Words to live by

Sell out crowds. Overflow rooms. Young fans looking for autographs after a ‘performance.’ Not things usually associated with a lecturer talking about prime numbers. But such was the case recently for 2006 Field’s Medal winner Terence Tao. The article Scientist at Work – Terence Tao – Journeys to the Distant Fields of Prime in the New York Times gives a profile of this young, talented mathematician, described as a ‘rock star’ and the ‘Mozart of math.’

Though Tao is obviously quite gifted (an understatement), the description of his childhood, and how his parents handled his talent, is very telling as well. [emphasis is mine]

[Terry’s father] Billy Tao knew the trajectories of child prodigies like Jay Luo, who graduated with a mathematics degree from Boise State University in 1982 at the age of 12, but who has since vanished from the world of mathematics.

“I initially thought Terry would be just like one of them, to graduate as early as possible,” he said. But after talking to experts on education for gifted children, he changed his mind.

His parents decided not to push him into college full time, so he split his time between high school and Flinders University, the local university in Adelaide. He finally enrolled as a full-time college student at Flinders when he was 14, two years after he would have graduated had his parents pushed him only according to his academic abilities.

The Taos had different challenges in raising their other two sons, although all three excelled in math. Trevor, two years younger than Terry, is autistic with top-level chess skills and the musical savant gift to play back on the piano a musical piece — even one played by an entire orchestra — after hearing it just once. He completed a Ph.D. in mathematics and now works for the Defense Science and Technology Organization in Australia.

The youngest, Nigel, told his father that he was “not another Terry,” and his parents let him learn at a less accelerated pace. Nigel, with degrees in economics, math and computer science, now works as a computer engineer for Google Australia.

But what really caught my eye was Billy Tao’s summary of how they approached their kids’ learning:

All along, we tend to emphasize the joy of learning. The fun is doing something, not winning something.

Words to live by, indeed.

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Technology makes it easy to ‘remember,’ the trick is learning how to forget

A blog post I wrote a year ago. Playing around with David Allen‘s Getting Things Done. A recent article in Fast Company. Reading Steven Johnson‘s book Mind Wide Open over Thanksgiving. Autism.

All of these things came together in my mind over the past few days. (If the internet is a global cocktail party, and blogs are its conversations, I’m the guy who takes it all in and thinks of something to say as he’s driving home from the party. At least that’s how it feels sometimes, especially with topics such as this one.)

Just over a year ago, I wrote the following:

My early days in Knowledge Management included a lot of time developing, deploying, and getting people to use “knowledge repositories.” (At least trying to get people to use them.) A worthwhile endeavor in some regards, I’ve always had misgivings about the whole idea, at least how it has been implemented in most cases. The cheapness of mass storage these days, and the way we just keep everything, has nagged at this misgiving over the past couple of years.

I finally realized one day that the problem has become not, “How do we remember all this knowledge that we’ve learned?” but rather, “How do forget all this knowledge we’ve accumulated that we no longer need so we can focus on what we do need?”

This same question has come up, albeit in a different context, in that other domain in which I blog: autism autism.

MOM – Not Otherwise Specified recently posted a very interesting piece about the role of memory, and the inability to purge it, in autistic behaviors. In her post, she quotes Paul Collins’ book The trouble with Tom:

Memory is a toxin, and its overretention – the constant replaying of the past – is the hallmark of stress disorders and clinical depression. The elimination of memory is a bodily function, like the elimination of urine. Stop urinating and you have renal failure: stop forgetting and you go mad.

This also plays on my long-held dislike of best practices, at least how most people implement them. If you are so caught up in what has happened before, it is hard to get caught up in what is to come.

In the context of mastery, especially of something new, it is sometimes hard to know when to forget what you’ve learned. You have to build up a solid foundation of basic knowledge, the things that have to be done. And at some point you start to build up tacit knowledge of what you are trying to master. And this, the tacit knowledge that goes into learning and mastery, is probably the hardest thing to learn how to forget.

Sometimes, though, it is critical to forget what you know so you can continue to improve. Witness Tiger Wood’s reinvention of his swing, twice, and Neil Peart’s reinvention of his drumming.

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Six attributes of an affinity group (or community of practice)

Although James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy is primarily about how individuals, especially kids, learn, there is a lot in the book that can be applied to how organizations learn. This list describes what Gee sees as common features of what he calls affinity groups and their implications. Those familiar with knowledge management concepts will recognize these as traits of a good community of practice.

    1. Members of an affinity group bond to each other primarily through a common endeavor and only secondarily through affective ties, which are, in turn, leveraged to further the common endeavor. Implication: Affective ties and sociocultural diversity can be dangerous, because they divide people if they transcend the endeavor, good otherwise.
    2. The common endeavor is organized around a whole process (involving multiple but integrated functions), not single, discrete, or decontexualized tasks. Implication: No rigid departments, borders, or boundaries.
    3. Members of the affinity group have extensive knowledge, not just intensive knowledge. By “extensive” I mean that members must be involved with many or all stages of the endeavor; able to carry out multiple, partly overlapping, functions; and able to reflect on the endeavor as a whole system, not just their part in it. Implication: No narrow specialists, no rigid roles.
    4. In addition to extensive knowledge, members each have intensive knowledge – deep and specialist knowledge in one or more areas. Members may well also bring special intensive knowledge gained from their outside experiences and various sociocultural affiliations (e.g. their ethnic affiliations) to the affinity group’s endeavors. Implication: Non-narrow specialists are good.
    5. Much of the knowledge in an affinity group is tacit (embodied in members’ mental, social, and physical coordinations with other members and with various tools, and technologies), and distributed (spread across various members, their shared sociotechnical practices, and their tools and technologies), and dispersed (not all on site, but networked across different sites and institutions). Implication: Knowledge is not first and foremost in heads, discrete individuals, or books but in networks of relationships.
    6. The role of leaders in affinity groups is to design the groups, to continually resource them, and to help members turn their tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, while realizing that much knowledge will always remain tacit and situated in practice. Implications: Leaders are not “bosses,” and only knowledge that is made explicit can be spread and used outside the original affinity group.

As most of us know all too well, most organizations today operate in ways very different from how these, often self-forming, groups operate. Some thoughts, item by item:

    1. The common endeavor in most organizations is dictated from the top down. Members of the organization don’t usually join the organization because of the ‘endeavor,’ rather they accept the endeavor because they have joined the organization.
    2. In most organizations (in my experience), specific functions are highly structured into departments and sub-departments. Successful cross-functional activity is the exception rather than the rule.
    3. Because of the highly structured nature of organizations, most people know only their area. Because the ‘endeavor’ is not their own, there is very little incentive to understand the ‘big picture.’ Those who do try to understand the big picture are often seen as ‘stepping out of their lane’ and put back in their place. After all, how can they be doing their job if they are worrying about what someone else is doing.
    4. This is what most organizations expect of their members – a high skill level in their specific area.
    5. More and more organizations are recognizing the tacit nature of knowledge and the value of network relationships is sharing information. More than any of the other items in this list, it is this area that is receiving much of the attention in the field of knowledge management. It is hard, though, for individuals and organizations to get over the cultural expectation of knowing everything yourself, the ‘not-invented-here’ syndrome, and the sharing – freely – of what you know with others so they can be successful.
    6. Most ‘leaders’ are still just bosses.

Looking back over my list, I think I may be a bit pessimistic, but I’ve been involved with knowledge management, social networking, etc. for almost 10 years now and am still amazed, and frustrated, at how many organizations still don’t get it. Those who know me know that I’m really a glass-half-full kind of guy, and I must admit that I do hold out hope that things will change.

Maybe it will just take the current generation of young gamers, Marc Prensky’s digital natives, to finally get us there.

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Thoughts on Knowledge Management and Knowledge Work

After reading (and writing about) Marc Prensky‘s Don’t Bother Me, Mom, I’m Learning!, I picked up James Paul Gee‘s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. I was expecting a book about video games and the potential ‘good’ they offered. And the book does discuss this.

But the book is really about how video games are an example of how good learning can be enabled, encouraged, and accomplished in any environment. His area of choice is K-12 science education, but the learning principles – 36 of them – can be applied in many other areas.

In fact, Gee compares the environment that players of modern computer and video games inhabit to the world of what is commonly known as knowledge work. In the process, Gee describes a couple of key concepts and processes that those who work in the field of knowledge management will be familiar with.

Because Gee looks at these topics from the perspective of learning, his depictions are a bit different from what I’ve typically seen. For example, here is how Gee describes ‘tacit knowledge‘ (emphasis is mine):

Finally, the Intuitive (Tacit) Knowledge Principle is concerned with the fact that video games honor not just the explicit and verbal knowledge players have about how to play but also the intuitive or tacit knowledge – built into their movements, bodies, and unconscious ways of thinking – they have built up through repeated practice with a family of genre of games. It is common today for research on modern workplaces to point out that in today’s high-tech and fast-changing world, the most valuable knowledge a business has is the tacit knowledge its workers gain through continually working with others in a “community of practice” that adapts to specific situations and changes “on the ground” as they happen. Such knowledge cannot always be verbalized. Even when it can be verbalized and placed in a training manual, by that time it is often out of date.

What stood out to me was the emphasis on the importance of the “community of practice” in the development of an individual’s tacit knowledge and the fact that tacit knowledge is dynamic, never fixed. Tacit knowledge is, in my experience, typically addressed as something unique to an individual, something static. And while it is true, I suppose, that individuals do possess a certain amount of truly unique knowledge that never changes, to be useful most tacit knowledge must be flexible enough to be useful as the individual interacts with the environment.

A key challenge in the field of knowledge management is how to manage this tacit knowledge. Understanding both the individual and social nature of tacit knowledge is an important consideration to keep in mind. In fact, the social aspect, the tacit knowledge of the group if you will, may well be more important than the tacit knowledge of any one individual.

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Career Day – what should I say?

The guidance counselor at my son’s middle school called me last week and asked if I would be interested in coming in to talk to the eighth grade class at their upcoming career day. Of course I would love to do that, but it raises an interesting challenge for me. You see, I’m not exactly sure how to explain what exactly it is that I do.

A couple of years ago, in a post titled “My Dad is a Knowledge Worker,” I addressed basically the same question:

When my kids were finally old enough to ask me what I do, I told them simply, “I figure out how to solve problems.” That seemed to satisfy them, at least for now. Trying to explain to friends what I do everyday is a bit more difficult. When asked, I usually give my official job title, Systems Engineer. Of course, that instantly begs the question, “OK, but what do you do?”

I recently tried to explain, without much success I think, what I do at the most recent St. Louis Idea Market using only a diagram (visualization exercise) and 5 words or less. Yeah, right.

I asked my son for advice on what to say, what he thought would be something that he and his classmates would like to hear. He’s going to get back to me. I’m starting to think that instead of addressing my current job, it may be more useful to talk about how I got to where I am. After all, these kids are going to be much more interested in how to get started than in where they’re going to be when they are in their 40’s (man, that’s old!)

Any suggestions are greatly appreciated.

Use it or Lose it

“You’ve forgotten a lot of things you used to know, haven’t you Dad?”

This astute observation from my son came at the end of an interesting conversation we had about lunar eclipses. We were driving east on I-44 in Southwest Missouri as the sun went down in the rear-view mirror. A short time later, we saw the moon coming out from behind some hills in front of us.

When I pointed the moon out to my son, he said, “It’s supposed to be a full moon tonight.” Which was odd, since what we saw appeared to be a crescent moon. “Maybe it’s just blocked by some clouds,” I tried, not really believing it myself.

Not long after, we stopped for gas. On getting back in the car, we noticed that the moon was now a “half-crescent,” something that doesn’t normally occur. Knowing now that it wasn’t the clouds I offered the only explanation I could think of – a lunar eclipse.

I explained that the shadow on the moon was actually the shadow of the earth. Having never experienced one, and obviously never exposed to it in science class, he asked what, to me, was the best question possible: How exactly do eclipses work?

I won’t bother you with the details of the discussion that followed, but we got to the point where I had to say, “I used to know how to figure that out, but I’ve forgotten.” Which, I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, led to the question I opened this post with.

Part of it may be me getting old, but I think it mostly comes down to the old saying: Use it or Lose it. Mastery – fluency – in any pursuit requires constant practice. And one of the most important things that we can master, and thus continually practice, is the ability and desire to ask questions, to figure out how the world around us works.

For a lot of great photos of the 03 March 07 total lunar eclipse from around the world, check out the ‘loony’ group on flickr.

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