Tech weenies, learning, and risk

Dorothea is starting a masters program in library science and finding herself one of the tech weenies in her group. She makes some interesting observations about the differences between those who are and those who aren’t comfortable with technology.

One asked me yesterday during break in reference class how I learned what I know. Being dropped in the deep end, I told him honestly. There s this weird sense that technogeekery is a higher calling, a priesthood. Nah. It s what ordinary people do to keep from throwing very expensive pieces of equipment out top-story windows.

There s also a sense that we technogeeks think what we do is a higher calling. And I suspect that s substantially our fault, and it irritates me because it makes techno-evangelism (when it s warranted) just that much harder. But and here I will whinge a little for all their techno-envy, these people will not stir a step to learn from me and people like me. [Caveat Lector]

One thing I’ve observed about the tech weenies I have known is a predisposition for learning in the “deep end” that others in organizations don’t seem as comfortable doing. If you are technically inclined you quickly discover that there is always more to learn and that it is dangerous to trust documentation (read authority). You learn by experiment and you become inured to mistakes and failure. All of these are characteristics that are associated with effective learning.

By contrast, think how many other roles in organizations interfere with learning. It’s little wonder that so many stay technologically illiterate. You can’t learn it in a training class and you can’t take the risks, small though they are in reality, needed to acquire workable knowledge.

Building bridges back to the rest of the world

Jargon Builds Walls Not Bridges. David Giacalone: Jargon Builds Walls Not Bridges. [Scripting News]

David has a lovely rant here about the self-inflicted damage we’ve created with ugly labels like ‘blog’ for the powerful tools and ideas we’ve invested in ahead of the curve. Not that I would have been happy with some marketing type trying to package things up while we’re still figuring out what it is we have here. David sums it up nicely

Very few adults are looking for a clique, new religion, or (r)evolutionary movement to join. They don’t have the time or desire to learn a special new language or undergo some tribal initiation. Instead, if they are going to turn to sites that use the weblog format, it will be because gathering or disseminating information that is important to them is especially easy and rewarding on such sites. [Jargon Builds Walls Not Bridges]

My approach has been to keep conversations focused on the problems that people have before talking about tools of any kind. Even that can be difficult because the natural tendency is to shortcircuit the conversation to the answer before we’ve really agreed on the question. Jargon, for all its usefulness as shorthand, just gets in the way.

For all the progress that has been made over the last several years, it’s easy to forget how small and self-contained our little universe actually is. Time to start building some bridges.

Learning to action

Do Yourself a Favor and Stop Learning.

Do Yourself a Favor and Stop Learning: ” I’m about to admit something odd, and perhaps career-threatening: I’m sick of learning.”

[elearnspace blog]

Right next to Dave’s pointer to Andrew Grumet in my aggregator. About the tantalizing trap of finding the perfect technology solution in the next new thing. Try this bit of advice from Deane at Gadgetopia; it applies to more than just technology:

Don’t look out on the horizon and worry that a new language will render your app irrelevant. Just write something. Solve a problem. Make an existing application better. Re-work an interface to remove issues users have been complaining about. Deliver some value to someone, somewhere.

Making the Case for the Case Method

For those of you who are interested in the case method as a tool for teaching and learning, David Garvin of the Harvard Business School has an excellent article in the September-October issue of Harvard Magazine. Better yet, it is available online:

All professional schools face the same difficult challenge: how to prepare students for the world of practice. Time in the classroom must somehow translate directly into real-world activity: how to diagnose, decide, and act. A surprisingly wide range of professional schools, including Harvard’s law, business, and medical schools, have concluded that the best way to teach these skills is by the case method. [Making the Case: Professional education for the world of practice]

Garvin’s research and writing have focused on organizational learning long before it was a popular buzzword. This article offers extensive background on the origins and history of case method teaching as well as insights into how it is evolving.

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.