Willful ignorance

Hylton Jolliffe of Corante pointed me to this great post on one of Corante’s weblogs that I don’t frequent. Very helpful in understanding issues I encounter every day.

‘Tis Folly To Be Wise

I came across an article in my files today that I thought I’d share. It’s by the late Calvin Mooers, an information scientist. He addressed his colleagues on the question of why some information systems got so much more use than others – often with no correlation between the amount of use and how useful the tools actually were.

“It is my considered opinion, from long experience, that our customers will continue to be reluctant to use information systems – however well designed – so long as one feature of our present intellectual and engineering climate prevails. This feature – and its relevance is all to commonplace in many companies, laboratories, and agencies – is that for many people it is more painful and troublesome to have information than for them not to have it.”

When I first read this, I experienced that quick shock of encountering something that you feel as if you’d known all along, without realizing that you knew it. Of course. It’s not a new idea, but we keep having to learn it over and over. Mooers again:

“Thus not having and not using information can often lead to less trouble and pain than having and using it. Let me explain this further. In many work environments, the penalties for not being diligent in the finding and use of information are minor, if they exist at all. In fact, such lack of diligence tens often to be rewarded. The man who does not fuss with information is seen at his bench, plainly at work, getting the job done. Approval goes to projects where things are happening. One must be courageous or imprudent, or both, to point out from the literature that a current laboratory project which has had an extensive history and full backing of the management was futile from the outset.”

Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. I’ve seen these examples made real right in front of my eyes, and more than once. Have I mentioned that Mooers wrote all this in 1959? The problem has not lessened one bit since then. If anything, our vast information resources and the powerful tools we have to dig for it have made things worse. Just try being the person who finds a patent claim that stops a project in its tracks, one that was missed while the work went on for months. Or find out that a close analog of the lead compound was found to be toxic twenty years ago.

We’re supposed to be able to find these sorts of things. But everyone assumes that because it’s possible to do it, that it’s been done. Taken care of: “Didn’t we see that paper before? I thought we’d already evaluated that patent – isn’t that one one that so-and-so found? It can’t be right, anyway. We wouldn’t have gone this far if there were a problem like that out there, clearly.”

My rule, which I learned in graduate school and have had to relearn a few times since, is to never take anything on faith when you join a new project. Go back and read the papers. Root through the primary literature. Look at the data and see if you believe it. If you let other people tell you what you should believe, then you deserve what you get when it comes down around your ears.

[Corante: In the pipeline]

I don’t think we can afford this kind of behavior any longer either as organizations or as individual knowledge workers, although there’s no question we continue to reward it. Two things have changed.

One is that the excuse that it is too difficult or expensive to track down and check relevant information is no longer tenable. The problem has changed. The risk today is that the potentially relevant information is too vast and easily obtained and threatens to overwhelm you. This can be managed with modest investment in learning how to search.

The second thing that has changed is a requirement to understand what kinds of information pose the greatest risks to an initiative. You may be reluctant to go searching for the “ugly fact” but your competitors may not be so hesitant.

What’s tricky is that you still operate in an environment of imperfect information. One of the entries in my personal collection of quotes worth thinking about comes from Samual Butler; “Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.” More information may be available but you still have to make a decision and there’s always a timetable. But you now have to think explicitly about what information to seek out within the limits of the time available. The old excuses are gone.

Manage the first derivative.

Roland Tanglao pointed me to this post from Eric Sink. I’ve excerpted the key grafs here, but go read the whole thing.

Career Calculus.

We convince ourselves that the real problem is that people don’t seem to know how clueful we are. Over time, we come to believe that the important thing is not our actual cluefulness but rather the degree to which others perceive us as clueful.

I submit that worrying about how others perceive your C value [cluefulness] is a waste of time. The key to a great career is to focus on L, the first derivative of the equation. L [learning] is the rate at which your cluefulness is changing over time. The actual value of C at any given moment is usually a distraction. Only one question matters: With each day that goes by, are you getting more clueful, or less clueful? Or are you just stuck?


It’s a very succinct expression of why you should care about learning for your own selfish purposes. It’s the one thing you can control that links to the payoffs you can’t control. Well worth your time to read and reflect on. Eric focuses on technical learning, but his point, of course, applies to all kinds of learning. Thanks to Roland for the pointer and Eric for the reflections

More gifts; if you share, you learn

Dropping Names, or, Who said that?.

Lilia Efimova picks up on something I too had read over at David Buchan‘s Thought?Horizon referring to a wonderful metafor Jim McGee used:

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.jpg vondel.gif naamloos.bmp
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?

[Ton’s Interdependent Thoughts]

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.

Learning from others mistakes – this is broken

This Is Broken: Bad Design from Good Experience.. Ever notice design errors in everyday things? Send them in for a post-mortem to mark at goodexperience dot com. He’s cataloging them at This Is Broken. Learning from mistakes. [a klog apart]

One of the powers of imagination is that we have the opportunity to learn not just from our own mistakes, but also from the mistakes of others.  Repeating others’ mistakes is a singular waste of time. You don’t make progress unless you’re making new and interesting kinds of mistakes.

I’m reminded of a comment I first came across reading the proceedings of the 1968 NATO conference on software engineering (one of those classics in the field which I unfortunately gave away years ago, glad to see it is available on the web). Paraphrasing Newton’s remark that he had seen farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, software engineering had mostly been characterized by “standing on each others’ feet”.   

What teachers make

what do teachers make?. Via Loren Webster, this wonderful poem by Taylor Mali:

What Teachers Make, or
You can always go to law school if things don t work out

He says the problem with teachers is, What s a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?
He reminds the other dinner guests that it s true what they say about
Those who can, do; those who can t, teach.

I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the dinner guests
that it s also true what they say about lawyers….


Go read the rest of it. Something to think about as our kids turn to summer vacation. I’ve done and I’ve taught. If you take it seriously, teaching is harder work.

Active reflection, managed learning, and organizational change

Organizational learning.

Organizational Learning is No Accident makes an important point: effective learning requires time to reflect…and our “right now” form of communication (email, IM, etc.) doesn’t allow reflection time…making it difficult for people and organizations to change (time being an important component to acclimate to changes).

[elearnspace blog]

Excellent material on the challenges of building in the necessary time for reflection to power organizational learning and change. One interesting aspect to this line of thought is that reflection has to become an explicit process for it to work at the operating pace of today’s economy.

It’s a bit of a paradox. When we had time for reflection to work at its natural pace, we didn’t have to depend on learning to keep our organizations aligned with their environment. Now that we need the learning, we can’t rely on unaided reflection.

Turning a problem into an opportunity, we need to highlight the importance of reflection to learning, develop skills at active reflection, and make it easier to create the raw materials for reflection (hint: weblogs). I’ve written about this from time to time with pointers to some resources I’ve found useful.


Grokking the case method of business education

The Case Method. HBS teaches exclusively by case method- which goes well beyond just the teaching method at the school, but down to… [I have a brain cloud]

Adam does an excellent job of capturing the essence of the case method at HBS. I didn’t figure it out as quickly as he did, although I also chose to go there because of it. I didn’t really begin to grasp the case method until I began writing cases for use in the classroom while I was doing my doctoral work. Actually, I had to spend a year writing cases before they would even let me into the doctoral program. Something to do with some courses I managed to fail while I was getting my MBA–some people seemed to think this raised a question about whether I was qualified for the program.

Anyway, the key to the case method is that the goal is to help students develop a lasting skill, not pass an exam at the end of the semester. That skill is about finding and defining a problem, deciding on an appropriate goal, and then building a plan for moving from the problem toward the goal.

On paper that looks like a trivial process. Certainly not something clever enough to build a lot of fancy theory around that can get published in the right academic journals. But it does focus on the place where a manager or leader can have the greatest potential impact – defining the agenda. Moreover, because it is seen as a skill, it’s also clear that it needs to be developed and internalized with a lot of practice.

Sure, the place can seem like a collection of arrogant SOBs, especially from the outside. But it is one of the few places I know of that is absolutely clear that it’s central mission is to create an environment where the learner, not the teached, is the center of attention.

Getting better at supporting informal learning

Informal Learning – The Other 80%. I don't know how to emphasize more that this – rather than classroom-based learning – is where we should be focussing our efforts. As Cross writes, “Informal learning has always played a larger role than most people imagined, but it’s becoming increasingly important as workers take responsibility for their own destinies. Formal learning consists of instruction and events imposed by others. When a worker chooses his path to learning independent of others, by definition, that’s informal.” This is an outstanding article, clearly documenting the importance of informal learning, defining it, and showing how organizations can make the most of it. By Jay Cross, Internet Time Group, May 8, 2003 [Refer][Research][Reflect] [OLDaily]

This is just one of many pointers to Jay Cross's excellent piece on why we should be focusing on informal learning. Accomplishing this boils down to an issue of leadership over management. From a management perspective it's easy to see why formal learning dominates, especially in organizational settings. There's stuff you can point to, there's stuff you can measure, and you can put someone in charge. The only problem is that all this activitiy doesn't make much of a difference.

It takes a huge act of leadership to acknowledge where the real learning takes place and to start figuring out how to better support that learning. First, it takes a huge act of trust in believing that your people can figure out on their own what they need to learn. Second, you need to start helping them get better at doing that figuring out. They may still be under the illusion, perpetuated by your training systems, that they should be looking for classroom courses or looking for their slick e-learning equivalents.

Most of us are products of educational systems that leave us confused about how and when we learn best, partly because those systems are dedicated to preserving themselves. It takes time to develop skill at self-managed learning. It also takes time to learn how to tap into the informal systems that are out there to support you (another of the huge advantages of weblogs, BTW). Some resources I would recommend here would be Ron Gross's books, The Independent Scholar's Handbook and Peak Learning, Peter Vaill's Learning As a Way of Being: Strategies for Survival in a World of Permanent White Water, and Roger Schank's Coloring Outside the Lines : Raising a Smarter Kid by Breaking All the Rules.

My stop is up next, so I'll pick this up in another post later.

Weblogs in Learning Settings

Good series of recent posts on weblogs as a learning tool both for individuals and organizations. Here are ones I consider worth visiting and revisiting.

Stephen Downes – More Than Personal: The Impact of Weblogs. Good overview with a learning perspective.

Sebastian Fiedler on the use of weblogs as personal webpublishing systems to support self-directed learning:

I want supportive technologies with a high degree of freedom. Technologies that can be twisted and tweaked, that can adapt to my changing purposes and interests, that can grow with me over time. Personal Webpublishing systems are a big and important step into that direction. After all, I own that freaking publishing space and I can experiment as much (or as little) as I want.

James Farmer offers two interesting posts on how to use weblogs to create a learning management system (and Part Two)

Sebastian Fielder had a interesting post last month about the general idea of Learning Webs that builds on this observation by Ivan Ilich:

The planning of new educational institutions ought not to begin with the administrative goals of a principal or president, or with the teaching goals of a professional educator, or with the learning goals of any hypothetical class of people. It must not start with the question, 'What should someone learn?' but with the question, 'What kinds of things and people might learners want to be in contact with in order to learn?'

When you start to think about learning as plugging into a network of resources and people, it's pretty clear how weblogs have a critical role to play.

Finally, from the Distance Education Online Symposium mailing list comes a nice post on weblogs in education (courtesy of David Carter-Tod)

Alan Kay and Emerging Technology

I’ve been a fan of Alan Kay’s for a long time. It’s nice to see that he’s starting to develop some recent visibility in the blog world. The first thing that popped up in my aggregator a while back was this comment:

Clueful markets yield good products.

Here’s an “aha” quote from this interview with computing pioneer Alan Kay:

After complaining about the current state of software targeting children, I ask Kay how we encourage the production of better educational software for kids. He answers, “don’t buy bad stuff.”

As simple as that sounds, he points out that “the market needs to reject what is bad. The stuff that got put out wasn’t rejected. It’s a certain kind of laziness. […] On the other hand, you have to make sure people are aware of their alternatives. A popular fast food restaurant might be across the street. Meanwhile, a mile a way is a better restaurant where a good meal costs just a little more than at the place across the street. We need to help get the word out for the alternative. [Seb’s Open Research ]

Then he shows up as a keynote at etech which was heavily blogged. Lisa Rein provides a wonderfully rich collection of audio and video clips plus links to major resources. Cory Doctorow provides detailed notes from Alan’s talk including follow up corrections and elaborations from Alan. So do Phil Windley and Jon Lebkowsky.

If you’re so inclined I would definitely recommend you spend some time with Squeak and Croquet. Unfortunately, between other time demands and the lingering effects of first learning to program using Fortran and Cobol, I’ve only made the slowest progress. Alan tells me that the problem is that I just have more to unlearn.