ChangePlayBusiness was an unusual event, to say the least, living up to its promise to be an unconference. About 40 innovators and entrepreneurs gathered at the ICA to play a game about creating businesses, the playing of which included connecting with one another (there were a lot of interesting people) and meeting subject matter experts on everything from financing to marketing (which is where I came in).
My role was to deliver a “masterclass” on understanding and communicating with customers in a “changing economy”. I chose to interpret this as an opportunity to talk about businesses in the age of networks, in the age of complexity.
The slides are here for those (with the push/pull error reversed!) who attended the session:
This is a great video in which Howard Rheingold (using Screenr, an interesting Twitter screencasting tool) explains his process, his workflow, for gathering information and putting it to work (or turning information into knowledge as he says).
The simple five-minute walkthrough is very useful to me personally, as I am thinking about both how I process information / knowledge and how to define and explain these processes and the digital literacies involved to others. Howard teaches digital media at Stanford and urges his students to use these tools as part of their work – so he has some strong insights to offer (to say the least).
There is so much information out there, in Twitter streams, in Google, in Delicious, in email in Facebook, in the articles that we read online, that the challenges for knowledge workers are becoming acute, specifically:
Attention: How do you focus on relevant things and not get distracted by the endless fascinating things being discussed in your social networks. Or as Howard has explained it before, how do you learn to switch from diffuse attention, where you are open to your network’s inputs and focused attention where you hone in on the thinking and effort around a single task, such as writing a report or chapter of a book. (The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr expands on issues around how we pay attention online and in deep thinking/reading long-form text, by the way – more to come on this from soon.)
Creating value / knowledge: Twitter for example, is wonderful. But you could spend all your time playing the game that is Twitter, collecting and sharing links with your ever-expanding network without ever turning the links into working knowledge, adding your perspective.
Blogging, for me, is one tactic for refining information into knowledge in this way (which is partly why I get twitchy if I don’t write a post for a long time). The discipline of switching my attention to creating a post and not diving back into the Twitter stream hunting for new hits of exciting information, is a way of of re-stating what I have learned in my own words.
That act of writing, reporting and analysising (even briefly) that both really understanding what I am reading and connecting it with other ideas, creating my own perspective. Sometimes that perspective adds value in my network, sometimes it just helps me understand things better (usually you don’t know which it will be – usefulness in networks is hard to predict).
In the video, Howard talks about various stages in this example process of turning information into knowledge. How I heard them was…
Tuning his network to get useful information: His Twitter network is tuned to topics he is interested in (multiple topics might be focused with Twitter lists, of course) and he uses Twitter searches to find new inputs.
Collecting/curating information: Useful sources of information are stored as annotated bookmarks in his Diigo / Delicious databases.
Refining the information in his own databases:Devonthink, a desktop personal database,?is put to work to categorise and combine bookmarks and documents, snippets of information. He is making sense of it, turning links and articles into personal, working knowledge.
Turning the information into knowledge: Howard describes the whole process as being about turning information into knowledge. In this case, he is writing a book about attention (which I can’t wait to read) – the Devonthink data informs his writing in the Scrivener application (which helps authors combine notes and draft manuscript elements in a clever way).
We need to be aware of how our own workflow/thinking processes work, for the simple reason that they are new, evolving, emerging. There are no neat sets of productivity tools available with a training course – we hack together our personal collections of tools and behaviours (I don’t use Devonthink for instance, and have done no more than dabble in things like Diigo and Scrivener, that Howard mentions as key elements of his process) that work for us.
Image (cc) RuffLife
To keep working effectively we need to be able to critically reflect on our own behaviours and adjust them. With practice it gets easier to do this. I think of the stages of the process like a kind of graphic equaliser – I’ll tinker with the levels as I go along, but as I get better at it I know there are pre-set patterns that will work best for different types of work: writing a speech may require little collecting from the network, but a focus on refining the information I have already collected my Delicious and my blog, whereas writing my new book will require tuning my network, interrogating it for new data and connections.
: : Note to self: One useful exercise we might carry out to examine our own processes and practices would be to turn on a screencasting tool and capture how we browse and what we do with what we find.