There’s an old story that I’ve heard described as a Russion proverb. It says that if each one of us takes care of sweeping the sidewalk in front of our own home, we won’t need streetsweepers. It’s worth thinking about how that might apply to the world of knowledge work, both on the level of being an individual knowledge worker yourself and on the level of helping make the other knowledge workers that surround you more effective.
As Lilia is Russian, and the mention of a Russian proverb triggers her curiousity, she starts a search for the story and comes up with Tolstoy as a source. (An act Jim McGee appreciates as a gift, which is a beautiful posting in itself)
In the comment section Jay Cross offers that he’s pretty sure it’s something Goethe wrote.
My first thought on reading the story was “that could be something written by Vondel“, one of the icons of Dutch literature. Sweeping the sidewalk in front of your house is a picture that reminds of the Golden Era which Simon Schama has written so eloquently and amusingly about in his “Embarassment of Riches“. It sounds so cliche-fittingly Dutch, you know, it just has to be by Vondel.
Now how come we try and attribute things that apparently have a familiar ring to it to icons of our cultural background or context? Is it to reinforce the importance of what we’re saying with names that carry authority? Or is it laziness, “let’s attribute it to someone who might have written anything, saves me the time to look it up”. Or even to get away with talking in clichés?
And do we bloggers do the same? If there is anything that pops up in your mind on the way we experience internet, do you think “ah, I probably read that over at David Weinberger‘s”? Are the A-listers our icons of blogospheric culture, whom we can attribute the stuff to we don’t want to fact-check too closely ourselves, but do want people to listen to? Are we building up the reputation of A-listers, to be able to off-load all that general stuff, so we can forget about it ourselves, as Gary L. Murphy suggested recently (and which is backed I think by how Daniel C. Dennett views the evolution of our minds)?
So who did write that story about sweeping the sidewalk in front of your house?
Tolstoy? Vondel? Goethe?
Will the real author please stand up? I bet it is indeed Tolstoy, I trust Lilia on her word. Or is that just my way of escaping fact-checking it myself?
A continuation of a little snowball I started rolling a few weeks back. Courtesy of Ton I learn still more new and interesting things about the little proverb I had picked up along the way.
This little blog-thread illustrates a couple of important points. First it’s a prime counter-example to offer to those who say knowledge management can’t work because people won’t share. Ton. David, Lilia, and I have never met face to face but they’ve become new colleagues in my worldwide network of people I trust. Sharing begets sharing. It only takes a few seeds planted to start the sharing. If you happen to be in an organization that has no one willing to take this kind of small risk, you’ve got deeper problems than I want to deal with.
I suspect that the real reason behind people raising the sharing myth is not organizational resistance. It’s fear of looking stupid; not in front of your peers, but in front of whoever taught your English class back in primary school. That gets to the second point this exchange illustrates. I didn’t worry about whether I had everything right when I posted the story that got this all started. I made the point I wanted to make and I fessed up to my ignorance at the same time. What I got in return for that tiny bit of risk was the opportunity to learn some neat new stuff and a couple of more strands linking me into the web that links people together. Seems like an awful big return for a tiny little risk.