We know the feeling: Standing in the cereal aisle, or before the maddeningly long rack of cold medicines, frozen by the overwhelming number of choices. Can’t there be just three choices? Fiber-filled, healthy, or frosted. Good, better, best. Too much really is too much!
I was asked to talk recently about Personal Knowledge Mastery (PKM) practice, curation and the ability to sort through the overwhelming amount of content that streams at us constantly. One sincere listener mentioned that while he spends time and energy clipping useful articles and organizing content into folders, he knows he’ll never have time to go back and examine all the saved content and sort through it all to find the nuggets of potentially useful ideas.
My response to him was that it doesn’t matter. The room fell silent (as I hoped) and opened the door to explain in further detail. (Side note: If you ever want to get a room of serious-mined people to pay attention to a particular point, set it up with “What you do doesn’t matter,” or “What you know is not important.” Provocative, and engaging!)
In the digital age, the social age, or what I call The Learning Age, what you save in a file somewhere really doesn’t matter. Saving clippings in a file folder or, more recently, on a digital drive somewhere, is a bygone mindset for a world in which content was scarce and locating something on a particular subject was difficult and time-consuming.
We now live in an age of abundance and constant choice. It’s all available at our fingertips, and anyone with even the most basic digital literacy skills can find just about anything. As an example, I had foot surgery last year: Not only could I look up my diagnosis, I watched videos, in fascination and horror, of the actual surgical procedures. Bone saws and drills. NOT recommended!
The critical practice of our age is not finding and saving content, it’s curating, sense-making and sharing. That is, it’s a new practice.
Step 1. Make a decision. Act. Looking for something on topic “X” gets 500 results. There is no way you’ll ever know which few will make the most sense or prove to be the most immediately useful to you. Skim and choose one (or two or three). The decision is the first step of the practice. There is no right or wrong decision, only the act (with apologies to Yoda). Also, note how you made the decision – the reasons, the decision-making criteria – so that it also becomes part of the practice.
Step 2. As you read (or watch, or listen), note how it relates to what you already know, or do, or think. Even if you don’t find the immediate use that you may had originally hoped, relate it to other thoughts and ideas. (If you can’t, toss it.) Content is relational and contextual, and how your mind makes those connections is critical to PKM practice. “This relates to that, reminds me of this, and here’s why.” Putting new information into context: That’s learning. Be creative, metaphorical, and experimental. Tag it with whatever taxonomy terms makes sense at the time (it may change later – don’t be rigid).
Step 3: Share it, and by “it” I mean the content, your notes on the context, and the tags: All of it! Make it visible to you (later) and to others in your organization and your Personal Learning Network (PLN). Rely on social media (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) and curation tools (Scoop.it, Feedly, Storify, Evernote, Delicious, etc.) to share it with whomever will find it. The technology you use is unimportant. The practice is the key. (I happen to like scoop.it because it’s easy to write your notes with each share, and invite others to do the same. Use what you like and what works for you.)
Step 4: Let the network do the work. Once you begin to form your own Personal Learning Network (PLN) through social media and in-person connections, they will share with you, comment on your shares and patterns will emerge. You’ll find those people whose content you trust, and in turn connect with who they trust. You will increasingly find relevant content—because you are getting better at contextualizing and sense-making – making Step 1 less and less necessary. You’ll find that the content you find through your PLN comes preloaded with contextual relevance because it is from/through the network you are building: Your own network of people, ideas and applications.
Step 5: Practice. It’s a practice, so, you know, practice! This is not a just-in-time activity to do at the moment of need. In order to build your sense-making capabilities, this becomes a part of the way you work. It requires pruning, nurturing, adding and subtracting. Your PLN and the ways you make sense of ideas will shift over time. That’s learning! Don’t be rigid: Learn to trust the system you’ve created.
In the end, the important thing is making the initial decision, learning what you can from it and moving forward. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself relating back to a few core ideas time and again, anchoring learning in principles and allowing for deep exploration without completely losing your bearings.
Happy exploring! (Oh, and choose the healthy cereal, except on your birthday. Then, frosted all the way!)