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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?

The Right Triangle: Connecting dots on three angles, layers

8 May

It’s triangulation time again! Three distinct sources I’ve filtered through in recent weeks have started to connect in an unexpected way, and I think it’s time to explicitly connect them here. It’s Personal Knowledge Mastery (PKM) in action: filtering, sense-making, connecting, sharing.

Item #1. An NPR story about the experience of heroin addicts during—and after—the Vietnam War. The incidence of drug abuse was high for GIs in Southeast Asia, and there was a real fear they would return to the U.S. to become hundreds of thousands of addicts on the streets of our cities.

But that’s not what happened, and it rocked some fundamental thinking about the nature of addiction and habitual behavior. In fact, only 5% of heroin users continued to abuse the drug after they returned home. What researchers found is that context plays an enormous factor in habitual behavior. Once the context of the battlefield conditions was removed and soldiers returned to civilian routines, heroin use plummeted even where access to heroin was still relatively easy. Lesson #1: Context is key for habitual behavior.

Item #2: A CMS Wire article on building high-performing learning organizations came to me via my scoop.it feed. Business Consultant Edward D. Hess identifies three conditions for building high-functioning learning organizations: 1) the right people; 2) the right environment; 3) the right processes. I encourage you to read the short article, but the takeaway is that a context of innovative culture paired with intentional practices creates the conditions for high-performing learning. Lesson #2: Context needs to be paired with the right tools and processes.

Item #3: I came across a short interview with George Siemens, the godfather of Connectivism, in which he was asked to reflect on MOOCs and their efficacy (or lack thereof). His main thesis is that MOOCs deconstruct the traditional hierarchy of classroom learning {Teacher –> Content –> Students} into a network of learning in which the teacher “is a node in a network, among other nodes. They might still be a very important node, but students can learn from [other sources and each other].” In this case, the teacher needs to pay more attention to the context of learning, ensuring that the students “have the skills and capacity to learn in a networked way … to build the right kind of critical thinking skills.” Lesson #3: Network learning is a new context in which people need to learn a new set of habits.

I was asked recently to speak about how I might build an effective learning program among a geographically and culturally diverse set of learners. Without consciously drawing on these three lessons explicitly, my approach built on them.

An individual is centered on her specific skills and knowledge. Those are what create her sense of self and value to her organization. Outside of that is a layer of her measure against others and against the needs of her position. That is, her competency and her assessment of that competence against requirements and expectations. In order for her to feel growth, opportunity and fulfillment, she needs a way to map her knowledge and skills to design a path of professional growth that aligns with the needs of the organization. Lastly, the outermost layer is the context, mindset and habits (together, that is culture) that allow her to make sense of new information, add her own value to it, and share it back out to her network of other learners. This is PKM in action.

PKM, Cohort, PLN

Through the PKM lens we are able to both glean more productively with our learning cohort or formal community of practice, and form the skills and habits to learn from our constantly shifting professional learning network (PLN) – that network of nodes (people and information) that form the context of personal and organizational learning.

These three layers — workplace learning’s own rule of three — all need to be in place so that both individual and organizational learning happen.

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 (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.

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!)

I have an Idea: Now what?

31 Mar

The older I become and experience I gain, the more interesting ideas I find and (sometimes) generate. Some are silly, some (I think) are quite insightful, and other need time to marinate in the juices of other ideas and experience to even make sense.

Some ideas are immediately applicable, while others remain theoretical. Some never make it past mindful amusement, while others change personal and professional practice in meaningful and lasting ways. But even the most ethereal add value by constantly shifting the filter mechanisms through which new ideas and experiences are sorted.

I’m not exceptional in any way in this regard – pretty much everyone has ideas all the time that amuse, fascinate, and distract. I have created my own system that has been working (for me) for keeping and weighing ideas over the last several years, and it folds in nicely with the more general connectivist mindset that resonate with me. At the heart of connectivism is the idea of relativity: Ideas, knowledge, experience and actions are not absolute, but are constantly measured against past and freshly-acquired content/context. That is, we are in a constant state of recalibrating and re-measuring what we know, what we do, and what we think.

I am not a good self-organizer, and never have been. Attention to detail is not my strong suit. But, I’ve learned how to incorporate a systematic process – a PKM practice, I suppose – that works for me. Being naturally disorganized and messy, it would be a stretch to recommend what works for me to

My Scoop.It page is one place to collect and reflect on ideas.

My Scoop.IT page is one place to collect and reflect on ideas.

anyone else.

I believe the key, though, is to have a system – any system that works – and practice it faithfully. What’s more, when we capture those ideas digitally, via Evernonote file, audio “notes-to-self”, curated boards (like Pinterest or Scoop.It), Twitter favs and retweets, and so on, it becomes easy to tag, retrieve and connect. I shuffle ideas into connections via visual mind maps, with arrows, dotted lines and color codes. About once a month I do a formal iteration break, with the archives becoming a record of my idea evolution.

One other great benefit of that process is it is easily shared, too. As we are discovering, the Work Out Loud (and their corollaries Think Out Loud and Learn Out Loud) practice is a centerpiece of both personal and organizational growth.

Whatever your practice is or becomes, it is learned and constantly refined. Don’t assume that others have the skills to do this on their own. I learned from others, and I try to share with others the purpose and benefits of thinking and working in this way.

Sense-making In The Learning Age is an ongoing process, and I welcome hearing from you about how you make it work.

Eat the cookie dough! Half-baked ideas are welcome.

17 Mar

My friend David and I took an epic road trip many years ago, the kind that can only be made by the young and foolish: Chicago to New York to surprise a friend. With no more than $20 in our pockets and his grandfather’s gas card to cover expenses, we set out to the east with the sun at our backs. Oh, to be 19 again.

Food? We had the gas card. Hotels? I don’t think it ever occurred to us. It was only a 12-hour drive, after all. At a truck stop convenience store around South Bend, Indiana, we gassed up the tank and stocked up on provisions. Jerky. Chips. Water. Nuts. And, as a last impulse that can only be ascribed to … could there be an adequate explanation? … a roll of bake-at-home cookie dough.

The Ohio & Penn Turnpikes, a roll of cookie dough, and the night. What could go wrong.

The Ohio & Penn Turnpikes, a roll of cookie dough, and the night. What could go wrong?

Raw cookie dough. Delicious, filling and funny—it seemed like a great idea. Bake, schmake! So as we drove we passed the plastic tube to take bites of dough. By the time we hit Youngstown, Ohio, neither of us felt so well. By the State College, Pennsylvania, cutoff, our bellies were aching like we had eaten billiard balls. Now I realize there was a lesson for today.

With the memory of that gut pain as my guide, I say we need to find a new place to share half-baked ideas and raw notions. In the spirit of show your work and working out loud (#WOL), we need a renewed sense that there is value in sharing the half-baked, ill-formed and in-progress stages of our work.

Just as luck finds those who prepare, serendipity of ideas and connectcookie doughing disparate dots into new insights come to those who are willing to share not only products but process; not only results but notions, hunches and hypotheses.

The reason why many “digital age” companies try so hard to create open spaces for folks to bump into each other—think Google’s cafeteria, Nike’s athletic facilities, cubeless open workstations and Yahoo!’s effort to curb its remote workforce—is to create the conditions for serendipity to occur.

Even when we are not actively collaborating with each other, we should certainly be cooperating with each other, dovetailing our efforts and forming brief spats of collaboration toward the same goals.

Short of the Google cafeteria (or, in addition to it), what this calls for is a more transparent, open spirit of sharing and learning. When you wait until your work is fully baked, with all the icing applied, you’ve waited too long. The learning, the idea development, the benefit to others from your work are revealed in your process, not your product. Mistakes and wrong paths are the quintessential learning moments.

Don’t wait to share your plate of beautiful cookies. Show us your ingredients—how you crack the eggs, the messes on the counter, why you chose your bowl and tools—and let us decide what to do with the dough. Some of us will bake it; others prefer it raw. That’s where the learning happens.
#WOL #LOL #ShowYourWork

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