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From Auckland, a charge to curate

24 Jul

Nigel Young, a professional colleague via my Twitter PLN, pointed me to a live broadcast from eLearnz 2015, a New Zealand eLearning conference that I could watch while at my desk in Portland, Oregon. Randomly, and quite fortunately, I saw some of Nigel Paine’s remarks. (A classic case of serendipity, but that’s a topic for another time!)

Wait! I was watching a live broadcast of a conference happening in as far away place as could possibly be! That, in itself, should highlight how very different our world has become. But, that’s not what I want to discuss in this current post — just a rather amazing set up.

A comment he made, among many important comments on MOOCs, neuroscience and some serious debunking of “rubbish,” that really made me sit up and pay attention was his discussion of the wastefulness of content creation for almost all learning programs.

L & D, training providers and their kin serve their clients’ needs, whether they’re internal or external. As a service provider, I think we do our clients a disservice if our first thought is to

Create your own learning boutique from the abundance around us. Or better yet, let your learners put together the collection themselves!

Create your own learning boutique from the abundance around us. Or better yet, let your learners put together the collection themselves!

create something new for the learning need (real or imagined). For the vast majority of topics, there is nothing we could create that does not already exist. Like a good librarian or boutique shopkeeper, the value is in the careful curation of artifacts that take the customer (learner) on a journey of discovery. If I ask a librarian to help me learn to fix my bicycle, I certainly would not expect him to write me a guidebook! He will find the best existing materials to recommend.

As Nigel Paine said, people will yawn their way through a corporate training event, and, later that evening, happily turn to YouTube to repair their dishwasher. Can’t we learn from this new reality? The feeling among some of our colleagues is that our learning problems are so complex, so unique that no video or website could adequately address them. That may be, but in aggregate of sources, via a collection of various bits and parts? I’m guessing we could get just about all the way there. Our own sense of importance becomes our blinders.

The key is to make sense of the overabundance that exists in our digital, connected world. The skills adults need to find, connect, synthesize and share content are not instinctive. It’s not a matter of some “having the knack” and others out of luck. It’s a learned skillset.

Taking this to its logical conclusion: For your next learning activity, direct your cohort to curate their own resources. I had discussed this once before, in a much earlier post. While my thinking and practice have evolved quite a bit in the two years since then, I think that the idea remains valid. By learners curating their own learning, then sharing it back with a cohort, it allows for learning skills, reflection, demonstration, defense, social interaction. That’s how people learn!

You’ll not only have a great collection of learning resources, but you’ll help your learners learn the skills of the digital age at the same time. Oh, and you save your client a lot of time and money, too.

Expertise and Novelty: Taking action when facing the unknown

12 Jun

I have come to rely on and enjoy several regularly occurring Twitterstorms (or chats, or flurries – there are several terms I’ve seen applied). Last month I was particularly drawn to one of my favorite events, #lrnchat (“learn chat”), which centered on the idea of expertise. And, while I was unable to participate in real time–I was in Japan at the time–one of the beauties of the Twitterstorm is that it lives on for all to return to even if someone is unable to participate live. Indeed, it is one of the greatest things about our digital-social learning age that the lines between “live” events and persistent online conversation are blurred. It’s easy to find the transcript of the May 21, 2015, #lrnchat session, and there is nothing that prevents me from adding to it and responding to particular comments or questions long after the storm has passed.

The topic of expertise and authority relates to a post I wrote a few weeks ago in which I used chess as a paradigm for understanding and applying principles in novel situations. And I got to thinking: That is the essence of expertise.

An expert is not someone who is able to replicate (even) complex tasks as a result of practice and repetition. An expert is someone who can draw on what they’ve gained from practice and repetition as it applies to unexpected situations and complex problems that have either not been tackled before or that, through creative insight, are wholly new ideas to test.

So, what does expertise entail?

Right. As Harold Jarche, Jane Hart, and others have written recently, as we move to a workplace where machines perform most routine tasks, expertise will be the essential skill for tackling the remainder: complexity, novelty, inference, and creativity.

Which brings us back to chess (or poker, or tennis, or sailing, or just about any domain you can think of). What is an expert player? Expertise is not about mastering and executing complex moves. I can learn how to perform backward pawn structure or the double fork attack, but that won’t make me an expert. Expertise is knowing when to perform these tactics given the novelty of every chess situation. An expert is comfortable with experimentation and creativity, failure and success, experimentation and continuous learning. An expert has insight into a problem that eludes others. Expertise, then, is more akin to a sage or guru.

Therein lies our challenge: How do we build organizations of sages, gurus and visionaries? The second salient answer to emerge from the #lrnchat session gets us a good distance down that road. In the digital world, our networks are repositories on which to draw expertise and our digital skills bring the gurus down from the mountain top to be accessible to all:

Earlier this year, Dion Hinchcliffe outlined a set of essential digital workforce skills, and among them were PKM (Personal Knowledge Mastery), transparency and “working out loud” – all part of building and sharing expertise. In short, it is incumbent that modern workers/learners concentrate of building personal expertise in their field, with a mindset that values deep understanding over a particular set of skills. Acting decisively in the void of the unknown is the essence of expertise.

Authority rests now with those who can lead with expertise and generosity, and who freely share without hesitation or expectation of immediate return. The question becomes, in what domain(s) are you building your expertise? And, how are you sharing it?

Abundance and Choices: Make the decision and move on

22 Apr

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 (, 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 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.

Ben's PKM ProcessIn 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!)

Mind Maps, Mental Geography, and a New Compass

4 Mar

Whether we are aware of it or not, we all carry a sense of place for ourselves and how/where we fit in to our workplace, professional networks of colleagues, and social circles. Most of us move through our careers making decisions big and small based on how we perceive that mental geography.

For most of us, the traditional map is some variation of hierarchy, departmentalization, and areas of influence. I manage this project, those people; I am managed by her and I belong to that department; I provide service for them but have little influence over what they do and how they do it. As with all creations of our mind, the reality of that geography may have never reflected what could or should be, but hierarchy and silos made sense in a world of traditional leadership and departmentalization.

That world is shifting digital sand under our feet. With the advent of digital communication and open networks, our ability to lead, follow, influence, and be influenced has never been more fluid. The anxiety that individuals and organizations feel over the last several years reflects the loss of the map that has served us, and with it our understanding of our place.

Each node can find each other, be it person, data, server; internal or external to an organization.

Each node can find each other, be it person, data, server; internal or external to an organization.

We now live in a networked age. We are all increasingly interconnected with, by, and through each other and with information that ricochets around us at nearly imperceptible speeds. Hierarchy is giving way to wireachy. A new mental map forms, where people, data, and ideas are all vectors that connect or deflect in reaction to each other. The hierarchy that was so effective in amassing the troops and directing activities is giving way to something quite different.

Once we grok this new geography of the digital age, our anxiety (hopefully) gives way to a world of possibility. “Leaders” (C-levels, principals, independent consultants/contractors) begin to realize that they cannot and should not attempt to oversee actions, and “workers” understand that theirs is not to wait to act on orders but rather to discover, filter, learn, synthesize, and share by what becomes a Personal Knowledge Mastery (PKM) practice . We are level on the flat plane of the network age. (Read a terrific background and personal discovery story of PKM by Harold Jarche.)

Our primary activity is to learn. Whatever our job is today will be different tomorrow. Those who cling to “this is how we do it here” will be increasingly isolated and frustrated. Those who become continuous learners and flexible actors will be in position to thrive.

This new Learning Age perhaps requires not a map at all, but a compass. In a flat landscape without rivers to cross and mountains to climb, we need a direction in which to head and the agency and autonomy to find our own ways. Leaders will still set the necessary vectors and create a compass for all in an organization to follow, but individuals are free to explore, fail, succeed, and learn with shifting collaboration and cooperation as the moment warrants.

Learning professionals have an essential role to play. While a small percentage of people are already setting their compass and navigating the network, most don’t have the mental geography or digital skills to learn, influence, and make sense of the new reality. Learning is not only essential, but so too is learning to learn—and relearn—the recursions of modern digital work. We need to step up and show people how navigate.

Knowledge led people to change from reading the stars for fate to instead use them for navigation. Hmmm … nodes in the network resemble stars in the sky. Yes, recursion.

“Technology” does not have a multitasking problem. Multitasking has a multitasking problem.

20 Feb

Any tool is a weapon — if you hold it right. Ani DiFranco

The problem with our always-on digital world is that everyone is trying to multitask. The less technology you use, the less that will be a problem. Or, so many people will tell you.


Technology has nothing, or at least very little, to do with it. Don’t blame the sunset for distracting you from your work. Anyone who does good productive, creative, inventive, inspirational work is able to solve this problem. By scientific definition, the executive function to focus on completing a task successfully precludes multitasking (from technology, or any other source). Executive function can only handle one problem at a time. (Oh, but were we wired otherwise!) So, the issue is not multitasking, but distraction.

Those who are easily distracted today by Twitter and Angry Birds and Facebook and Game of War are easily distractible. That is not a technology issue. (I freely admit I am easily distractible, too!) We all had friends in school who would suddenly fall behind the group, having stopped to observe an ant hill or sunlight through leaves or a pretty attraction, some object of desire. Same as it ever was.

What has changed is the manifestation of our distraction, in plain sight for all to see: those darn phones! When I am with my wife at a restaurant, she can (usually!) tell if my mind is off somewhere else, undeterred that she is trying to have a conversation. This is human nature. However, if I am equally (or even less!) distracted by looking at my phone, be it a text message or solitaire, she is all the more annoyed and lets me know in no uncertain terms. I can’t say I blame her—I feel the same way.

So, it is more the case that phones signal to others that we are not on the task we are supposed to be on, be it work or socializing. Ah, but the temptation is always there, that constant siren song of distraction. Can’t that be dumbing us down into mere entertainment consumers when we could have be having deep thoughts? As a recent New York Times op-ed column highlights:

The direst prediction offered by digital critics—our phones are really pocket-size deep fryers for the mind—may be untrue, but the alternative I’ve suggested sounds nearly as bad. The appetite for endless entertainment suggests that worthier activities will be shoved aside. We may buy Salman Rushdie’s book, but we’ll end up sucked in by Flappy Bird.

However, it goes on:

That doesn’t quite seem to be the case, either. Research shows, for example, that the amount of leisure reading hasn’t changed with the advent of the digital age. Before we congratulate ourselves, though, let’s acknowledge that brainier hobbies have never been that popular. There have always been ways to kill time.

And so we arrive at the point of interest. Our devices are not going away, nor all the “unproductive” ways we use them. Their ability to distract us seems limitless.

Woody Guthrie understood that an instrument or tool's power lay in the hands of the user.

Woody Guthrie understood that an instrument or tool’s power lay in the hands of the user.

However, their ability to engage us is equally limitless!

They can take our notes, capture our thoughts, connect to people and ideas, and answer our pressing questions, large and small. As with any tool that we have ever made for ourselves, from the wheel to the PC, it is only as productive as the person using it.

Productivity, creativity and motivation (or lack thereof) remain the essence of human action. I argue that as many people may be turned into entertainment-distraction zombies, an even greater number of us have been hooked into networks, hobbies, niches and communities through digital portals. I can tell you this: The hours I spent in front of the Gilligan’s Island and Hogan’s Heroes when I was a child would have been much better spent on Facebook and Twitter.

As a learning professional, I say rather than battle our little distraction machines, let’s redirect to make them little engagement machines instead. When I plan a learning experience now, I find a way to incorporate mobile devices into the flow of the activity (synchronously or asynchronously). People need to learn how to how to hold it right to make it useful for productive purposes.

Words With Friends will always be there when we need a distraction—but you can’t multitask that game, either.

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