Knowing before doing?

I’ve been involved in conversations with numerous organizations (corporate and public) over the last year. The central topic of discussion: what’s changing and what does it mean (this them is not always expressed this explicitly, but when the concerns are reduced, the message is clear).

A consistent challenge I encounter is the abundant use of terms like “blogs, wikis, podcasts, RSS, webcasts” etc. Organizations are awakening to a changed world – and they sense it. But the language is still ensconced in the mindset of hierarchy and control. New technology is still applied in traditional means – with the intent to manage, control, and direct activities or outcomes.

The last decade has fundamentally re-written how we:

  • consume media (music, TV, news – all moving to web-based models)
  • collaborate (wikis, groupware, skype)
  • find information (Google)
  • authenticate (trusted networks instead of established sources)
  • express ourselves and our ideas (blogs, podcasts, vlogs)
  • relate to information/knowledge (the relationship time is much shorter – compare 1/2 hour reading the morning newspaper vs. reading 50 news sources online in 10 minutes…or the deluge of information, requiring that we become much more selective and that we start using external resources (tags, OneNote, Furl, to cope)

These changes are still being interpreted through existing beliefs of how we should structure our organizations, and what it means know and learn. When people first encounter distributed tools, the first attempt at implementation involves “forcing” decentralized processes into centralized models. We then end up with LMS for learning, learning object repositories to manage our content, corporate lock-downs on instant message, and district-wide bans on social networking tools.

In recent discussions with museums and education providers, the desire for centralization is strong. These organizations want learners to access their sites for content/interaction/knowledge. Learners, on the other hand, already have their personal spaces (myspace, facebook, aggregators). They don’t want to go to someone else’s program to experience content. They want YOUR content in THEIR space (it’s called decentralization :) ).

Yesterday, I was involved in a meeting about communities of practice. The desire to control and manage communities (the notion that control equates to better prospect of achieving intended outcomes was, as usual, evident) struck me as being a bit at odds with how things need to happen for online spaces to prosper. I made the statement that CoPs have traditionally been conceptualized to function in hierarchical structures; they were to be pockets of innovation (with horizontal industry/intra-industry connections) in structured environments. When we try and create CoPs online, we take the same approach – come to our community. I think that’s the wrong approach. The community should come to the user. Whether the conversation occurs through blogs, wikis, or podcasts, the true value in the conversations is the connections formed between individuals. Essentially, a CoP is a structured connection-forming space.

Most individuals, however, have started to create a scattered identity and presence. I have pieces of my thoughts scattered across numerous articles, website, podcasts, and presentations. I don’t really want to join a CoP. I want the connection values of communities to be available to me in my own online space and presence. I imagine there will be disagreement here, but I think edubloggers have formed a community of practice. We dialogue (sometimes directly, but mostly with an awareness of others). We share resources, presentations. We offer opinions, reactions, and (for new bloggers) informal mentorship. The nice aspect of this community is the end-user control. I don’t have to go to anyone who owns my identity and my content. We still achieve centralized aims (dialogue about learning and technology), but we do so through decentralized means.

“Clear aims through decentralized means” is door waiting to be unlocked. This is one of the most significant limiting factors to adoption of various open tools and processes. I recall an extended conversation with a corporate client where the values of decentralization were understood, but the familiarity of centralized/controlled processes and outcomes were too prominent. In the end, the appeal of control exceeded the prospect of value from decentralization. The question the client put my way that I was, at the time, unable to successfully answer: “how can I make sure that things are happening the way I want them to?”. In my eyes, that was the wrong question (it presupposes control as a requirement for effective functioning).

We have a mindset of “knowing before application”. We feel that new problems must be tamed by our previous experience. When we encounter a challenge, we visit our database of known solutions with the objective of applying a template solution on the problem. I find many organizations are not comfortable suspending judgment. The moment a problem takes an initial known shape, the solutions begin to flow. I notice it as well in my conversations. Once a person has acquired a sufficient understanding of my views/ideas, labeling begins. “Oh, so you’re a conservative/liberal…you believe knowledge is objective/subjective…you…blah, blah, blah”.

The act of labeling is an attempt to provide order where order does not exist (at least in the mind of the listener). Applying solutions to problems is also an order-creating attempt. This is, I think, a very natural process. We all engage in it (labeling is a cognitive off-loading process – once we can put someone or a concept into a box, we don’t have to be as active in making meaning. Instead, we can rely on our memory bank to provide meaning and understanding. While natural, it is the root of much harm – racism, prejudice, and misunderstanding).

Perhaps, in a learning sense, part of the concern here is our views that order doesn’t exist unless we enforce it. We feel that we must sufficiently grapple with an idea or situation until we have “extracted” value or meaning. It’s difficult to accept that order and meaning can emerge on its own (think chaos theory). Randomness may conceal order, and acting too quickly may result in missing the true meaning.

What does this have to do with CoPs, blogs, and wikis? Instead of trying to force these tools into organizational structures, let them exist for a while. See what happens. Don’t decide the entire solution in advance. See the process as more of a dance than a structured enactment of a solution. React as the environment adjusts. Allow feedback to shape the final product. Let the process bring its own lessons before applying structured approaches. Perhaps a learning experience exists in the knowledge/information that emerges. Centralizing decentralized processes results in killing the value inherent in decentralization. Relaxing on control is vital for sustained knowledge growth, sharing, and dissemination. Centralization works well for organized knowledge or established structures. Decentralization is effective when things change rapidly, diverse viewpoints are required, and knowledge hasn’t settled into a “knowable, defined” state.

The views that we must know before we can do, and that problems require solutions, can be limiting in certain instances (especially instances of high complexity or uncertainty – see Snowden’s knowledge ontology). Knowing often arises in the process of doing. Solutions are often contained within the problems themselves (not external, templated responses). And problems always morph as we begin to work on them.

4 Responses to “Knowing before doing?”

  1. “Instead of trying to force these tools into organizational structures, let them exist for a while. See what happens. Don’t decide the entire solution in advance. See the process as more of a dance than a structured enactment of a solution. React as the environment adjusts. Allow feedback to shape the final product.”
    Wow. You hit the nail on the head with this one. When working with our class blog ( ) it took numerous false starts using overcontrolling templates before it finally evolved into a student focused learning environment. Flexible posting criteria allowed the students to determine the direction of the space, and it evolved in a fashion far removed, and much superior, to my original expectations.

  2. Artichoke says:

    Great post – I think your insight very timely. Your writing reminds me of Paul Celan’s poem “The Rivers North of the Future”
    “Into the rivers north of the future
    I cast out the net, that you
    hesitantly burden with stone-engraved shadows.”
    “It speaks of a hoped-for “not yet,” time and a place that cannot be reached by simply projecting from the present, since it lies north of the future. And, even in these inaccessible waters, the nets that can be cast out are “burdened with stone-engraved shadows,” the weight of all that has been.” (Charles Tayor in Foreword – Cayley 2005)
    How will we find those rivers north of the future if we over burden our nets with stone-engraved shadows?
    The act of creation has always required that we be able to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty, accomodate paradox, live with the creative anarchy of ideas – all are essential if we are to progress to a new synthesis for what technological change might mean.

  3. corrie says:

    Build the campus, but hold off on the sidewalks. Wait a few months, then pave the footpaths worn in the grass.

  4. allan says:

    While on the institutional level it seems control is a major factor – on the personal level choice is being technologically liberated.
    Each organization believes it is in control but increasingly the selection of tools and applications is blended by the end user.
    The character of control changes when only those pieces perceived as useful to the user are selected.