Language Lessons

How to turn your employees from whiners to winners.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the May 1998 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Loren Gruner's employees were communicating, all right. The problem was with what they were saying. They were questioning the system instead of being proactive and suggesting solutions to problems, explains the president of Integral Results Inc., a 20-person San Francisco computer systems consulting firm.

Behind the muttering was potential trouble. "Company morale was down," says Gruner. "The employees weren't [feeling] positive about where they were working."

Gruner's solution was to bring in a management consultant to instruct the employees in something called knowledge mobilization. The training helped them improve communication and follow-through, and increase trust, Gruner reports. Most important, the grumbling ended.

Gruner isn't the only one satisfied with the results of knowledge mobilization. Jennifer Kenny, the San Francisco consultant for Emergent Management Consulting Inc. who counseled Gruner's company, has helped produce similar results for Wells Fargo Bank and United Airlines. Kenny says the strategies behind the theory can help with several vital business missions, from improving customer service to strengthening corporate culture.

Knowledge mobilization is reportedly especially good for dealing with the problems of information overload. "We [help companies] make the shift from being driven by information and paperwork," says Kenny, "to being driven by commitments they make to other human beings."

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."

Making Your Move

Mobilizing your company's knowledge doesn't have to be time-consuming. Gruner and her managers, for example, went to a weekend retreat, then imparted their knowledge to other employees in a series of workplace meetings.

Applying the ideas is straightforward. Claudia Viek, executive director of Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, a San Francisco business incubator, uses what she learned from Kenny in goal-setting sessions with her 10 staff members. Negotiating responsibilities is a very effective way to empower and motivate people, Viek says.

And you can significantly improve your own personal effectiveness without involving anybody else, Denning says. "It's not like you have to change the whole company."

Nor will you have to wait long for results. Kenny says significant results can materialize in three months or less. It can be expensive, however--she charges large organizations $250,000 or more for a full-fledged engagement.

The dean of the field, Flores, has written several books, including Disclosing New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action & the Cultivation of Solidarity (MIT Press). But these are dense works and tend to be "very heavy going," concedes Kenny.

One source for easier tools to employ knowledge mobilization techniques is Action Technologies Inc. of Alameda, California. Action is a software company founded by Flores to apply the concepts of knowledge mobilization in a computer network environment. The company's work-flow software provides such tools as electronic message templates for responding to requests.

Know Your Limits

Knowledge mobilization may bog down your business if employees don't fully understand it. Employees don't always have as much influence as they assume they do, and entrepreneurs used to getting their way may feel uncomfortable when called upon for a response.

On the flip side, Kenny warns, some people may feel less able to decline a request, especially when it's coming from the boss. It's not uncommon for organizations exposed to knowledge mobilization to lose a few employees who don't like the change. Sometimes, those can be just the workers you don't want to lose, she adds.

Of course, you can't respond to everything. Denning, for example, discriminates between requests, such as questions from co-workers, which he tries invariably to respond to, and invitations, a classification that includes junk mail. "I don't take that as a request and don't feel I have to respond to it," he says.

Despite its limitations, knowledge mobilization is ideal for modern entrepreneurial organizations in many ways. It's especially effective for managing outsourced relationships, says Viek. And for a company like Gruner's, which consists of independent-minded consultants who are frequently out of the office, its ability to build feelings of community is a godsend, says Gruner.

"There's a whole different feel to the company now," she says. "If someone has an issue, they explain it and come up with solutions rather than simply sitting back and complaining about it."

Mark Henricks is an Austin, Texas, writer specializing in business topics.

Contact Sources

Action Technologies Inc., (800) WORK-FLO,

Emergent Management Consulting Inc., (415) 536-0560,

Integral Results Inc., (415) 646-8700,

Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, 275 Fifth St., San Francisco, CA 94103, (415) 541-8580

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