 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Language Lessons.

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