What we need are knowledge curators, not managers

The concept of “knowledge curator” has been creeping slowly from the back of my mind to the front over the past couple of years, and received a couple of jolts over the weekend that resulted in one of those elusive “aha moments”.

What we need are curators of knowledge,
not managers of knowledge.

First, I noticed the blurb “curated content from Flickr” when I used the Flickr module on a Squidoo lens.

Second was a quote from Liz Danzico (that I found via Signal vs. Noise blog).

A portfolio of work is a curated experience. … but oftentimes, a portfolio only contains final pieces, as applicants are overly concerned about presenting perfection. Polish doesn’t communicate process though, and therefore I’m left with only part of the story. Messy problems — and how applicants work through them — can show a great deal more in a portfolio than one finished, airtight solution.

I didn’t know it at the time,but this all started back in November 2005 with an article titled Technology makes it easy to ‘remember,’ the trick is learning how to forget, in which I wrote:

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.) … 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 we forget all this knowledge we’ve accumulated that we no longer need so we can focus on what we do need?”

I also noted a quote from the book The Trouble with Tom by Paul Collins related to the need to “eliminate” memories:

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.

It was this latter quote that was in my mind last summer when, in The importance of forgetting,  I wrote about John Medina’s thoughts on the question of memory and forgetting in Brain Rules:

The last step in declarative processing is forgetting. The reason forgetting plays a vital role in our ability to function is deceptively simple. Forgetting allows us to prioritize events. Those events that are irrelevant to our survival will take up wasteful cognitive space if we assign them the same priority as events critical to our survival.

As I noted then, this is no less true in the organizational context of knowledge/concept work.

Simply capturing everything in document repositories and best practices, without the ability to forget – or supercede – any of it, takes up a lot of “cognitive space” that organizations could be putting to other wise good use.

The trick is figuring out how to forget, and how to figure out what to forget.

Simplifying the execution of complexity

My review of Atul Gawande’s latest book The Checklist Manifesto focused, by design, on the broad scope of the book. Within that “big picture” lesson, though, are many smaller, more specific lessons to be learned.

For example:

No, the real lesson is that under conditions of true complexity – where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns – efforts to dictate every step from the center will fail. People need room to act and adapt. Yet they cannot succeed as isolated individuals, either – that is anarchy….

[U]nder conditions of complexity, not only are checklists a help, they are required for success. There must always be room for judgment, but judgment aided – and even enhanced – by procedure.

During this discussion, he refers back to what he had learned from the skyscraper-building industry, that they had figured out how to put an understanding of complexity into a series of checklists. That they had, in Gawande’s words, “made the reliable management of complexity a routine.”

What makes this even more fascinating is how the checklist, the lowly checklist that Steven Levitt had no interest in (until reading this book), can help simplify the execution of complexity even when the team members have never before worked together.

Just think what they could do for a team that works together all the time.

Are you just acting, or do you really know what you are doing?

The Ultimate Matrix CollectionI love the Matrix movies. All three of them. (Four if you count Animatrix.) As someone interested in learning and knowledge management, I find the whole idea of being able to simply download knowledge and really, truly learn how to do something very cool. Need to know how to fly a helicopter off a roof and across the city? There’s an app for that.

Compare this to the process that the actors went through to be able to provide convincing performances of these skills.  The actors trained for several months in order to obtain a sufficient level of physical readiness, then learned some basic martial arts skills. Hong Kong director and fight choreographer Yuen Woo Ping created the fight sequences, which the actors then learned.

From a knowledge management perspective, this is an excellent comparison of tacit vs. explicit knowledge.

The fight choreographers developed the fight scenes, then made the “knowledge” of the fight (in this case the choreography) explicit so the actors could “learn” the fight. But, and here is the important part, the actors did not learn “how to fight” but rather “how to perform the fight” for the film. They were acting on explicit knowledge, but it never really became “tacit.”

On the other hand, the stunt men portraying the bad guys obviously had the tacit knowledge of how to fight – you can see it in how they carry themselves and the weapons. For them, it was a matter of taking the new choreography and incorporating it into what they already knew.

From a learning perspective this shows the difference between what Carol Dweck refers to as performance goals and learning goals. Quoted in Dan Pink‘s new book Drive Dweck says, “Both goals are entirely normal and nearly universal, and both can fuel achievement.”

Inside the Matrix, the goals are learning goals. The characters need to actually learn the skills they need. For the actors, the goals were performance goals. Not what you’d call easy, but much easier than actually learning the martial arts and engaging in fights with other masters.

In your job, are you  an  “actor”, trying to provide a performance that follows the script and meets the approval of “the audience.” Or are you a master, continually learning and improving and getting done what needs to get done?

Some new thoughts on “my dad is a knowledge worker”

Several years ago (has it really been almost 5 years?!?) I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek blog post entitled “My dad is a knowledge worker“:

While I was reading Martin Roell’s Terminology: “Knowledge Worker”, a TV commercial I saw a while back came to mind: elementary school students were telling the class what their dads did for a living, and after a couple of well defined jobs (policemen, construction, etc.) were announced one boy proudly stood up and stated, “My dad’s a pencil pusher!” I don’t remember what the commercial was for, but the imagery stuck with me I think for the same reason Geoffrey Rockwell, as described by Martin, doesn’t like the term “knowledge worker”: the job title gives you no real idea of what the job is.

Apropos of what I’m not entirely sure, but this old post came to mind earlier today when I was thinking about some ideas related to Work Literacy.  It occurred to me that calling someone – say a Systems Engineer like me – a “knowledge worker” would be like calling Albert Pujols an “athlete”.  (Not that I’m comparing myself to Albert!)

Sure, he is an athlete, but he is a very specific type of athlete, in a sport that requires a very specific set of skills and experiences. You can not get across what he does, or what he must be able to do, with a generic description of “athlete”. Like all athletes, though, there is a core set of skills and abilities that Pujols must have simply to be able to consider participating as an athlete in his specific sport. Fitness, endurance, flexibility, etc., all things common to most athletes.

In the same way, each individual knowledge/concept worker is a very specific type of k/c worker, requiring a very specific set of skills and experiences in order to do the work they do.  But like athletes, there is a core set of skills and abilities that anyone who would be a k/c worker must have. And that core set of skills and abilities is, I believe, what the term “work literacy” should encompass.

The question then, of course, is what makes up this core set of skills and abilities?

(As you may be thinking, I am not the first to raise this question – visit WorkLiteracy.com for more on the subject. On completing this post, I realized that it was simply my way of putting the question into a context that made sense to me.  I hope it makes sense to you, too.)

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

As a follow up to my last post, The importance of forgetting, it seemed appropriate to republish the following, which I originally posted in March 2007.

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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.

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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The importance of forgetting

Yesterday I mentioned that one of my key mind mapping tools is Personal Brain.  If you’ve ever used the Brain, you know that “mind map” is a bit of an understatement of its capabilities and how easy it is to accumulate a lot of knowledge and interconnected information.  Over the past couple of years my work project brain has proven invaluable for me and my team as a way to collect important information, documents, and – best of all – connections between the disparate parts of the project.

I’m at a point now, though, where the project is going through significant changes, almost to the point of being a “new” project. My dilemma: How to “forget” the parts of the old project that are no longer important and start with an “empty mind” to build up the new project without the baggage of the old.

In his book Brain Rules, author John Medina writes, “It’s easy to remember, and easy to forget, but figuring out what to remember and what to forget is not nearly so easy.” Later in the book, Medina describes why forgetting is so important:

The last step in declarative processing is forgetting.  The reason forgetting plays a vital role in our ability to function is deceptively simple. Forgetting allows us to prioritize events.  Those events that are irrelevant to our survival will take up wasteful cognitive space if we assign them the same priority as events critical to our survival.

This is no less true in the context of knowledge/concept work.

Fortunately, the Brain allows you to forget “thoughts” without deleting them altogether.  Unfortunately (for some), the Brain doesn’t offer any help on which thoughts to forget and which to remember.

That’s completely up to me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lessons from mind mapping the cars of the world

A mind map is a great tool, and mind maps should be a key part of any knowledge/concept worker’s tool kit.  To supplement the hand drawn maps that are scattered throughout my notebooks and across whiteboards, I primarily use two pieces of mind mapping software:  MindManager (Pro 6) and Personal Brain (5).  (In the interest of completeness, Inspiration also has a home here in the Miller household, used by the boys for their school work.)

Recently I’ve been working on a mind map of the Cars of the World (personal, not work related). When I first started the map, in Mind Manager, it seemed like it would be a pretty straightforward exercise. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this might not be as straightforward as I originally thought.

My original intent was to simply provide a kind of “quick reference guide” for my son to the makes and models of cars typically seen in the US. I envisioned what would essentially amount to a big poster of cars, and chose MindManager to execute.  My first thought was to have countries as the first sub-topic level, but a quick hand-sketched map convinced me that I should have the continents as the first level with the countries at the second level, and the car make/model falling under that.

Here’s a snapshot of part of that map so far (it is, to put it mildly, a work in progress). Click on the map for full-size image, or here for the MindManager .mmap file:

cotw-snapshot

As seen in the snapshot above, I started out by simply listing the various brands of cars associated with a given country. For the European brands, this worked out OK since no one country has an excessive number of unique car brands.  This is not the case, however, in the United States or Japan where there are many (many) different car brands. Subsequently, the list of brands shown on the map under the U.S. and Japan were quite lengthy. Having lived in the U.S. all my life, it was easy for me to further divide the various U.S. brands into parent companies, I’m sure the same can be done for the Japanese brands.

The snapshots below give an idea of how the two options look on the map.

cotw-north-america-and-asia

Of course, once you start bringing the actual car companies into the discussion the question of how to represent takes a whole new turn.  For example, Chrysler is indeed a US company, but as a result of recent events is now owned by Fiat, and Italian company.  Obviously it doesn’t make sense in the context of this map to move Chrysler and its brands under Italy on the map, any more than moving the Opel (Germany) or Holden (Australia) brands to the U.S. because they are owned by GM (at least, I think GM still owns them).

Mind Manager does have some tools that allow you to connect and establish relationships between individual topics, but I found that to really track and display a large number of relationships and groupings of topics The Personal Brain is a more useful tool.  I threw together a quick brain showing some of the relationships I’ve mentioned, unfortunately my Brain 5 trial has expired and it looks like I’ll have to either reinstall v4.5 or buy 5 before I can export to HTML and post it here.

Like I said at the beginning, mind maps are an effective tool.  As this “simple” project shows, though, you still need to put a little bit of thought into exactly which type of mind map tool you use and how you actually use the tool to come up with your desired product.

Cynefin, concept work, and the role of deliberate practice

Over the past week or so there have been several blogs that have helped me pull together a bunch of things I’ve been trying to connect in my mind for a while.

First was Harold Jarche’s post Working Together, in which he looked at Shawn Callahan’s ideas on group work against the backdrop of Tom Haskins discussion of the Cynefin and TIMN frameworks. Next was Tony Karrer and Ken Allan‘s discussion of the role of deliberate practice in the development of skills less than that of an expert, based on Tony’s question:

Any thoughts on how deliberative practice relates to becoming something less than an expert.  It seems it should be applicable to all levels of achievement, but everything I’m reading is the study of becoming an expert.  Is that just aspirational, or is deliberative practice also studied for quick attainment of proficiency?

Read Tony and Ken’s posts, along with the comments, for all the discussion including my comment:

…the application of deliberate practice is not the most efficient way to achieve basic proficiency, even though it would be effective. As proficiency turns into literacy and then mastery, I think that deliberate practice becomes not just the most effective way but the most efficient as well.

After some thought, and several pages of scribbles, scratches, and doodles in my notebook, I put together the following table that pulls together several different topics using Cynefin as a guide.

cynefin-concept-work

The first two columns come directly from the definition of the Cynefin framework. I had just a bit of trouble in the third column, primarily in trying to figure out what the best term would be to carry out “simple” work tasks.  I’m not completely happy with the term “assembly line”, but I think it gets the idea across. I am open to any suggestions to improve this.

I was also not quite sure about the use of the terms in the “Skill Level” column, specifically the order of “fluency” and “literacy”.  Again, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this.

The heart of the table, especially as it applies to the original question that Tony asked, is the column “How to Achieve”.  Various levels of deliberate practice could have been included in each row, but in looking at each level of complexity as a stand-alone level it seems to me for the “simple” and “complicated” tasks that deliberate practice, at least as defined by Geoff Colvin in “Secrets of Greatness” and the more in-depth Talent is Overrated, is overkill. And probably an unreasonable expectation to have of people who just want to do their job and go home, which is more typical of those performing this type of work.

It is once you move into the area of complex and chaotic work that the benefits gained from deliberate practice are needed, in fact necessary.  Not only must you be able to apply what is already known in ways that have already been identified, you need to be able to learn new things and figure out how to apply them in new ways. That is the nature of mastery, and the ultimate result of deliberate practice.

Cool phrase of the day: Effective Efficiency

In a post earlier today, Jack Vinson reflects on six years of his blog Knowledge Jolt.  Jack was one of the first bloggers I ever followed and was one of the reasons I first started blogging, also nearly six years ago in June 2003.

I’ve had a bit of a blogging-block of late (I blame Twitter), so I thought I’d take the occassion of the upcoming anniversary of my first blog post to revisit my earlier blogs and repost (with maybe a little editing) my favorites in the hopes that this may get the juices flowing again.  It is fitting that this first one, originally posted on 1 Dec 05, was inspired, in part, by Jack.

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Cool phrase of the day: Effective Efficiency

Effective efficiency from Frank Patrick’s Focused Performance Weblog[The Focused Performance Weblog is still up and running, but the article I originally linked to doesn’t seem to be there anymore.  Odd.  -gbm ]

Jack Vinson and Jim McGee presented a session at BlawgThink about how knowledge management and collaboration affect productivity and process, which I like to look at as effectiveness and efficiency. (Now you know why the phrase appeals to me so much.)

BlawgThink attendee Jeffrey Phillips has also written a bit about process, etc in several posts: Sometimes process doesn’t matter and Actively Unhelpful are two that have caught my eye in recent days.

In the old days of the Industrial Age the relationship between efficiency and effectiveness was, for the most part, a linear one: the more efficient you were, the more effective (productive) you were. [It would probably be more accurate to say, “..the more effective you could be.”  -gbm] Even in the information age there are some activities which are, in essence, information assembly lines in which this relationship holds.

True knowledge work (whatever that is), however, seems to me to have an inverse relationship between efficiency and effectiveness. In other words, the more efficient a process the less room there is for the “waste” that is necessary to support innovation.

I don’t believe this is a straight linear relationship, though, nor is it likely a purely exponential relationship. Somewhere along the line, there is a spike that shows the optimum amount of efficiency to achieve maximum effectiveness in a given knowledge activity. (Note that, unlike an assembly line situation where most situations are very similar, true knowledge activities are almost always unique.)

Of course, this all goes back to what exactly we mean by knowledge work. There, I think more than anywhere, the definition of “productivity” and “effectiveness” is truly in the eye of the beholder.

Do you have a coach? Do you need a coach?

If you ask a competitive athlete if they have / need a coach the answers will likely range from “Yes” to “Of course” to “Are you kidding?”. If you ask a knowledge worker, or concept worker, the same question the answers will likely range from “No” to “Huh?” to “Are you kidding?” Obviously, the “Are you kidding” answer has very different meanings in the two different contexts.

I’ve often wondered why this is: why is it acceptable, expected even, that athletes have and need coaches but considered a luxury if someone has a work/life coach and actually a detriment – a sign of weakness – if someone wants or needs a work/life coach?

The discussion around a recent question on LinkedIn got me thinking about this again:

Q: If you can’t afford a coach, what are you doing to support your professional growth?
A: I love (?) the assumptive nature of this question: that everyone needs a coach;…  Do professionals need coaches? No, certainly not.

The answer I quote above is just part of one response, but nearly all of the answers (so far) seem to dismiss the idea that a professional coach is desirable or needed.  The alternatives range from talk with friends, study the success of others, and read and continue to develop your knowledge on the subject of your job.

Going back to the world of sports, such an approach would be a sure path to the loser’s circle (unless you are Roger Federer, of course).  What is it about our work as professionals in business that makes us different from the work of professionals in sports?