Tag Archives: liminal thinking

Layers of abstraction, the cost of convenience, and the commoditization of experience

The story of progress is one of abstraction, of increased convenience, and the taming of novel experience into the everyday.

An obvious example that comes to mind is in programming, and in fact this is the context in which the seed of this idea first came to me. In my first digital electronics lab at UMR we learned how to program the 8088 processor using machine language (or maybe it was assembly language). I have no memory of either language, but what did stick with me was the idea all higher level languages are simply abstractions of those languages that humans can understand and write. The farther away from machine / assembly you get, the easier (more convenient) it is to get the machine to do what you want it to do, but at the cost of understanding what exactly you are telling the machine to do. And as things get more convenient, you don’t even need the experience of understanding: writing a block of code to do something in a given context becomes nothing more than a copy/paste from Stack Overflow or some other place where someone (or something) else has already had the experience of creation.

A very different example, but one still close to my heart, is the sport of rock climbing. I learned to climb when I was in high school, in the early ’80s, when it was still a novelty. Before we could actually start climbing we had to learn basic rope management, the various knots, how to belay. And the gear, though effective, was by today’s standards, very rudimentary; if you needed your gear to do something, you figured out how to make it work. Today if you want to climb, you just go to the local rock gym, rent a harness and some shoes, get a quick lesson on how the auto-belay works, and away you go. Not saying this is a bad thing, I love that so many people are being introduced to the sport, even if they only climbing they ever do is in the gym. But that commoditization of the experience, that extreme convenience, abstracts them away from the joys of adventure climbing. And turns the experience of climbing, in many ways, into just another workout.

Of course, these examples are important, but they aren’t life and death. Like, say, knowing how to hunt, kill, clean, and prepare your own food. Or how to clear some land and build your own shelter. Or so many other aspects of simply surviving that we (in the so-called developed part of the world) no longer need to worry about. Or, perhaps more accurately, don’t need to worry about at the moment.

One last example for now: When I first heard Dave Gray talking about his latest book, Liminal Thinking, I wrote down “layers of abstraction” among my notes. Though different from the other examples here, I couldn’t help but see that connection. That the more we commoditize our thinking – the more we are on auto-pilot – the more abstracted we are from an understanding of where our beliefs come from, and the harder it is to understand where others are coming from.

The many layers of abstraction, the incredible conveniences we have today, and the commoditization of experience are not, in and of themselves, bad things. As I mentioned at the start, this is the story of progress. It’s when we forget that this is happening, when we start to believe that this is the way things have always been without understanding how we got here, that we run the risk of losing our ability to progress.

The Neo-generalist and functional resumes

It has been many years since I’ve really given my resume much thought. I have, of course, kept it (and my LinkedIn profile) up to date in terms of my actual job, and mostly up to date in terms of the work I’ve done in the course of those jobs. But it is a straight ahead chronological resume, following the standard (if there is such a thing) configuration of most recent job first and going back to the last x number of jobs and listing various responsibilities and accomplishments in those jobs. Not necessarily the work I’ve accomplished, but more the “important” tasks I completed. (The full version currently weighs in at a solid 7 pages.)

A key factor in my neglect of the resume is the fact that I’ve worked in the same environment for all of my adult career, and that type of resume is how you are judged, the primary consideration when looking for a new position (and how the company for whom you work demonstrates its range of skills to potential customers). A focus on what you’ve done in the past, with a demonstrated progression of skills and responsibility within a (generally) narrow specialization, not to mention specific education milestones and certifications specific to that narrow field.

My recent online reading (and writing) and involvement with various meetup groups, communities, and organizations (including a nascent startup) here in St. Louis and around the world (online) got me thinking about this resume, and how I present myself and what I do as opposed to simply what I’ve done). And the books I’ve been reading this summer, including Rise of the DEO, Service Design for Business, Managing for Happiness, and Liminal Thinking have got me thinking about what exactly it is that I do do. But it was a book I haven’t read yet (bought, dispatched, not yet delivered) that really got me thinking about what I do, and how to explain it.

From the back cover of The Neo-generalist:

Have you encountered difficulties describing what you do to other people?  Yep. 

Have you ever labelled yourself in order to be understood?  Double yep. 

And even more to the point from the Preface (posted on the book’s website):

Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, our society has remained in thrall to the notion of hyperspecialism. This places constraints on the ways in which we are educated, the work we do, the people we socialise with, how we are recruited, how our career progression is managed, how we label ourselves for the benefit of others’ understanding. To counter and challenge these social norms, the neo-generalist has to learn how to give expression to their more generalist tendencies, even as they practise various specialisms, guiding others as they do so.

Which is exactly the conundrum in which I find myself.

To give you an idea here is a list of some of the things I’ve done through the years, in (not reverse) chronological order:

  • Responsible for the operation of a 24/7/365 communications facility in support of mission critical operations, including designing of communications networks, maintenance of equipment, and training of personnel and the periodic (several times a year) requirement to shut it all down, pack it up, drive it to a farmer’s field somewhere in Europe and set it all back up again. And, of course, return it to the buildings.
  • Designed and executed logistics for the upgrade of all equipment in a communications organization, including replacement of vehicles and communications equipment (which involved a range of activities including inventory and inspection of old equipment, disposition of old equipment (including rail and other transport manifests), inventory and inspection of new equipment, arranging a place where all this could happen, and making sure that all the paper work was correct at the end of it all.
  • Chief executive of a communications company of 150+ people, responsible for providing mobile network services for a customer organization consisting of mobile operation centers operating in unforgiving physical locations. In addition to the network design, maintenance, and training operations, responsible for housing and feeding of company members as well as all financial aspects of the organization. (Best job I ever had, probably the best I will ever have.)
  • Test officer for mobile and man-portable satellite communications terminals.
  • Assistant project manager responsible for the fielding of manpack tactical satellite communications radios to the US Army. Included all aspects of coordination, planning logistics, coordinating training, and ensuring the receiving units were satisfied with the products. (Basically the other end of the job 2 above; I learned a lot from job 2 that went into my success here.)
  • Assistant CIO responsible for implementation of Public Key Infrastructure within the organization, including distribution of required hardware, development of appropriate policies and guidance, and execution of training.
  • Systems engineer including
    • Develop requirements for next generation tactical network communication systems
    • Develop operational concepts for the next- next generation tactical network communications system when the next generation system was deemed not next generation enough
    • Refine operational requirements, act as intermediary between requirements creators and vendors designing systems to meet the requirements
    • Review and approve (or not) designs at preliminary design reviews, system design reviews, etc.
    • Work on the edge of the system, integrating with the next- next- next generation system, ensuring the interests of the program for which I worked and the end user were considered in the development of the other system
    • Integration of systems onto platforms for which they were not designed, involving coordination between many different parties while keeping in mind the desired end state.

I think you get the idea. Like most people, especially most people in the Army, I started out in the jobs that my career field said I should start in. While I didn’t have a choice in the job, I did have a choice in the work. As my career progressed, especially after leaving the Army, I did have a choice of job, and often based my decision based on the type of work I’d be able to do. And, as importantly, how I’d be able to do it.

Though I didn’t have the words or terminology for it back then, I realize now that I’ve always had a human-centered approach to my jobs. Although getting the job done was always important, how it got done was very important to me. Though not to everyone. A story from my first job….

On my unit’s first deployment to a field exercise after I had joined, one of the comms links was just not coming in. It was a training exercise and so, naive me, I was using it for training. What I didn’t realize is that others (my boss and his boss) saw it not as a training exercise for me and my team but for them. (This is, if you are familiar, the curse of the Signal Corps.) So when my boss came out to the rig and saw me in the door, he started chewing on me before he even arrived. “Why are you out here, why aren’t you in their making this work!!!” I had no words except, “This is [her] job, she needs to do it. Besides, I don’t know how to make this work.”

When I was in the Army, it was easy to tell people what I do – “I’m an Army Signal Officer.” Once I left the Army, it was a bit less straightforward. “Systems Engineer” is no help to most people, and the tasks I was performing weren’t any better at getting across what I did. So, for the most part, I was “in computers”. Even now, that is pretty much what most people think I do, though it might be a bit more expansive, “He does corporate IT.”

Which is kind of true. My current job title is Solution Designer (Enterprise Social Networks) and Community Strategist, whatever the hell that means. Again, a lot of tasks I perform on a daily basis, but listing those doesn’t really get across what I do, nor how I do it.

Which gets me back around to neo-generalism. Though I haven’t yet read the book (dispatched, not delivered), what I’ve read from the authors leads me to believe I am a neo-generalist. Which makes sense, because I’ve very often found myself acting as both generalist (connecting the dots) and specialist (building the dots). The chronological resume format doesn’t – can’t – really convey this to the casual reader typical hiring manager / resume screener. Which gets us, finally, around to the functional resume.

Nearly everything I’ve read about functional resumes, as I’ve been thinking about and doing research for revamping mine, paints them as a last resort, something to be avoided unless absolutely necessary. As I’ve gone through this process, though, I’ve come to realize that this is because most people look at jobs, at work, in terms of specialization. That if you don’t have a good cohesive chronological narrative of tasks, there must be something wrong with you.

And, to be clear, if you want a job that builds on a specific specialization, it is probably a good idea to have a chronological resume with some good details on what you’ve done.

But I’m starting to think that for me, and for other neo-generalists who are interested as much in how they work as the tasks they perform, the work they do and not just the job they have, a functional resume may be the way to go.

tl;dr I’m going to update my resume, and it is going to be a functional resume.

 

Liminal Thinking – a review

I had the pleasure a couple of years ago of hearing Dave Gray talk about and explore some ideas he had for a new book, throwing them out to the audience and having a conversation around them. Earlier this year I had the privilege of reading some early versions of pages that had evolved from those explorations and which now form the heart of Dave’s new book, Liminal Thinking. I was excited to get the final version of the book and looking forward to sitting down and breezing through it, to soak it all in like a blast from a fire hose. And, at about 150 pages, it would be easy enough to do. To just read through it in one sitting, in probably just a couple of hours. Which is what I was expecting to do. Until…

Until I read Chapter 1, titled “Beliefs are models”. And then I wasn’t in a hurry any longer. I wasn’t interested in getting to the end, I wanted to read that chapter again. Even though he started with the story of the blind men and the elephant, a story I’ve heard many times before. A story I’ve heard before, but not really “seen” before.

Not surprisingly, this process repeated itself as I made my way through the book. Though I only made it from front to back once over the weekend, I figure I read the entire book at least 3 times in that period. Reading a chapter, re-reading it, maybe going back a chapter or two to make a connection. And I realized that, contrary to my original thought of just blasting through the book, I didn’t really want to get to the end. I didn’t want the experience of the book to be over.

And speaking of the experience of the book, I need to mention here just how beautifully designed the book is. Beyond the insight and knowledge in the words and drawings Dave gives us, the team at The Heads of State have created a work of art in this book. The most obvious aspect is the cover, but as you read through the book the design elements guide you along, quite unobtrusively, to help you get the most from those words and drawings. Simple touches like the spare use of color, consistent layout of the chapters so that you know when one is starting and when it is ending, and materials that feel luxurious in the hand. Not to mention the fountain pen friendly paper. Do yourself a favor, and get the hard copy book. (Though I will probably also pick up a Kindle version so that I can always have the book on hand.)

At one point in the book Dave acknowledges that some people naturally or intuitively think liminally, and I count myself among those just as you may. I’ve always thought “in systems”, trying to understand the why behind rules, traditions, and behavior. But, as I learned from Dave in this book, I have only been scratching the surface, getting down to maybe the level of a person’s beliefs, maybe their theories about life and the world. Beliefs, as Dave explains, go much deeper than that.

More importantly, I realized that I’ve never really turned that systems view on myself, on my own thinking, to understand how it is I’ve come to be the way I am. I’ve always thought I understood, but now I’m not so sure. I am looking forward to finding out.

There is debate in the field about whether consciousness even has efficacy

Related to yesterday’s post:

“There is debate in the field about whether consciousness even has efficacy,”

This neuroscientist is figuring out how to harness the enormous potential of the unconscious mind

We often react to a certain image or a certain word on a deeper level without having to engage the conscious parts of our brain, and it’s this kind of ‘power’ Eagleman is talking about in his research. It’s still at an early, unpublished stage, but it promises to uncover more about what goes on below the surface of our minds.

Have to admit, I thought much of this had already been hashed out before. Of course the subconscious (unconscious) mind plays a key part in our lives, more so than even the conscious mind.

On knowledge and (organizations as) knowers

Been giving some thought to the concept of knowledge and knowing in the context of organizations and knowledge management. These two paragraphs come from separate trains of thought, but are related so I decided to post them here together. Definitely needs a bit more reflection and development. What do you think?


The terms “tacit” and “explicit” are typically used when referring to different types of knowledge (in the context of knowledge management efforts). It seems to me that “unconscious” and “conscious” might be more appropriate / accurate? In that explicit knowledge is that of which you are consciously aware of while tacit knowledge is that which lies “below the surface” and which you use without having to be aware you are using it. Need to cross reference this with what I’ve been learning about Liminal Thinking….

On the subject of “knowers”, could the organization itself be considered a “knower”? Not the sum total of the knowledge that resides in its members or files, but a knowing that emerges from the connections and interactions of that knowledge. If so, how would that change how we approach KM?