Being Present in the Age of the Mind Outside the Brain

The other day, Celia and I were walking in Boston’s beautiful Arnold Arboretum when she asked me who’d responded to an email I’d sent. When I pulled out my phone to answer her question, she said she felt she was walking with a third person, a stranger.

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Two ways to handle a major obstacle to change

How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

tacit knowledge

One of the reasons it’s so hard to change is because much of what we “know” is tacit. Tacit knowledge is that which cannot be easily shared verbally or in writing—as Michael Polanyi says, “…we can know more than we can tell.” A simple example of tacit knowledge is how to ride a bicycle.

Not only is tacit knowledge hard to convey to others, we are often not even aware that we know it ourselves. We all possess unexamined and/or unconscious beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions that can limit our ability to see, question, or act on desirable change in our life and work.

It’s hard enough when we don’t know what we know—but what happens when some of our tacit knowledge is incorrect or inaccurate? Here’s what Chief of Confusion John Seely Brown says:

It turns out that this learning to unlearn may be a lot trickier than a lot of us at first think. Because if you look at knowledge, and look at least two different dimensions of knowledge, the explicit dimension and the tacit dimension, the explicit dimension probably represents a tiny fraction of what we really do know, the explicit being the concept, the facts, the theories, the explicit things that live in our head. And the tacit turns out to be much more the practices that we actually use to get things done with…

…Now the problem is that an awful lot of the learning that we need to do is obviously building up this body of knowledge, but even more so the unlearning that we need to do has to do with challenging the tacit. The problem is that most of us can’t easily get a grip on. It is very hard to reflect on the tacit because you don’t even know that you know. And in fact, what you do know is often just dead wrong. And it is almost impossible to change your beliefs about something that is in the tacit and is different from what you happen to think.
—John Seely Brown, Storytelling: Scientist’s Perspective

Tacit knowledge acts like an invisible force that guides and constrains our potential choices and actions, making unlearning incorrect or inaccurate tacit knowledge seem like a hopeless task.

Two tools for freeing ourselves from the constraints of tacit knowledge
Surprisingly, there are tools available that allow us to become aware of and work with our tacit knowledge. The key insight is this: we can overcome our inability to reflect on our own tacit knowledge, by working with others!

Conversation
While it’s common to think of knowledge as being something an individual possesses, in reality knowledge is socially constructed with others. (Remember Socrates in ancient Greece, pursuing knowledge through dialog?) This leads us to the first tool to free ourselves from the limitations arising from what we don’t know we know: conversation with others. Other people can see our blind spots and share with us what they see. By reflecting and gently challenging the beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions that form our tacit knowledge, they can help us see what we cannot and provide us an opening to, at least, become aware of what was formerly invisible to us.

Storytelling
The second tool available to us is one of the most powerful ways to see and process the boundaries and consequences of our tacit knowledge: storytelling.

We can explore our tacit knowledge via storytelling in two ways:

  • By examining honestly the stories we tell others. Ultimately, we are the stories we tell about ourselves. Our own stories illuminate the tacit in us—somehow they craftily bypass our conscious limitations. If we scrutinize our own stories that have emotional resonance for us, we can learn much about ourselves that would otherwise stay hidden.
  • By noticing the stories of others that evoke emotions in us. When we respond to another’s story by feeling an emotional response that seems incongruous in some way, there’s a good chance we can learn about some aspect of our tacit knowledge from what we have just heard.

We are not alone
Conversation and stories create frameworks that can help us transcend some of the barriers to change imposed by our tacit knowledge. I think it’s fitting that we need to connect and engage with others in order to do this important work.

Photo attribution: John Seely Brown

Conferences as communities of practice

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COP on the beat
One of the reasons I love facilitating peer conferences that use the Conferences That Work format is my enjoyment in experiencing the wonderful support and development they provide for communities of practice (COPs). What are COPs? Why are they important? How do peer conferences support them? Read on!

Communities of practice
Communities of practice—a term coined by educational theorist Etienne Wenger—are a group of people who share a common interest, profession, or passion and actively engage around what they have in common. COPs include three key elements: a shared domain of interest; a group whose members interact and learn together; and the development of a shared body of practice, knowledge, and resources.

While the term is relatively new, communities of practice have existed in human societies for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Systems of apprenticeship and professional guilds, developed in the Late Middle Ages, all incorporate the three COP elements. In fact, COPs have been the predominant modality for professional learning for most of human history!

Why are COPs important?
The Middle Ages are long gone and today we can learn in many new ways. Does this mean that COPs have outlived their usefulness? By no means. Here’s what Harold Jarche thinks about the role of communities of practice in creating effective working environments:

My recommendation has been to support workplace activities that are both cooperative and collaborative and also to provide the necessary support structures. However, my observations to date show that a third piece is required, and that is the fostering of communities of practice to connect the two. These communities, internal and external, are a safe place between highly focused work and potentially chaotic social networking. I also see the support of communities of practice, through skill development and structural support, as a primary role for learning & development staff.
First structure the work system, Harold Jarche

In other words, as shown in Jarche’s diagram above, COPs provide an essential link between the work performed by individuals and teams in organizations (where the rubber meets the road) and the rich possibilities for interaction and learning now available from our social networks, both face-to-face and online.

How do peer conferences support communities of practice?
So where do communities of practice reside today? In Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love I argue that participation-rich and participant-led peer conference formats like Conferences That Work provide a wonderfully rich environment for communities of practice. At a (well-planned) traditional conference, conference planners invest significant time and effort before the event attempting to determine who can potentially provide an “above average” contribution on the conference subject, but peer conferences make no such a priori assumptions about who is a teacher and who is a learner. Rather, they promote an environment in which teaching and learning are ever-fluid activities; the teacher at one moment is a learner the next. Sometimes, everyone in an interaction is learning simultaneously as social knowledge is discovered, constructed, and shared.

Peer conferences aren’t built on the expectation that every attendee will significantly contribute to the event. Rather, peer conference process provides the opportunity for anyone to contribute, perhaps unexpectedly, but ultimately, usefully.

In my experience, peer conferences are high-quality incubators for communities of practice—they provide a wonderful way for a group of people to explore the potential for creating an ongoing community. The majority of peer conferences that I have facilitated have turned into regular events, but, even when this does not happen, a peer conference inevitably leads to new long-term relationships and communal projects of one kind or another. Conversely, communities of practice can use regular peer conferences to effectively explore and deepen their collective learning and intragroup relationships.

Essential tools
In conclusion, I think of peer conferences as being essential tools—like the radios and scanners used by the other kinds of cops—that support the construction of social knowledge and appropriate learning for communities of practice. Add them to your workplace and conference toolkit and your COPs will reap the benefits!

Knowledge…you’ve come a long way, baby!

Do conference sessions have to be serious to be authoritative?

There was a time when the wisdom was that a speaker should start with a joke to relax his (invariably his) audience. Thereafter, relaxation achieved, the remainder of the talk would be deadly serious, saturating the audience with the extent and depth of his knowledge.

There was a time when knowledge came in encyclopedias and was communicated by the pronouncements of authorities. Knowledge was essentially immutable, occasionally updated, a reassuringly solid basis for our worldview.

Or so we believed.

Today we are starting to see that knowledge no longer resides neatly in our books, computers or brains as a discrete collection of clear, unambiguous facts and theories. Knowledge has become a networked multi-brain entity, born in the gestalt of a group not an individual. And, charmingly, as David Weinberger says, it has taken on a quintessential human characteristic.

Knowledge has lightened up.

Here’s David:

“…the only knowledge that is dead serious is in the posts that emulate prior forms. The article in an online scientific journal is likely to be very much like articles in printed scientific journals, but the post on the same topic perhaps by the same scientist on her blog is far more likely to exhibit a light touch.

…the humor of knowledge does something far more important than the trivial quip itself. It announces that the author and the reader have something more in common than their interest in the topic under discussion. It says that knowledge is not enough, that knowing is a human activity, and that humans are embedded in a shared context that is always far wider than that of any particular topic…

…Knowledge is funny on the Web because humor expresses the truth about the world within which knowledge makes sense, and the truth about the inevitable humanity of knowledge itself.”
—David Weinberger, KMWorld Magazine, Why is the Web so funny?

Humorizing knowledge humanizes it, and we should celebrate this truth. Knowledge is no longer something that can be shoved into discrete categories and made subservient to our theories about the world. Rather, it has been liberated, finally able to take its rightful place as an integral component of human culture.

Knowledge…you’ve come a long way, baby!

The most powerful tool for improving your personal work environment

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Your web browser has eight windows open, and each window sports at least half a dozen tabs. Your monitor is festooned with Post-it® notes. Hundreds of handwritten reminders, business cards, file folders, magazines with slips of paper peaking out, and unread articles litter your office desk.

Are you, perhaps, feeling a little overwhelmed by your personal work environment? If so, and this is a habitual state rather than an occasional, acceptable occurrence, read on!

Here is what I have found to be the most powerful tool that will help to restore your sanity when workspace chaos has expanded beyond your comfort zone. (You do have a comfort zone, I hope?)

Losing control
Let’s start with a key question. Why is your personal working environment habitually and unacceptably out of control?

Answer: Because it’s reflecting a way of working that isn’t working for you.

So making changes in your physical environment, by buying twenty plastic filing trays, dumping sixteen piles of paper into file cabinets, switching to an iPad, or even setting fire to your office is not going to solve your long term problem.

What you need to do is change the way you work. And change, as we all know, is hard.

Luckily, a lot of smart people have spent a lot of time thinking (and written a lot of books) about how to make changes in how you work. I’ve worked for myself for the last 27 years, read many of these books and tried their techniques, usually with limited success.

Getting Things Done
Five years ago I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done (known as GTD by devotees). Published in 2001, it’s still Amazon’s best selling book in the categories of Time Management, Health & Stress, and Self-Esteem. This doesn’t surprise me, as the book is brilliant. Unlike other productivity methodologies, it doesn’t prescribe a complete system for organizing your life. Instead, David explains clearly:

  • The essential workflow processes you need to follow to clear and organize your work-life; and
  • What you need to understand in order to choose tools and procedures that work for you.

Implementing GTD does not involve throwing out or changing all the ways you work now. Rather, Allen’s approach gives you both a powerful lens to see what is functional in your work-life, and a comprehensive framework for making improvements.

Each person’s implementation of GTD is unique. One person may use file trays and 3 x 5 cards to capture “stuff”, another, GTD software running on a personal computer or mobile device. If email messages are piling up in your inbox, there are GTD approaches to keeping your head above water. Ultimately, you’re responsible for doing the work you need to do. GTD just provides a practical way to create the system that works best for you.

I’m not going to delve more into GTD here. There are plenty of resources on the web, including David Allen’s website and this introductory article from 43folders. But I suggest that, to start, you simply buy the book.

Am I 100% successful at implementing GTD in my work-life? No. Sometimes I find it difficult to maintain the necessary discipline. I also have some reservations about David Allen’s approach to reviews. But I have integrated GTD’s key features into how I work, and have obtained a significant increase in productivity. More importantly, I understand why my work environment can deteriorate and what to do if it does. Possessing this understanding is empowering for me.

I hope it is for you, too.

Do you use Getting Things Done? What’s been your experience? Or do you prefer another methodology to organize your personal work environment?

Image attribution: Flickr user harryharris

Three things conference attendees really want to know about each other

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Connections with people are formed by our experience with them over time. (Yes, Buddhists and Taoists, the present moment is our only reality, but we still experience it through the filters of the history and desires in our brains.) Besides learning about people we’re with though our direct experience, we discover more by listening to their descriptions of their past and present experiences and their hopes for the future.

The first thing that happens at Conferences That Work is a roundtable, where each attendee answers the following three questions (there are no wrong answers!) to the group:

  • How did I get here? (past)
  • What do I want to have happen? (present & future)
  • What experience or expertise do I have that might be of interest to others? (past & future)

As people, one by one, answer these questions they share their past, present, and future with everyone in attendance. Each person opens a window through which the time line of their life can be seen more clearly. This sharing provides the foundation for connections to be deepened during the conference that follows.

Image attribution: Flickr user houseofsims