Ask Me Anything: Knowledge Sharing Through Peer Interviews

This is the third post in a series about how we learn from our work. The first one is here and the second here.

The popular Internet discussion site, has a practice called “Ask Me Anything.”( It is a discussion thread where either some notable is invited in or a member offers their expertise and the other members can ask them, well, anything! It is so popular it even has a mobile app so you can follow the AMAs. Some of the AMA’s are amazing… the insights that emerge when someone asks us a question seem to leap over anything we can prepare. I’ve done a ton of keynote talks, and the best ones have been when someone interviews me. They pull out things I had no idea I knew, and I was able to express them naturally and easily.

What is it about someone asking us questions that surfaces great, sharable knowledge?

This is the question that is part of the second of two experiments we are running with the of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grantees of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene program. (Read about the first one here.)We have started interviewing ourselves on the KM team, and have offered to interview any grantee to help tease out and share their insights with other grantees and stakeholders. It is a simple, low risk experiment to learn together and share knowledge

Our hypothesis, or Theory of Change, for the peer interviews is fourfold.

  1. HSLWe are often unconscious about what we know (see Dave Snowden’s great piece on “we know more than we can say and we say more than we can write.”) When someone asks us to “tell them a story” about our work, we are able to on the spot reflect, surface and share insights that might otherwise just stay stuck in our heads.
  2. We are short on time so we are reluctant or unable to stop, reflect, write and share. For whatever reasons. If someone can ask us and even help us write it up, we may be able to jump over that barrier.
  3. Pithy write ups of the insights can be valuable ways to cross pollinate learning in a grant portfolio, particularly if they come in small bites in greater frequency than the formal knowledge sharing instruments of regular reports and journal articles.
  4. Interviewing each other is a generative practice. This is because people like to know they have been heard. Not to freak out my dear science brethren and sisters, but the Dalai Lama once said that human beings “need to be heard, seen and loved, and in that order.” (As quoted in a story from Mark Jones, told to Peggy Holman and noted in her book, “Engaging Emergence.”) In the work world, we often swap in “respected” for loved, because talking about love at work seems taboo in many of our cultures. 😉 All the same, when we take the time to interview each other, to listen and to capture the insights, two things happen. One is the person who speaks often makes concrete, as they speak, thinking that was not yet fully formed or articulated. The second is that when people are heard, they are more likely to offer their knowledge in the future. So interviewing becomes a generative practice.

So far I have interviewed our KM team leader, Pete Cranston. On my to do list is to interview our client, the BDS portfolio lead (who is a pretty freaking amazingly open guy, so I look forward to this), and, after our last call (see blog post 2) I want to follow up with one of the grantees who is asking this same question: how do we surface and share our learnings more effectively. He calls it “process learning.” Some folks call it “working out loud.”

So another experiment has begun. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, do you have any stories or insights about peer interviewing as a learning and knowledge sharing method? Please, share them in the comments!

  1. Hi Nancy, thanks for sharing this. Questions are so important for surfacing what people know. Just one little refinement for you. In my experience if you ask someone to share a story they more often than not can’t think of a thing. It’s like asking someone to tell you a joke. Questions that elicit stories, however, do much better. When have you cried at work? This is a question we have in a set of cards designed to elicit stories and it usually results in a story. Our experiences are tied to emotion and this one often triggers some strong emotions.

  2. It’s just a stack of playing card size cards. Each one with a story trigger on it such as a question or a picture. I hand them out to my workshop participants when we want to generate a bunch of stories to tell.

  3. Hi Nancy and Shawn: Thanks for dealing with this important subject.My thesis on KM was that most useful knowledge transfer occurs in conversations with people who share a passion for the subject and who have a shared sense of purpose. That means the participants really care and therefore really listen and contribute their best, and come at the discussion with a shared context so that real communication actually occurs.

    I’ve noticed that FAQs and ‘Interview’-style articles, that simulate conversational style, seem to be much more popular with readers than comparable articles without these devices, even when the article follows a tried-and-true ‘tell me a story’ format. (In fact I’m starting to formulate a hypothesis that poor story-telling, which is rife everywhere these days, is worse than no story-telling, and trying to figure out why there is so much lousy story-telling out these.)

    I agree that part of the value of interviews/conversations is the collective, iterative shared context-setting they enable, and that part of the value is the surfacing of ideas and insights that the interviewee hadn’t had the time or perspective to think through. I think there’s a lot more, though, and many of the patterns of (exemplary) group process also apply to conversations. I’ve started exploring with George Por et al the development of a modification of Group Works that would apply to conversations. I think the 9 categories of Group Works all apply, but there are subtle (and a few substantial) differences between small-group (generally ‘unfacilitated’) conversations and larger-group (formally facilitated) activities and events.

  4. Heya Dave… I was hoping that Groupworks deck link might have pinged you!

    I realize as I read your note that I’m more often than not thinking about narrative snippets versus fully formed stories. I realize I had not made that explicit. Hm….

    I look forward to seeing the work with the deck…

  5. Hi David. Poor storytelling is not the culprit. Rather people think or say they are telling a story when they are not. See our work on story spotting. Sorry for the short reply. I’m mid workshop.

  6. Thanks Nancy (and Shawn). I got 9/10 on the story test and I’d quibble that #2 is too incoherent to qualify as a story. But my point remains that many of the ‘stories’ I hear or read (including in places like Orion magazine) are really BAD stories, even though they have the requisite ingredients. They just don’t have me saying “And then what…?!” They’re boring, lacking articulation, coherence, interesting observation, insight, cleverness, and either intellectual or emotional impact. And they’re hopelessly long-winded. I find myself unable to continue to listen/read the whole thing. I think it’s a serious problem.

    But I don’t want to detract from the message of your post, Nancy, which is about the value of interviews and conversations and trying to discover the patterns of excellent ones. High-quality questions are clearly one of the patterns. I think it’s possible to “guerrilla facilitate” conversations quietly and subtly to dramatically increase their quality. I’d love to explore how we might learn to do that.