A faulty knowledge transfer metaphor

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —December 17, 2007
Filed in Communication

The conduit metaphor is a common way for people to imagine how information is passed from one person to another. This metaphor paints a picture of information passing as a message to a receiver and the receiver picks it up and pops it in their mind. I have even seen a keynote speech recently where the speaker made the additional point that the receiver needs to be pointing their antenna in the right direction to pick up the signal.

I have been aware for sometime that this metaphor is unreliable at best and I was recently reminded of this fact reading Steven Pinker’s latest book, The Stuff of Thought.

Another misleading conceptual formula is the conduit metaphor, in which to know is to have something and to communicate is to send it in a package. Again, it has a kernel of truth; if information were never transmitted with some fidelity from mind to mind, knowledge could never accumulate in a society, and language itself would be useless. But cognitive science has repeatedly shown ways in which the metaphor falls short. … language understanding is more than just extracting literal meaning, as George Costanza learned too late when he realized that coffee doesn’t necessarily mean coffee [his girlfriend asks him up for coffee and he says no because it keeps him up at night]. And once a meaning is extracted and stored in memory, it does not sit there like a knickknack on a shelf; memory research confirms Twain’s observation that people tend to remember things whether they happened or not. Traditional education was dominated by a version of the conduit metaphor sometimes called the savings-and-loans model: the teacher dispenses nuggets of information to the pupils, who try to retain them in their mind long enough to give them back on an exam.

But now I’m stumped. Is there a better metaphor or analogy for illustrating how we transfer our knowledge? Until we have one, the conduit metaphor will reign supreme and organisations will continue to waste money training staff by employing the expert to lecture students.

Some of the references Pinker makes include:

Blakemore, S. J., and U. Frith. The Learning Brain: Lessons for Education. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005.

Schacter, D. L. The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. ken says:

    Transfer? It riles me more than sharing 🙂
    The old “Education is about lighting a fire, not filling a bucket” reportedly goes back as far as Plutarch. Others say catch on fire, people will come from all over to watch. Inspiration, Animation, all apparently rooted in ancient words for breath (and despiration not being what we want).
    Kathy Sierra is passionate about Passion (and with communication grounded in neurological findings, including narrative thinking, a la Shanck and Bruner). Provide scaffolding and safety nets to create an enabling context etc.
    We could go for a shorter word, Love, though might be too fluffy bunnies, an even shorter word may suffice – “be” (be here now, be there for others, be the change you want, be a catalyst, walk the talk, walk a mile in their shoes, be a role model).
    Perhaps it’s a question of listening, and responding such that the chosen metaphor lights the fire of the given audience? We can search for the perfect universal, or be-pragmatic and work with what we have. Something with immediate surface recognition (tapping the known for less resistance) and also with deeper, paradoxical, even ambiguous meaning, enabling the aha-moment?

  2. Just a few off the top of my head.

    You, me everyone is building a cathedral, office, home (your choice). Each piece of knowledge I give is another brick that you can use anywhere (or everywhere) in your construction.

    Like pollen on the wind, the information and knowledge you transfer can germinate and begin the growth of a whole new forest.

    Similar to the first: We are collaboratively creating a tapestry. Each of us adds a thread and a colour to the overall design and eventual result.

    But really (as I think about it)… I can come up with metaphors till the cows come home. A better question might be “What are the elements that we want and need to convey in a better metaphor?”

  3. Shawn, I notice that you interchange the concepts of “transferring information” with “transferring knowledge” in your post. I think there are ways of transferring information which aren’t necessarily a transfer of knowledge, so the concepts should be kept separate.

    On knowledge transfer, I have no problems with the concept of a conduit. I think the problem most people have is that they don’t ask what the conduit is made out of.

    My theory is that knowledge conduits are also built out of (lower-level) knowledge. These layers of knowledge create “shared context” — without which, for example, someone might misunderstand the unstated meaning of ‘coffee’.

  4. Thanks Ken for keeping me on the straight and narrow. Knowledge sharing is much better than transfer because transfer suggests the conduit metaphor. While I like the “lighting a fire” idea I suspect it will sound too abstract to mean that much when trying to explain how knowledge is shared in an organisation. And your right that love will scare the pigeons.
    And thanks Michael for the metaphor brainstorm. However when I read them they seem to be all variations on the conduit metaphor. Someone gives their knowledge to someone else, a brick, pollen, thread.
    So I think some of the elements we might include are:
    – re-creation of ideas
    – context matters

  5. They may be variations of the conduit metaphor. I don’t experience them that way – but that’s exactly the power of metaphor we’re playing with.

    To help me get a bit more appreciation of what you mean by your suggested elements. What specifically do you mean by ‘re-creation’?

  6. John Parboosingh says:

    I am trying to think of a way of conveying the idea that information sharing leads to a change in both parties. Does the term “Coevolution” apply here?

  7. Stephen, my feeling is that there is such overlap between information and knowledge that there is a definite space where they overlap especially when we talk about sharing knowledge. This is because information is a major way we share it! But I don’t think it’s useful thinking of sharing information as simply sliding it down a conduit to be picked up by the receiver.
    Coevolution is much closer to what I mean but the term wouldn’t mean much to many business people. I’m looking for an everyday activity that reflects the process of learning. And perhaps the analogy is to use how we do and don’t help kids to learn.
    When I mentioned re-creation I was thinking about the process of sensing what was happening and re-creating that experience into something I know.

  8. ken says:

    Fwiw, some random ideas (remixing many other ideas)…
    Clearly we can push stuff (powerpoint, ugh) down the inter-pipes, programmed instruction, push-programs – though these days mass-media broadcasters find less people interested in scheduling their time-and-attention to fit the broadcasters schedulers.
    People are using technology to build pull-platforms, enabling, engaging, creative, remixing – even amateurs (amour=love 🙂 can do it, and linked by the network these passionate about what they do (not just doing a job) have more time and attention than the professionals (aka suits) – a kind of social-technology, disruptive technology, disrupting old patterns, disorienting – connecting, recreating, forming new groups, markets-are-conversations (blog != ye olde business-is-shipping metaphor – content was king in the age of delivery and distribution, when the physical network was guarded (and DRM crippleware continues to raise enforcement-costs/complexity) – instead packet-switching lets people connect end-to-end, without an operator (not scalable), the value multiplies in ways the old planners could never anticipate (network-effects) – it’s not physical connection – in the network, but emotional connection, above the network (in the head, not the linguistic-structure or literal interpretation, knowledge is but a word, a rose by any other name etc.)
    Does it comes down to a “culture” – a trusting culture – a culture nurtures and cultivates (for good or bad), it re-creates, it has pattern-integrity – a tight-knit group can use a shared pattern-language, one with shared-meaning, it’s active use embeds it into the routine – it’s the use, not the structure (Pinker/Chomsky v Maturana et al) that helps us make-meaning, make-sense and create-value through not just inter-action but inter-section of needs and commitments – appreciation, coordination, orchestration, matching expectations in a complex world. To be unthinking, automatic, intuitive – Civilisation-Advances, Whitehead says, when we don’t need-to-know, social-learning lets adapt to situations, primes our expectations, our cultural heritage lets us stand on the shoulders, adopt roles, webs of expectations, living up to expectations, being who we are. Sigh, back to being and love (empathy might sound less soft 🙂

  9. anthony says:

    something along the lines of: I prepare a trusted meal for friends, we gather, share, experience it, with shared & idiosynchratic experiences, in the process we talk about it, discovering & tease out aspects that enrich the experience, and likely change the way that i’ll do the same meal the next time. I’ve tried to intentionally convey something to others, but we’ve all experienced it within our own contexts, and fed some of that experience back into the intention, changing it forever in the mind of the maker.

  10. ken says:

    An intriguing quote from the David Byrne and Thom Yorke article in wired, it strikes a chord, interaction beyond legalistic transactions…
    “By making a copy and handing it to your friends, you’ve established a relationship”

  11. Along the lines of Michael Vanderdonk’s post at December 17, 2007 10:08 AM, I think of building bridges, and not necessarily just between 2 points, but multiple points factoring in prior knowledge and experiences.

  12. Dermot says:

    yes there are alternative ways of looking at this including the toolmaker metaphor. I’ve written this up in some academic papers. If you’re interested I can forward you the relevant section/papers.

  13. Tushar Panchal says:

    I doubt that the issue is about what metaphor you use. It is about how effectively can you translate the purpose of the metaphor into something meaningful and actionable. I believe that once you start delving into ‘knowledge sharing/transfer’ away from pure inforation flow, you need to leave the semantics behind.
    Knowledge sharing/transfer necessaites the requisites to be non-defining to an extent so that the probing, exploring, learning, etc characteristics are enabled (and may be iterative at times or as you have suggested there might be some overlay).
    Nonetheless, it is essential that the knowledge sharing/transfer aspect is particular to a context/domain. Without the context, the knowledge shared/transfered would not be aligned to the objectives. Knowledge then becomes fat sitting beneath the cultural layer.
    Talking about knowledge sharing within a context, the RSK (Rules – Skills – Knowledge) model might be applicable. Everyone starts with a set of rules to understand, manipulate and react to a given situation. Put that person in a context/domain where they start to develop their skills in dealing with context specific items. This ultimately leads to an inherent set of heuristics for differnet contexts/domains that lead to knowledge gaining/sharing and ultimately transferring.
    Out to interest, Anecdote might be interested in reading the following 2 books:
    1) Cognitive Work Analysis by Vicente: Talks about knowledge, AH, context and domain
    2) The structure of scientific revolution by Thomas Kuhn. Brillian book for anyone
    Finally, apologies if you feel that I am on a tangent to this post.

  14. Excellent comments everyone. It’s really got me thinking. Pointers to your papers would be appreciated Dermot. Can you elaborate a little on the toolmaker metaphor please.
    Tushar, I still believe it is important which metaphor we use. The difficulty is that we are mostly unaware of the metaphors we use. Even when we talk of bridges as suggested by Michael, we are using the conduit metaphor. The RSK is a little problematic for me because a skill is knowledge. Maybe it is rule, skill, expertise which are all require knowledge. Thanks for the book reference.

  15. John Tropea says:

    Steve Billing has a great post based on George Herbert Mead about communication and transfer as more of a dance. The meaning is co-created, the message has no intrinsic meaning of itself.

  16. Hi there, yes there is a better metaphor than the conduit metaphor. Definitely. In the conduit metaphor, when communication breaks down you are left figuring out whether to blame the sender or the receiver. Social constructionism has a great deal to offer, as does the work of George Herbert Mead, whose work I find hard to read in the original but easier if you read the secondary literature, such as Ralph Stacey’s work like Strategic Dynamics. My own post at touches on this. It focuses on meaning as the outcome of a communicative conversation of gesture and response. You look at the meaning to identify the communication and then both gesture and response are taken together to constitute the communication. Not the gesture (sender) alone, nor the receiver (response) alone.

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