I found myself more scattered than usual at this year’s Special Libraries Association (SLA) Conference in New Orleans, since I was representing my chapter as President and attracted to career-focused sessions in search of the new, best setting for my particular skill set. I did manage to attend several sessions that, when considered in aggregate form, provide some good food for thought regarding human knowledge and the “perfect storm” of evolving information consumption in which we find ourselves.
As I was listening to Nicholas Carr espousing the theories from his newest book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, during the closing general session on Wednesday, it occurred to me that some of what he was sharing as documented brain research might be in direct contrast to David Snowden’s Rules of Knowledge, which I have found to ring true when working in distributed organizations suffering from the disease of siloed practices. Referring to the exponential rise in use of social technologies across the globe, Carr cited multiple medical researchers who substantiate his claim that
“When we take information in in a distracted way, we learn less and comprehend less than when we take things in and give them our full attention. Things like comprehension, reflection, and deep reading don’t happen.”
Snowden has studied human learning across multiple cultures, slicing and dicing behavior from an anthropological and ethnographic perspective. He claims that humans are actually evolved to handle fragmented patterns of information (number four on his list), and attributes the wide adoption of Twitter and social networking sites to the natural fit that they have with our evolved learning preferences. Two of his other rules, “We only know what we know when we need to know it” and “In the context of real need, few people will withhold their knowledge,” have served me well when advising managers of communities of practice. Most people are so consumed with their own projects and tasks at hand that they can’t possibly retain everything that they read and learn about every minute. That’s why I love Delicious, the social bookmarking site – because when I see something that I know may come in handy later, I save it there and tag it where I know that I can access it at the point of need. I may not have taken the time to read the entire piece when I saved it, but I can search my subject tags or I may remember the fact that I saw something on the topic and probably bookmarked it. When a colleague or client asks me for something along those lines, I will take the time to go look for it, and will probably study it more so that I know what I’m actually sending to them and can assess whether they may need more on the topic.
Communities of Practice and social technologies work because they allow folks to query one another at the point of need, and the social structure of these environments rewards sharing, not hoarding – at least it should, and if it doesn’t, then you need to bring TL&D, HR, and senior leadership to the table.
“Skimming is becoming our dominant and preferred way of gathering and making sense of information of all sorts,” says Carr, adding later on that “What we are doing when we multi-task is we are learning to be skillful at a superficial level…To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”
While Carr rattled off a number of learned medical scholars and some pretty compelling findings, perhaps new and different doesn’t equate to bad. Information is certainly cycling exponentially faster these days, and there is perhaps a Darwinian reason that those who cycle ideas and innovation through the extraction of meaningful nuggets in fragmented form will end up being the ones rewarded in a global economy. One might even argue that things are cycling so fast that becoming entangled in the “paralysis through analysis” loop would equate to missed opportunities.
Perhaps there is a fit of the two sets of theories to be found in what Snowden claims to be the most important of his rules: “We always know more than we can say, and we will always say more than we can write down.”
I wrote a blog post recently about tacit knowledge, conveying the concept through an experience that I had with my husband in a gardening center in May. He had asked me how I came to know which plants to pick so efficiently for all of the containers and locations around our yard. The answer involved fourteen years of trial and error, observation of growth and exposure and animal patterns, and tolerated levels for maintenance – way more than I could possibly convey to him in a simple answer. It occurred to me that if someone asks you something that makes you very uncomfortable because it would be way too much to explain easily, you are probably in possession of a lot of tacit knowledge on that subject. How do we normally pass this type of know-how on, then? I would argue that we do so naturally in fragmented form, and at the point of need. Work along side me while I’m doing it and I’ll explain it to you, walk the perimeter with me when I’m mapping it out so that you can hear me thinking and planning – that will sink in much better than if I hand you a long workbook on the subject. My husband still retains a certain bitterness when he reminds of how, years ago, I made him read all of the rules for backgammon from the book and then had him transfer the main points to me in a matter of minutes, then I beat him soundly at the game.
The point of commonality is in the anecdotal process – the need for people to explain things to one another and to ask questions around the points of dissension or lack of clarity. We may not be reading long, printed documents the way we once were, but we will need to help people make sense out of the fragmented patterns as they emerge through various methods of facilitation and sharing.
The colleague sitting next to me at Carr’s lecture pointed out that I was the very poster child about whom he was speaking – tweeting back to my chapter, taking notes on my laptop, looking up his book and the reviews on it. For me, the experience was enhanced because I could seek out and incorporate the knowledge objects associated with Carr’s topic and disseminate what was happening to my constituents who were not able to attend. Perhaps we as information professionals are more prone than the average person to this malady, since we are curating so much of the world of information for others. What do you think, did I absorb anything?