First-class coach

Having employed some new young recruits, I'm shocked at how much more than me they know about our industry.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I've realised that my own knowledge is out-of-date, but with things changing so fast, it would take me a lot of time each month to keep abreast of new developments. I'd like to keep up, but how can I do so without looking as if I'm being bone-idle by just reading at my desk?

A: The truth is that with a few notable exceptions, such as thatching and flint-knapping, in almost every industry and walk of life the rate of change is phenomenal and unlikely to slow down. There is also more communication through more media on almost every subject. The result is that most of us aren't up-to-date with every development and feel swamped by the amount of new information we aren't getting round to assimilating.

There are two questions at issue here. The first is how much information (and of what type) we actually need to do our jobs effectively, and the second is how we download that information to make it of use.

One of the tests of how good a manager you are relates to how well you can lead and motivate people who have specialist knowledge you don't have.

The days are long gone when the head of department knew more than all his junior colleagues and could do their work as well or better. The advent of IT probably changed things here. Nowadays, the emphasis for managers is less on doing and more on creating the environment where others can give of their best.

In fact, the new thinking is that knowledge that resides only in one brain is a wasted organisational asset. This has led to a growing interest in knowledge banks and the emergence of the learning organisation. The idea behind this is that the business constantly evolves by sharing information and understanding, wherever it is situated - and by no means always at the top.

One way in which you can use this thinking is to get the people that report to you - especially newer recruits - to brief their colleagues and you on different aspects of the industry on which they have expertise.

It could be someone recently returned from a course or a conference who gives a 15-minute summary of the most important things they learned. It could be a new appointee providing market intelligence about your competitors gleaned from their former role. Equally, it could be someone who has developed considerable expertise in a particular area within the organisation who can give a masterclass on their accumulated knowledge.

I suggest you set up a regular occasion for this learning activity. It doesn't have to be a long meeting - the more succinct the better.

Information sharing is the first part of the process, but it doesn't stop there. Information needs to be translated into knowledge before it can be really useful. So having the group consider what they have heard and identify what implications there may be for the way you operate as a department or an organisation is a good way of converting data into something that is retained and may be directly useful. You will probably find that most people feel quite proud to share their knowledge with colleagues. Invite a guest speaker in occasionally to illuminate the external view of your industry or marketplace. Someone who has been on the receiving end of what you produce or the service you provide can bring a valuable perspective on how you are perceived, how you operate and what might be areas for improvement.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that it's OK to leave your people to do all the work of knowledge acquisition while you do nothing to bring yourself up-to-date. But there are more effective ways than sitting at your desk reading. One is to use the dead time of travelling to read; another is to find concentrated pools of knowledge - there are many online sources of sector news that summarise key happenings. There are also reviews and condensed forms of new publications that you can scan to decide whether topics are worth pursuing.

We are all familiar with the cliche that knowledge is power. The good news is that in today's flatter, less hierarchical organisations, to share knowledge is to share power and to win the greater engagement of employees.

If you have an issue you'd like Miranda Kennett to cover, e-mail: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk.

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