Monday, April 04, 2011

Preparing For Serendipity - A Crucial Knowledge Work Skill

Before I begin today's blogpost, I have to mention the biggest event in Indian cricketing history over the last three decades or so. India won the 2011 Cricket World Cup on Saturday and what a win it was! The eleven played like true champions against a tough opposition and at the end of it came out on top. For my non-Indian readers here's a moment for you to accidentally discover how big a deal this is in India. People actually took to the streets in celebration. If you bump into me over the next few days, you're likely to hear me talk about this win so bear with me please.

Speaking of accidental discovery brings me to what I want to write about today. We're uncomfortable with accidents and uncertainty. That being said, a lot of social media based learning solutions rely on serendipity and chance discovery. Serendipity is quite a counterintuitive phenomenon. How do you know that you'll know the important stuff? Most of us from the '70s and the '80s have grown up on a diet of structured media, whether through the web or through books, magazines and education. New media on the other hand accelerates content creation in such a big way that traditional structure is destined to fall behind. A week or so back I wrote an article about the shape of knowledge management in the age of social media. Today I want to talk about the personal mindset that each knowledge worker needs to really exploit this rich, diverse, yet often confusing information explosion.

We ask for structure, but do we really need it?

It's amazing that when on company intranets, people expect structure whereas when on the internet, people don't even imagine browsing. It's no surprise that several people actually use Google as their homepage or as a means to start navigating the web. Why then, is search a counter-intuitive beginning to people's intranet experience. Granted that most intranet searches are just bad, but let's assume you could be confident that the information you're looking for exists, and there's a good search that can find stuff. People still find it tough to start with search. I believe there's a reason for this. Traditionally, company intranets had finite amounts of information. It's easy to build a taxonomy around this finite information and organise it in a browseable sitemap. With modern social intranets content creation explodes in such a big way that it's a bit foolish to even attempt structures. The only structures that survive are the ones that emerge ground up through metadata. Social media does it's bit to help search on the internet as well. Whether we like it or not we constantly keep accidentally discovering stuff on the internet, through various social networks. The constant discoveries help us know in our subconscious mind that we can actually find something if we tried.

Don't drink from a firehose, just sit by a stream
"Its a river of information, dip your foot in whenever its convenient." - Leo Laporte
The fact is that with modern social networks, serendipity is a knowledge guarantee but it needs mental preparation. It may seem that if someone provides you packaged, neatly organised content then you'll be happy, but the reality is quite the contrary. Let's forget about social media for a while. Regardless of how avid a news reader you are, it's perhaps tough for you to keep up with all the news in the world. Depending on the kind of news you're interested in, you perhaps customise your news intake. Not many people read the entire newspaper. Think of a time when you missed an important piece of news. Not many people really sweat over this, because if the news is really important, someone will tell you about it. Social media is quite like news. As Laporte says, it's a river of information. When you sit by a river, you don't try to drink all the water that's flowing by. You dip in your toe when it makes sense for you. But then what if you miss something? This is where you handle your learning just the way you handle news. If it's important, your connections will tell you. This is where having personal learning network (PLN) that you can trust, makes sense.

It's not information overload, its filter failure
Clay Shirky said a few years back, "It's no information overload, it's filter failure." If the current information explosion was really a bad thing then the converse, an absolute lack of information, would make us happy, wouldn't it? Now that seems odd - I guess no one would be happy with that. Shirky's right then - the filters are crucial. As I explained in my last article, we're so individualistic these days that another person's organisation of content hardly ever makes sense to us. On the other hand if we have right filters, we can create a structure that makes sense to us and is tailored to our needs. And by the way, sometimes the best filter is another person on your PLN who you can trust. Just as we trust our friends to remind us of important news we've missed, we leverage our PLN to find the the learning that's important.

If you still need structure, the tools are out there
Once you know what filters make sense for you, there are several tools and services that can create meaningful structure around that filter. My latest favourite is Flipboard on the iPad (see screenshot above) though apps like Zite are worthy competitors. The truth is that you don't need a fancy iPad to provide you the right kind of organisation. Web services like paper.li can help you create really nice, structure around important information. Google Reader can give you some really interesting visualisation around your RSS feeds. Heck, there are thousands of applications and services just around Twitter. The key is to pick the services you care for, decide on the filters that make sense to you and follow the people that really matter. From that point you just need to trust that the important information will come to you. Just believe!
Ever since Jay Cross wrote his book on Informal Learning, several people have spoken about the need to 'formalise informal learning'. I think that's just absolute rubbish. Informal learning benefits from the natural connections amongst people and the serendipity it fosters. "Formal informal learning" is the biggest oxymoron on the planet, I'm sorry! In my view the fact is that if you can't prepare for serendipity, you're not ready for the 21st century workplace. Structure makes sense when you're dealing with a finite amount of information. The only way through constantly growing information sources, is to be able to develop the skills of personal knowledge management and sense making. If I was hiring someone today, this would be a primary skill I'd look for.
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21 comments:

Kelly said...

Thanks as always for a thought-provoking post! And congratulations on the India win. It got a lot of coverage in the U.S.- seems like a very exciting occasion.

The key to successful curation for me has been increasingly using twitter to find the articles, blogs and studies I wish to read, at the expense of my reliance on my Google Reader. Of course, this means I have an ever expanding network and set of resources - so the curation battle is ongoing.

The most useful tool for me in creating my own personal resource library is using Evernote to clip webpages, take notes and save photos of whiteboard notes and the like. The combination of features (tagging, sharing notebooks) makes it very easy to organize my own library.

Dennis Callahan said...

I like the water and sipping comparison too. I call my structure learnstreaming.

The filtering of content is a key component of sitting by the stream. Social media is one type of content to be filtered. There are other types and there will always be unfiltered content that enters the water. In the end (as you mention), we need to create a structure to help us take advantage of the information and people available to us.

You might find this interesting -
Learnstreaming Presentation

Thanks for sharing. This was helpful!

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