Circles of knowledge and boundaries of ignorance

My latest column at Enterprise Systems Journal appears today. In it I take a look at the notion of developing an ongoing learning agenda by focusing on the boundaries of your ignorance. One key graf:

The late Isaac Asimov once observed that “the most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘that’s funny’.” What piques your curiosity is an excellent indicator of where your learning energies ought to be focused. Curiosity is an edge phenomenon where new inputs have enough structure and content from your perspective to emerge as something more than background noise and chaos, yet are not so well-defined as to be immediately classifiable. Becoming more mindful of the terminology, issues, and phenomenon that are separating themselves from background noise helps identify topics you should consider investing learning time in. [IT Learning at the Boundaries of Your Ignorance]

I started thinking about “boundaries of ignorance” and “circles of knowledge” while putting together a presentation on learning and knowledge management. I began with the simple notion of learning as expanding your circle of knowledge and quickly hit on the notion that expanding my circle of knowledge was simultaneously expanding the boundaries of my ignorance. The more things I learned, the more things I became aware of that I didn’t know.

In my teens, that manifested itself as reading everything I could lay my hands on in the quest for the “one right answer.” I wasn’t as smart as Alan Kay to realize early on that books had limits or could be wrong. I was so engrossed in the world that books opened up for me that it took quite a while to grasp their limits. My dad used to say that he could always tell when I had finished a book by my fervent belief in some new world view. In retrospect, I suspect my ignorance was growing faster than my knowledge. But I was more focused on the inside of the circle than on its contact with the rest of knowledge.

My first cut at visualizing this image was along the following lines:

Circle of Knowledge - Boundary of Ignorance

In this version, learning can be viewed as either expanding your circle of knowledge or as increasing your boundary of ignorance.  So, the more you learn the more you know, but also the more you know that you don’t know.  Depending on your temperament, this can be either encouraging or discouraging to your efforts to continue learning.

Formal schooling focuses attention on the inside of the circle and keeps you carefully inside the boundaries. The credentialing system of education looks backward at what you are supposed to have learned. On the plus side, a good school environment helps keep you from falling off the edge into material you are unable to understand or appreciate. I can remember trying to read various books on philosophy in my wildly eclectic romps through the public library during my high school days. All fields have their professional vocabulary and one purpose of schools is to introduce you to that vocabulary in a coherent order. While we are hard-wired to learn spoken languages simply by being immersed in them, I don’t think the same strategy would work as well for learning calculus or modern European history.

The danger of formal schooling (even when well done) is too much focus on what you already know. If you don’t push yourself out to the boundaries, you seriously limit your opportunities for significant new learning. Formal schooling tends to overly protect you from failure and, therefore, from opportunities for deeper learning. Granted, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of failure in real learning courtesy of my work with Roger Schank. The more important learning becomes as an ongoing career development activity, the more you have to deal with not knowing. This can become a real challenge as you advance in your career and as you become recognized for your expertise.

Over time and as you get farther away from your school days, your circle of knowledge starts to get spiky:

Lumpy Circle of Knowledge

You become more expert and informed on certain topics at the expense of others. The nice, well-rounded, circle that might have characterized the end of a classical liberal arts education has been replaced with the distinctive profile of an expert in some particular domain.

If you assume that you do, in fact, need to continue to learn, regardless of your current level of expertise, is there some way to use this notion of the “boundary of ignorance” to guide ongoing learning? For an individual topic,

Monitoring your curiosity consists of becoming aware of terms, tools, topics, and techniques that you are encountering in your environment, yet are not part of your current knowledge and skills. As these become visible to you, the next step is to cluster and chunk that material into a learning agenda; a sequence of topics ranging from the nearly familiar to the barely recognized. [IT Learning at the Boundaries of Your Ignorance]

 In addition to tuning into the language of a topic, you can also start to identify the experts and authorities who are working in the domain.

In general, your learning agenda is not likely to be a single topic. Instead, you will be pushing out along multiple dimensions. It might be helpful to visualize that process in terms of progress along several learning vectors. For example, I might group my learning activities along the following dimensions:

Learning Vectors

This larger picture of learning would help assess what kind of balance I was striking across topics and whether that balance was suitable. 

What you are left with at this point is a map for what you want to learn based on the edges of what you know now coupled with what captures your curiosity. What comes next is the effort to learn topic by topic and to fit that learning into the demands of performing.


Being smart about when to be diligent

This is an interesting refinement on my laziness vs. diligence argument a while back. The danger is that it just becomes a slightly more clever way to reinforce the Protestant ethic Properly interpreted, however, Ballard provides a logic for making diligence pay off in compound interest terms.

Let’s all get lazy

If you want to be lazy over a lifetime, work harder in high school, college or grad school. That’s the message from Stanton Ballard, geologist, geophysicist and inventor of “Mr. Ballard’s Lazy Lecture.”

Ballard’s view is, work hard now for a good job later that will earn you twice as much money, working half the time. If you take the lazy route in high school, you’ll work all your life for half the money in a job you don’t even like. “Work hard now, goof off later,” says Ballard, who has a doctorate and knows whereof he speaks. Stan and his wife, Trish, worked their assignments off for a major oil company so they could later exit the corporate world and focus on school activities with their two sons.


[via Michell Medley in Worth Magazine]

The focus in Medley’s piece is on diligence in high school, but the argument is applicable more broadly.

Tool-and-Die Makers in a Knowledge Economy

In one of my columns at Enterprise Systems Journal, I started to explore a nagging concern about why organizations have realized less of the potential of technology to support knowledge work than they could. In a nutshell, my hypothesis is that most organizations have not thought through what organizational roles need to be created to best leverage the technology. In my column I made the argument that we need the knowledge economy equivalent of tool-and-die makers. You can find the full column at ESJ:

Tool-and-Die Makers in a Knowledge Economy

The full potential of tools to support knowledge work remains unrealized

Given the near total independence that most knowledge workers have in organizations, they have been largely left to their own devices in figuring out how to take best advantage of the technology tools we have made available.  That leads to a great deal of wasted potential. Here’s the way I described it in the column:

Applying the tool-and-die maker strategy, knowledge organizations should identify individuals particularly adept at applying tool and technology features to simplifying their own work and give them a new goal of improving the productivity and effectiveness of their knowledge-work colleagues. The knowledge work of these “toolsmiths” would be to understand the knowledge work of others and apply Taylor’s principles of scientific management; to observe how knowledge workers currently worked and to identify, design, and deploy new tools and techniques to make it possible to perform the same work with less effort or produce better-quality deliverables on demand

Essentially, we are missing an opportunity for knowledge work productivity by not taking full advantage of designing organizational roles to take full advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of individual knowledge workers.

New WordPress plugin – Landing Sites

Rick Klau pointed me to a great new WordPress plugin – Landing Sites. If you come here by way of a search engine, this plugin will identify other posts on McGee’s Musings that might relate to your search. You can find the plugin here – Landing Sites 1.3. It took me a little bit of tinkering to get it to work and display reasonably. In a perfect world, I will eventually clean up the display some more, but it works well enough now to roll out. Thanks, Rick.

New WordPress plugin – Landing Sites

… I love it. If you’re running a WordPress site, it’s a brilliant plugin that should help your search visitors find what they want and increase page views within your site. What’s not to like? [tins:::Rick Klau’s weblog]

UPDATE: To make this as useful as it might be, I have finally begun the process of migrating my archives into WordPress. This is a bit of a kluge to take old posts made using Radio and massaging them so that they look reasonable in their new home. I haven’t quite found a smooth way to do this yet automagically, so if you do go wandering in the archives here, you may find bits and pieces that are occasionally ugly. Bear with me.

Hans Rosling talk on world economic development myths and realities

The 20 minutes I spent watching this presentation from the TED conference last February is among the most useful 20 minues I have invested in the last months. Rosling is an extraordinary presenter and he conveys key insights about how the world economy and public health have been trending over the last 40 years. You should also check out, which Rosling created to develop and distribute software for visualizing data about human development.

Beyond the substance of the talk there is also much to learn about how to extract and communicate insights from rich, complex data. One of my old consulting friends used to talk about torturing the data until it confessed; Rosling seduces it into revealing all.

Hans Rosling talk at TED

Hans Rosling at TEDHans Rosling, professor of public health, speaker extraordinaire, software entrepreneur and one of the best illustrators of fact-based research and policy discussions I have ever seen, is now available in English from the TED conference.

See it. This is required viewing for anyone wanting to understand how the world evolves and what we need to do to make it evolve in a direction beneficial for all. Rosling is one of the best speakers I have ever seen, on any subject, and this subject is critically important.

[from Espen Andersen at Applied Abstractions]


Diligence vs laziness – Complexifiers vs simplifiers

Scott Berkun offers an alternative characterization of innovation than the diligence/laziness issue that I dicussed last month. Life is complicated enough; we don’t need more folks adding complexity just of the sake of complexity (or job security).

There are two kinds of people: complexifiers and simplifers

There are several thousand ways to complete the sentence “There are two kinds of people, those that…” And in case the universe wouldn’t be complete without another, here’s one more.

There are two kinds of people: people that make things complex and people that simplify.

[Berkun Blog]

Visualizing timelines with AJAX

Here’s a pointer to an interesting tool for working with timeline data. Part of a larger research project at MIT called SIMILE that also looks worth investigating.

timeline visualization

a AJAX widget for visualizing time-based events from a simple XML file, without the need for software installation, server-side or client-side. users can pan the timeline by dragging it horizontally.
see also google trends & timeline of trends & history of programming languages.
[ (religion timeline example) & (example list)] [From information aesthetics]