The simplicity of knowledge exchange

The simplicity of knowledge exchange

28 October 2014
The simplicity of knowledge exchange

CFCA Manager Elly Robinson draws on the wisdom of Atul Gawande to help make complex concepts understandable.

"Use familiar words – words that your readers will understand, and not words they will have to look up. No advice is more elementary, and no advice is more difficult to accept. When we feel an impulse to use a marvellously exotic word, let us lie down until the impulse goes away."

- James J. Kilpatrick, American newspaper columnist and grammarian.

I’m often reminded of the above quote when encouraging the work of our CFCA writers and communicators. At CFCA information exchange, we do our best to present information in a way that it easy-to-use but respects the user’s intelligence and knowledge. It is often a difficult balance.

CFCA sits at the interface between the worlds of research, policy and practice. The trick is to help each of these areas to discuss important issues for children and families in a way that alienates no-one and challenges everyone.

It is human temptation to use language that asserts authority on a topic. It is more of a challenge to sit with the words and think about what we are trying to communicate, and how useful that is.

Our work also raises the question of what is valuable and useful to share. At the recent Australian Implementation Conference in Sydney, I was delighted to hear a keynote speaker, Fred Wulczyn, paraphrase the work of one of my favourite authors, Atul Gawande. Gawande is a celebrated surgeon, writer, and public health researcher, yet he is also a master of making complex concepts understandable to laypeople.

In his book Better, Gawande proposes five rules by which doctors can not just survive, but make a difference in an increasingly challenging profession. These rules are equally applicable to the work that we do with children and families, as alluded to by Wulczyn. Most appealingly, they don’t require any great deal of complexity to adopt.

The rules are as follows:

  • Ask an unscripted question. It doesn’t have to be a deep or important question, just make it an unscripted one. It could be with colleagues or clients. Really listen to the answer. Gawande notes that in asking unscripted questions, he once learned that a quiet nurse he worked with had once dated Jimi Hendrix.
  • Don’t complain. Working with humans is difficult and only partly under your control. We all know what it is like to be tired and beaten down. Resist the temptation to complain – it is dispiriting and it will only get you down.
  • Count something. One doesn’t need a research grant to find out something worthwhile. The only requirement is that what you count should be interesting to you. If you count something interesting you will learn something interesting.
  • Write something. Once you’ve counted it, write it down. It doesn’t matter if it is a journal article, a poem, or a CFCA Connect article (like this!). It doesn’ t need to be perfect – it just needs to add a small observation to our world.
  • Change. Some people are early adopters of new ideas, some are late adopters and others remain resistant sceptics. Be willing to accept the uncertainties of what we do, and look for opportunities to try something new.

Gawande’s words are a reminder that we don’t need higher degrees or endless experience to make a difference to children and families. Communicating and sharing knowledge, and being comfortable with trying new things, are fundamental to building effective responses to complex problems. CFCA provides the platform for professionals to count something, write it down and share it – and hopefully generate change.

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Image: Communication is the key, Sebastien Wiertz, CC BY, cropped original.


This is lovely piece that talks about a really important issue, remembering to keep it simple for readers, thanks for this and introducing me to the work of Gawande.
Heather Parkes

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Elly Robinson

At the time of writing this, Elly was the Executive Manager, Practice Evidence and Engagement at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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