Communicating knowledge at the crossroads of art, technology and business
In spring 2009 Aalto University launched a call for new ideas for further development of teaching and learning in the new university. Altogether 180 proposals were submitted, of which 12 were selected to best meet the criteria set for the new "Aalto Courses": innovative course content, effective teaching practices, multidisciplinary co-operation, societal impact, and multi-cultural interaction.
One of the selected courses, "Knowledge Communication and Visualization", was organized by the International Business Communication (IBC) Master's Program at the School of Economics in January-February this year. The course attracted a total of 37 participants from all three Aalto University Schools and was designed and run by professor , Director of the Institute for Media and Communication Management at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. Professor Eppler is one of the leading international researchers in the fields of knowledge communication, knowledge visualization and knowledge management. He has lectured at various universities in Asia and Europe and acted as an advisor to a number of international organizations throughout the world.
The more knowledge, the more pain? Only true if knowledge doesn't get communicated
The Aalto students appreciated professor Eppler's working methods; he practised what he preached. The examples discussed in class were engaging and addressed different aspects of knowledge communication, in particular those related to arts, technology and business. Eppler emphasized that particularly in an international context, the focus of communication should be shifted from distributing information to communicating knowledge. In other words, information in the form of facts, data, numbers and descriptions should be avoided and be replaced by insights, observations, discoveries and viewpoints. In this process, visualization is an important asset.
In expert organizations, knowledge communication is typically needed when experts of different fields communicate. Such situations include, for example, interaction between an engineer and a manager, an analyst and an investor, or a lawyer and an entrepreneur. In those situations, it is challenging to transfer existing expert knowledge or create new knowledge for a number of reasons. For example, the communicators may not share each other's special terminology or they may assume that others know as much as they do, or they may get buried in irrelevant details and lose the "big picture", or they may base their communication on mere expectations of the other party's knowledge needs.
To prevent communication problems, professor Eppler introduced multiple tools to visualize knowledge. He questioned some of the traditional and well-known methods, e.g. Power Point slides, and urged the students to consider if these tools are good enough to meet the requirements of successful knowledge communication. Both academic research and practical experience have shown that such tools as visual diagrams, metaphors, sketches or various ready-made graphical templates are more effective for gaining people's attention and making them memorize the items presented.
As their final course assignment the participants designed and presented solutions to real-life problems that companies face in their attempts to share and communicate knowledge. For example, a situation was discussed in which the lack of shared knowledge and well-defined business processes led to communication problems between an analyst and a consultant; there was a risk of losing an important customer. Overall, this example together with the multiple stories on addressing communication problems in different types of organizations, the case studies and the course content as a whole highlighted the ultimate importance of both knowledge communication and visualization - as tools not only to communicate knowledge, but ultimately enable companies and organizations to better reach their strategic, organizational and financial goals.
The participants enjoyed the course and felt that they had gained new insights that they were able to put into practice . They wished professor Eppler welcome to Aalto University again. Also, the professor praised his students and the new Aalto University concept where art and technology meet science and business. The plan is to provide a new lot of Aalto University students an opportunity to learn more about knowledge communication and visualization in January- February, 2011.
leena.louhiala-salminen [at] hse [dot] fi