Thinking in public, part 2

Lilia, Sebastian, and Denham are picking up on and adding to my attempt to figure out where blogging fits in the world of knowledge work. Thinking in public was the way I chose to label a talk I'm giving later this week at Seabury Western courtesy of a gracious invitation from AKMA. It's the next stage in a idea I started working out a while back of “knowledge management with a small k.”

Weblogs are the latest in a long line of tools being applied in the realm of what has been loosely labeled knowledge management. I say “loosely” because so many different tools and techniques have been thrown under the knowledge management umbrella that I'm not sure there's any room left for the knowledge workers this is all supposed to help.

I've owned the knowledge management problem in one medium sized consulting firm and I've tried to communicate some of what I've learned in one MBA level course at Kellogg. I've been online since 1980 when I took an online seminar at NJIT run by Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff after devouring The Network Nation. I've used Lotus Notes, threaded discussions, email, IM, web pages, various collaboration tools and group decision support systems, and now weblogs with varying, and generally less than satisfying, degrees of success.

Denham suggests “thinking together” as preferable to “thinking in public,” and suggests the following interpretation:

Thinking in public is all about taking a stand, being open to alternative views and engaging in thought exchange. Here is where I think I differ from bloggers – the value of thinking in public is not about personal risk taking, publishing or pushing (your) ideas, it is about being receptive to the thoughts of others – that listening & dialog thing again.

I think he takes my notion a step farther than I was intending. I agree with Denham that the goal is to be receptive to the thoughts of others and that “thinking together” can indeed lead to better results than thinking alone (as does drinking together instead of drinking alone).

My problem is this. Most of the technology tools for supporting thinking together (e.g. discussion forums, threaded discussion, wikis) depend on skills and norms that I've found to be rare in practice and challenging to promote. My intuitions tell me that there are important differences with weblogs that address at least some of these issues.

[As an aside, I use the word “intuitions” quite deliberately. Gary Klein in his excellent book, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, shows that intuitions are a form of pre-packaged knowledge in the form of situational awareness. They are your experience base telling you something worth listening too. Klein focuses on how these intuitions guide actions, but it's also worth thinking about how these intuitions might be unpacked into a deeper, more explicit, understanding of a problem.]

One of the primary reasons that thinking together is hard is that it requires both that we think in public and that we think collaboratively. I suspect that thinking together fails at least as often because we don't know how to think in public as it does because we don't know how to do it collaboratively. Further I think that order matters. You need to learn how to think in public first. Then you can work on developing skills to think collaboratively.

Thinking in public is a precursor skill to thinking collaboratively that's been ignored. We want to get to the fun stuff (ooh, brainstorming!) and skip over the hard part.

Weblogs make the hard part easier. They make it possible and permissible to go public with an idea while you're still working it out. Their structure of time-ordered, generally short, posts feels less intimidating than having to produce a finished, completely worked out, properly structured report. Their organized, permanent, structure of archived posts give you something to go back to and to build on. Pulling it all together under the umbrella of an individually identified place makes it visible and sharable with others without forcing it on anyone. Finally, syndicating the results via RSS makes it available to those who are interested in a way that enables dialog without demanding dialog.