Knowledge and Expertise: Mental work modes and switching gears 

Knowledge and Expertise: Mental work modes and switching gears 

Knowledge and Expertise:  Most mental work falls into three distinct modes: synthesis, delivery, and collaboration.

Knowledge synthesis

Knowledge synthesis is usually a form of research characterized by reading, listening, and watching with a goal in mind, a hypothesis that needs to be tested. We characterize this as downward-looking. Down through data, through the content. Down through context and concept. The goal of knowledge synthesis is to discover or document something, including patterns that either raise an issue or reinforce or negate a position.

Expertise delivery

Expertise delivery focuses on the sharing of information from one person to others. Knowledge may be expressed as a written document, a presentation, or a meeting. People pay a lot of money for expertise. An industry analyst often receives a single question followed by an expectation of 30-minutes of non-stop value delivery. Delivered knowledge is outbound. The instructor or analyst shares his or her knowledge from a podium, through a webinar or over a cocktail. Expertise delivery seeks to give people the knowledge required to enhance what they know about a concept or context. Expertise delivery attempts bring people to the level of the expert. Good knowledge management advocates that experts democratize what is known to increase opportunities and avoid risks.

Collaboration and facilitation

Collaboration focuses on the interaction of two or more individuals. For the sake of this blog, collaboration involves the review and discussion of information—collaboratively enhancing an existing piece of content, discussing the implications and next steps related to a piece of content or collectively seeking clarification. Collaboration and facilitation are cousin activities. They both involve multiple people working together. In collaboration, facilitation emerges from the team dynamics. The team organizes what is necessary, or it steps back, designs a facilitation approach, and implements it. In meetings, facilitation reflects a meeting design that ensures the expected outcome.

Moving between Modes

It can prove difficult to shift between mental work modes. Moving from independent work into collaborative work requires a letting go of focus, a need to re-engage with interpersonal skills. The researcher must shift from questioning to empathy. The expert must reconnect with listening.

Another mode-shift issue involves moving from group work to independent work. Spending too much time in e-mails and collaboration products like Slack and Microsoft Teams characterizes this modern problem of technology-reinforced modes. People struggle to return to mental spaces focused on the consumption of information. They find it hard to make time for data transformation and sense-making. The rapid shifting of attention from social media posts, to incoming e-mails, curtails the mind’s ability to stay in any mode for extended periods. With no knowledge mode dominant, even information work becomes transactional. This increases stress and reduces productivity.

Knowledge and Expertise:  Mental work modes and switching mental gears 

Reputation, reinforcement, and awareness

It is also important to note that social media provides an enticing distraction. Its interaction model thrives on interruption and fragmentation. Key performance metrics from within the systems favor moments. Work gets defined by activity.

Despite social media’s reliance on exchanges, connections with those outside a social sphere usually rely on reputation. People follow and interact with other people who provide some level of value. Credibility most often derives from content, be it a blog or the curation of daily images and their descriptions. Much of the content that drives connections and reinforces trust proves abbreviated when compared to traditional academic discourse. In search of movement, many forgo the need to consume in-depth. This forces experts to learn how to infuse knowledge into consumable nuggets that build upon one another over time rather than fashion a well-constructed treatise.

Even when difficult, people need to shift modes. Concentration creates pockets of productivity. Concentration leads to innovative thinking, synthesis of ideas, or a deeper understanding of a topic. The activation of knowledge and synthesis, and the ability to sustain it allows work to get done.

Inevitably, some people like one mode of thinking more than another. They gravitate toward work that maximizes time spent in their preferred mode. Spending too much time in a mode reinforces that mode, making shifts to another mode even more difficult.

People must be aware of their modes in order to manage them. Awareness allows people to regulate their performance through design and feedback.

Most work today spans the work modes. Workers need to recognize this and manage it. They need to define what is needed in a given situation and learn to switch modes to match the business need.

Knowledge and Expertise: Personal lessons learned

Knowledge and Expertise:  Mental work modes and switching mental gears 

Recently, I was asked to fill the role of facilitator and expert during a meeting. The meeting fell after several weeks of heads down knowledge and synthesis work. That dual role proved a difficult balancing act, especially considering the freshness of the knowledge synthesis work.

As an expert, you know you are the only one in the room who owns the data, and more importantly, understands the lens through which the data was interpreted. Researchers often switch into expert-mode to share their work. People can’t make a good decision, experts think, if they don’t have all the information.

Facilitators usually simplify for focus, seek perspective, and conduct discussions toward consensus. They distance themselves from the content in order to make the meeting success their primary objective. Their planning will likely not include ensuring everyone in the meeting understands everything about the new research.

When it’s your research, and it’s still evolving, simplifying for facilitation becomes a nearly insurmountable task because the content is too close for perspective. The researcher isn’t yet willing to submerge detail in the name of facilitation.

For effective collaboration and facilitation, the right call is to design the meeting. To understand what the sponsors want and to align the meeting as information sharing, or dialog, or a mix, depending on the need and time available. If timing gets tight, bring in another facilitator and/or push back the meeting date.

Knowledge and Expertise: Letting go

Unfortunately, discussions about intent don’t always take place, or time proves short as deadlines linger toward the start of the meeting. A scarcity of time means leveraging commitments. It is hard to change meeting dates. In these situations, people end up doing what they hope is right. They usually shift modes as best they can. They try not to be too wedded to the content even when they know they are.

Under these circumstances, facilitators probably end up not servicing the needs of the meeting as they would have liked. What should you do when this happens? Embrace the tension between assumption and purpose and use it as a learning experience. Like a good baseball pitcher, shake off the non-ideal outcome, document lessons learned, let go and get ready for the next meeting. This time recognize the need for mode shifting and plan more time to switch from researcher to facilitator.


Did you like Knowledge and Expertise: Mental work modes and switching gears? Read more on knowledge management here.

For more Serious Insights on meeting design seeing the following:

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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