Left Brain, Right Brain: Different Approaches to Retaining and Sharing Organizational Knowledge. Michael J. Novak Internal Revenue Service

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Left Brain, Right Brain: Different Approaches to Retaining and Sharing Organizational Knowledge

Michael J. Novak Internal Revenue Service Lynne Feingold Financial Management Service

Digital Government Institute Knowledge Management and Business Intelligence October 16, 2008 © 2008, Michael J. Novak and Lynne Feingold. All rights reserved.

“As the Brain works more holistically, communication within the person, between persons and cultures is enhanced. As the Brain respects its Right - Left differences, cultures in the workplace reach beyond tolerance to a level of the appreciation and encouragement of differences.” – Angelo S. Bolea, Ph.D. Neuropsychologist and organizational consultant

Introduction: Left Brain/Right Brain Dominance1 Scientists have long studied the different functions of the two hemispheres of the human brain. Studies have found, inter alia, that the left hemisphere of the brain controls functions that are analytical, verbal, and logical. Conversely, the right hemisphere controls functions that are holistic, imagistic, and intuitive. Studies have also revealed that, for the most part, one hemisphere tends to dominate the mental processes of most individuals. This is referred to as hemispheric dominance or, simply, left brain/right brain dominance. Individuals whose left hemisphere (left brain) is dominant tend to be analytical, linear-focused, and detail-oriented. Those individuals tend to search for quick solutions to problems or issues; focus on “what” – as opposed to “how” or “why” – questions; and rely primarily on explicit (as opposed to tacit) knowledge. By contrast, Right Brain dominant individuals tend to be nonlinear in their thinking processes – imaginative, creative, and particularly adept at thinking “out of the box.” Left brain/right brain dominance has been studied by scholars in the fields of sociology, social psychology, neuropsychology, and organizational behavior. The field of organizational change management provides fertile ground for investigating how left brain dominance and right brain dominance interact with each other to bring about transformation in organizational policies, practices, processes, and management paradigms. In the sub-field of Diversity Management, for example, studies show that problems and issues are resolved most effectively when many different perspectives are brought to bear. Oftentimes, however, superficial “differences” such as race, sex, and age are employed by managers to achieve “diversity” in the workplace, with a view to bringing together different perspectives. Recently, these efforts have proven to be ill advised: While there is much to be said about the value of having a workforce rich in ethnic, sexual, and generational differences, it is not these differences, per se, that produce a diversity of outlook and perception. Differences in perspective resulting from different personality types (e.g., as determined by the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory) or from left brain/right brain dominance have come to be recognized as being a guide for appreciating different ways of thinking about issues and, therefore, different approaches to the generation of solutions to problems. Accordingly, scholars and practitioners are coming to understand that achieving a mix of left brain dominant and right brain dominant individuals is necessary to understand and address the increasingly complex issues of the Post-Industrial, knowledge-based, global economy and society.


The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors alone, and should not be construed as reflecting the positions, policies, or practices of the Internal Revenue Service or the Financial Management Service.


For example, achieving left brain/right brain diversity in the workforce can be instrumental in developing long-lasting knowledge that meets the needs of both left brain dominant and right brain dominant individuals and of the organization as a whole. Moreover, effective mixing of left brain dominant and right brain dominant individuals creates an organization that maximizes talent; expands the organization’s contributions to the marketplace or to society at large; fulfills and capitalizes upon everyone’s unique gifts and talents; and develops a sense of completion and understanding of the organization’s culture that can be passed on to future leaders. But having such a mix of left brain dominant and right brain dominant individuals can cause challenge. When left brain dominant and right brain dominant individuals are not listening to one another, conflict can result, and knowledge is at risk of being neither retained nor shared. Further, without appreciation of differences, data and information remain data and information; that is, they cannot be transformed into knowledge, understanding, wisdom, or ultimately into action. Finally, differences, if not understood and appreciated, can result in significant decrease of personal development and organizational performance. When left brain dominant and right brain dominant individuals are in conflict, or don’t understand one another, significant barriers to knowledge retention and sharing of ten result: Because knowledge comes in both explicit and tacit varieties, both hemispheres are needed to effectively retain and share the knowledge. For that reason, efforts must be taken to bring left and right together – either in one individual or through collaborative efforts among individuals – so that they can complement each other and synergistically capture store, share, and use knowledge. For example, the left brain needs the right brain in order to develop a meaningful global view; the right brain needs the left brain for focus on mission accomplishment, production, and achievement of goals and objectives. The brain is constantly seeking a relationship with its whole self and our relationships with others reflect the brain’s knowing. An effective organization knows to support, encourage, and advocate whole-brain sharing for greater performance and ROI. Capturing, Retaining, and Sharing Knowledge – A Whole-Brian Perspective In an increasingly globalized world – where left brain/right brain dominance may very well be culturally determined – successful organizations must use techniques that engage whole brain thinking. Accordingly, it is imperative that organizations understand the implications of hemispheric dominance for individual, team, and organizational performance. Leaders must be aware of how this dominance affects such diverse performance factors as talent management, individual and organizational learning, motivation, innovation, and business process management. Absent whole-brain approaches to problem solving and decision making, the next best scenario is the synergy that comes from left brain dominant individuals working in harmony with right-brain-dominant individuals. In a fast-paced, ever-changing, uncertain business environment, threats and opportunities often manifest themselves only fleetingly. They are around only long enough to be taken advantage of or to do their damage and then they are gone. Organizations and individuals must be poised to respond immediately to these threats and opportunities, lest they suffer damage or miss the


chance to gain competitive advantage. That means they must maintain a “big-picture” view (right brain), while being ready to act swiftly on “the details” (left brain). When it comes to capturing, retaining, and sharing knowledge, we must make use of both sides of the brain – either in the same individual or in multiple individuals – if we are to be effective in a modern knowledge organization. When the right and left brain listen to each other, the result is much greater than either one could do alone. The expanding focus of the right brain allows the left brain to have direction. If we use the brain as a whole brain, both the right and left brain become more expansive and effective. The right brain must be ever vigilant of emerging trends and issues, while the left brain must be constantly ready to implement solutions to rapidly occurring symptoms of these trends and issues. For example, the right brain must be able to detect signs of impending knowledge loss (e.g., imminent departure of a subject matter expert); meanwhile, the left brain must be able to process that knowledge, translate it into short-term risk factors, and be able to proactively identify courses of action to mitigate the effects of the risk (e.g., alternative sources of the knowledge, or acceptable substitutes for the knowledge). In order to identify and break down barriers to knowledge retention and sharing, successful organizations must fully employ both right brain and left brain ways of retaining and sharing knowledge. For example, the technique of storytelling (World Bank, NASA, General Services Administration) engages the whole brain by using: (a) narrative – a sequential structure of events: beginning, middle, and end (left brain); (b) content, the expression through language and gestures (left brain); and (c) collage of meaning and feeling (right brain). The use of Communities of Practice (U.S. Army, U.S. Defense Acquisition University) similarly fuses left brain and right brain orientations (e.g., by providing linear, sequential approaches to knowledge search and, conversely, by allowing free-form communication methodologies such as chat, blogging, Instant Messaging, on-line social networking, and wikis). Storytelling is very effective at transferring knowledge because it involves both right and left brain activity. Data needs a process that engages the transfer to information and knowledge. That process is the dialogue between left and right brain activity, which occurs in the corpus collosom. Storytelling facilitates the dialogue between left and right because storytelling is the natural way our brains are wired. What is the heart and soul of the organization’s knowledge sharing and retention? It is the stories that people listen to and tell. When we talk about stories, we’re talking about connection and shared experiences that involve whole brain activity, and that’s the most efficient way to retain knowledge. If someone asks you, “How did the meeting go?” you immediately tell a story about the people involved, their actions, their motivations, the obstacles, and the feelings and frustrations. Those are the essential parts of a story, which reflect the brain’s desire to constantly have a relationship with its whole self – not just left, not just right. Our relationships with others reflect the brain’s knowing, and that’s why we keep telling stories to connect to other people and to understand complex information. People who feel engagement from both their right and left hemispheres bring their whole selves to work. They want to share because they are reflecting the brain’s natural state to bring experience from right to left and left to right – to be a whole brain. Take, for example, the


metaphor of a symphony orchestra: When leaders inspire the whole brain’s contribution, we have a well-tuned symphony orchestra with a strong ROI, a sold-out subscription series. The conductor serves like the CEO, and to play great music the conductor has to listen to all the musicians and all the musicians have to listen to one another. They are sharing the full spectrum of their capabilities and knowledge. Great music requires both right and left brain. The structure of the music – the rhythm – is the left brain; and the expressive nature of the music is the right. It’s only through the telling and listening of every person’s knowledge and contributions in the organization that a great organization is created. When telling a story, as when playing great music, the context is key. Chopin has a different rhythm and feel than Beethoven. What is the purpose of the stories the organization is telling? What is the outcome the organization wants to achieve? There are different reasons for telling stories, so a story always has to be seen in context. The context involves left-brain activity and the ability to engage people involves right-brain activity. Both are needed for a vibrant, knowledge-sharing organization. People will share knowledge when they feel trust and passion for what they do. Stories inspire trust and passion. While no knowledge-sharing technique is exclusively left or right brain in nature, all such techniques are predominantly oriented toward one or the other hemisphere. As an example, while brainstorming is essentially a creative, spontaneous (i.e., right brain) activity, process mapping (flowcharting) is basically a logical, sequential (i.e., left brain) activity. Some techniques – e.g., storytelling and Communities of Practice (CoPs), as described above – have both left-brain and right-brain components. Others can be sometimes predominantly right-brain activities; sometimes left-brain. Take the case of Communities of Practice: When functioning as a knowledge-sharing tool, CoPs can be thought of as left-brain in nature; when for knowledge creation, CoPs take on decidedly right-brain characteristics. Refer to Appendix I for additional examples. Leading the Whole-Brain Enterprise – What Leaders Must Know Leaders in modern knowledge organizations are faced with challenges vastly different from those faced by their industrial-era predecessors. First, they must have a comprehensive understanding of the knowledge society. They must know that the principal activity in any modern enterprise is the management – that is, the identifying, collecting, selecting, organizing, storing, sharing, applying, and creating – of knowledge as means of delivering the organization’s products or services. They must understand that knowledge is the principal source of competitive position and the primary determinant of organizational success. This somewhat fuzzy concept is one of the key challenges faced by leaders in modern organizations. Leaders – in the private sector to be sure, but in the public sector as well – must come to grips with the fact that “managing” knowledge is much different than managing finances, capital assets, and physical inventory. Knowledge is sometimes difficult to identify and quantify; knowledge work is difficult at best to analyze, measure, and improve – because the process of translating data into information into knowledge requires the combined fortitude, structure of the left brain, supported by the right. Storytelling demonstrates the natural dynamic and beauty of integrating the imagination of the right brain with the container and analytic framework of the left brain. Organization who use the power of story – the core of sharing knowledge – and will


revolutionize how organizations succeed in the year 2009 and beyond. Whole-brain knowledge sharing spurs the imagination and hones the understanding of everyone in an organization. Leaders must understand the nature of knowledge work, and how that work differs from agricultural and industrial work. To effectively use knowledge in the successful accomplishment of organizational objectives, leaders must discover ways of describing, analyzing, measuring, and improving knowledge work processes. The pragmatic objective of this is more, better, faster, easier, and cheaper knowledge work. Finally, and most importantly, leaders must possess an extensive knowledge of the characteristics of knowledge workers. Leaders must understand that knowledge workers are vastly different from workers of the past, and must understand how to develop the leadership competencies that will enable them to interact with and get the most from these workers. Leaders must understand their employees – to the extent that they know what each individual brings to the workplace to contribute to the accomplishment of the organization’s purpose, vision, mission, goals, and objectives. That means knowing – and therefore being able to capitalize on – each individual’s hemispheric orientation. Leading the Whole-Brain Enterprise – What Leaders Must Do To get the most from knowledge workers, leaders must behave in ways that are different from previous leadership and “management” tasks. First and foremost, leaders must set organizational direction. Leaders must define and articulate the vision of where the organization is to be at some future time; establish goals, objectives, and milestones that indicate achievement of or progress toward that vision; and establish metrics that indicate, on a continual basis, how well the organization is performing with respect to its goals, objectives, and milestones. Leaders must then clearly articulate the organization’s vision – as well as its mission, values, goals, objectives, plans, and measures – to the knowledge workers, and empower them to achieve the vision. Leaders must enable knowledge workers to achieve the organization’s vision by ensuring they have the knowledge, skills, abilities, and other competencies they need to get the job done. Leaders must also ensure knowledge workers have the facilities, equipment, supplies, hardware, and software needed to perform their work. To do this, leaders must be able to leverage each employee’s unique knowledge, skills, abilities, and hemispheric dominance. Leaders must facilitate the accomplishment of knowledge workers’ tasks by providing access to tools, techniques, and methodologies that enable them to make the most effective and efficient use of their talents. To do this, leaders must be aware of their employees’ unique perspectives as determined, inter alia, by their hemispheric dominance so the organization expresses itself in whole-brain knowledge, the brain’s natural circuiting. In other words, it’s better to have a whole brain than just right or left. In conclusion, there are a number of actions leaders can take within their own spheres of influence. Leaders can make knowledge management tools, techniques, and methodologies available to their knowledge workers with a view to facilitating and improving knowledge work. These include actual or virtual (web-based) Communities of Practice, search engines, expertise locators, internal social networks (Social Network Analysis), portals, oral history programs (storytelling), benchmarking, best practices databases, worst practices (a.k.a. lessons learned) databases, written recording of tacit knowledge by staff (in-process reviews and after-action


reviews), subject matter expert directories, mentoring, coaching, information/knowledge repositories, and employee interviews. Each of these can be effective in identifying, understanding, and leveraging individual employees’ hemispheric dominance – with a view to enhancing accomplishment of organizational performance.


Appendix I Hemispherical Dominance in Knowledge Work Processes and Techniques Knowledge Work Process

Finding/Identifying Knowledge

Collecting Knowledge

Selecting Knowledge

Organizing Knowledge

Storing/Packaging Knowledge

Technique Search engines Key word/phrase search • Text • Audio • Video • Image Storytelling Employee interviews, except structured interviews Employee Relationship Management • Surveys • Focus group interviews • All-employee “town hall” meetings • Regular staff and manager-employee meetings • “Management by walking around” Customer/Stakeholder/Partner/Supplier Relationship Management Business Process Management • Process mapping (flowcharting) • Documentation Coaching and mentoring, with the exception of structured peer mentoring Artificial intelligence applications Automated decision-making/decision support systems Data/text/image/video/voice mining Taxonomies Ontologies Social Network Analysis Content Management Data/knowledge warehousing Document management Records management E-libraries Best practices databases Lessons learned databases Shared folders/drives/servers (e.g., SharePoint) 7

Left Brain X

Right Brain X









Sharing/Distributing Knowledge

Applying Knowledge

Creating Knowledge

Social computing (e.g., MySpace, YouTube) Portals Wikis Blogs Instant Messaging (IM) Chat E-Mail Web sites Communities of Practice Knowledge maps Enterprise learning systems Project management techniques • Peer assists (“Learn Before”) • In-process reviews (“Learn During”) • After-action reviews (“Learn After”) Desk guides Procedures Standards Specifications Manuals Expertise locators Knowledge yellow pages Communities of Practice Organizational learning Team learning Individual learning Automated decision-making/decision support systems Brainstorming Nominal Group Technique (NGT) Multivoting











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About the Authors Michael J. Novak is a Senior Business Operations Specialist with the Internal Revenue Service, Office of Procurement. He lectures and publishes extensively on knowledge management and on organizational performance assessment and improvement. He is a past Co-Chair of the Interagency Knowledge Management Working Group. He is left brain dominant. Lynne Feingold is a Program Manager, Trainer, and Organizational Consultant; and a Program Analyst with the Financial Management Service. She is an organizational consultant and trainer, a pioneer in using expressive arts and storytelling in organizations, and introduced applied storytelling in the General Services Administration and the Departments of Treasury and State. She is right brain dominant.


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