The magic of big numbers and small changes

Winter is a perfect time for reading up on all sorts of things. Which in turn is the perfect excuse for curling up on the sofa and not moving an inch for the next three hours. It’s the perfect pastime:

A Cat's Day Off, by A. Davey (who has, incidentally, some other great pictures on Flickr)

A Cat’s Day Off, by A. Davey (Click to view this and more of his pictures on Flickr)

Just a couple of days ago, I ran into a curious thing about numbers. In this case, numbers that reflect the growth of the global human population.

Knowledge… and the thing about population numbers

Far back in time, numbers are partly (or even mostly) based on educated guesses. It’s estimated that about 2000 years ago, the total population on earth of homo sapiens (or at least the species that is assumed, by individuals of that same species, to be able to think), is estimated to have been somewhere around 300 million. Rome hit the 1 million mark around that time.

The table contains a set of years for which the population was calculated and/or estimated (like I said, the further back you go, the more guesswork this involves). It also contains the number of births per 1000 individuals. The fourth column contains the number of births between two consecutive benchmarks.

As intriguing as the table (which I found in Gurteen’s Knowledge Newsletter) was, I thought it was lacking something. So I added two more columns, figuring:

  1. If you have the years and the population size (more or less), you can calculate how many years there are between every two consecutive benchmarks.
  2. Once you have that, you could even use the number of births between benchmarks and the number of years between benchmarks to come up with…

The number of births per year. And when you see those numbers, you realize two sets of numbers are developing in opposite directions.

Population_Growth

Population growth. Black text from David Gurteen’s Knowledge Newsletter; red columns added by me. Click to enlarge.

More or less

  • The number of births per 1000 humans per year has gone down in no uncertain way. Actually, I’m guessing it’s even more extreme than it looks, because death rates among young children were very high for a very long time (and among mothers).
  • Meanwhile, the absolute number of births per year has gone up as steadily. There are now enough representatives of the human species that not all need to have children at all to sustain the species as a whole – at this rate, only half of all humans will need to reproduce on a moderate scale to keep the population growing.

So… what are the odds of 7 billion human beings having no impact on their environment? (Nope, I’m not adding examples.) On the other hand: if 1 million people decide to rip their lawns out and putting in plants that provide shade and cool spots in the garden instead of trying to keep all those lawns green (and the air conditioning roaring) in another sweltering summer,* that will have an impact, too.

* Not summer around here. We tend to get wet no matter the season. I looked it up last autumn and my hunch was right: we’re in the perfect region to get seriously soaked (as confirmed by 10 year average rainfall stats). I’m not going to risk growing grapes 🙂

 

Knowledge in whose brains?

Just recently I ran into a text stating (yet again) that knowledge can only be found inside (human) brains.
While experts in the field of artificial intelligence are working hard in hopes of disproving that statement, I have trouble accepting it at all.

Brains contain more than ‘just’ knowledge. Or not?

Which part of the stuff we store in our brains constitutes knowledge? Our senses receive loads of data to store in our brains. A lot of these data are frankly ‘noise’, things we see but which our brain more or less successfully tunes out for being irrelevant. It’s like a huge spam filter in our heads. By the way, this filter may help to explain things like:

  •  Why do some people in cities seem indifferent or oblivious to most of what’s going on around them?
  •  Why do people who visit a busy city for the first time look dazed and move (too) slowly? Hmm. How do you decide what is noise that can be safely tuned out?
  •  Why do people not notice friends in the street? If you get a lot of remarks from your friends “didn’t you see me across the street, I waved and yelled” then you’re probably better than average at tuning out other people as though they’re so many trees. Or you were checking your phone of course.

Absorbing information and turning it into knowledge?

At school, this natural spam filter means any new information needs to prove its relevance before it’s admitted to your permanent storage.

  • For new languages, it means that if you need to learn a list of new words, checking them twice just before a test may mean you pass the test. A week or so later most of us will have forgotten those words. A tip on Quora was to repeat learning them every day for a week. The seventh time round (well, more or less) something happens. Your brain decides – apparently on the basis of that repetition – that this information is part of your daily routine so it must be stored efficiently. When next your temporary storage space is emptied, the information is still somewhere else in your brain.
  • For quite a few subjects, it means that you need to find out where and how the new information fits in with things you are familiar with already. That may mean you need to repeat the 200 or so words you learned previously just to allow your brain to make new connections between them and arranging them neatly.

So you end up with a ‘body of knowledge’. Or do you?

At this point, all you’ve done is storing information. Which is an important skill. But also a rather basic one. Under the right circumstances, even ducklings will store vital information after a couple of repetitions. Allow me to explain.

A duck’s life

We live near a small lake (or a big pond) with quite a lot of ducks. Nearly every early summer, a blue heron will go from eating fish to eating every fuzzy duckling that swims unwittingly into his reach and even stalking duck mothers with their little ones.

A few years ago, two ducklings survived out of a nest of ten. Their mother had forsaken them when there were about four ducklings left. By that time we’d already saved one of them by scaring the heron into dropping the duckling he’d just grabbed.

Having your siblings snatched out of the water just two (human) feet away from you will, at some point, even impress a fuzzy little duckling. The two ducklings that lived long enough to outgrow the danger of turning into a heron’s lunch were very wary of anything that came too near or hovered over them! They’d swim out of reach then turn and eye any passer-by keenly (in case you’d brought anything edible).

Out of those two, one turned into a young duck mum who managed to keep at least four of her ducklings alive the first year. Whenever she spotted anything suspicious she’d send her little ones deep into the reed beds to hide.

So ducks can store information in their brains…
Or is this knowledge?
And how can you tell the difference?

(We didn’t actually tag the duckling in order to recognize her later on. She just developed a rather annoying way of quacking. A loud, non-stop, monotonous series which doesn’t indicate whether the merciful end to the racket is getting near yet. Her mum would have taught her differently I suppose.)

Knowledge transfer among ducks?

A lack of words and the skill to talk about things that are not actually present probably means this vital knowledge doesn’t get passed down to the next generation unless there is indeed a heron lying in wait every year. Plus, it’s quite possible that as the years go by without personal danger to our now more experienced duck mother, the importance of being careful may fade. Does the novelty of having 10 ducklings wear off after a couple of years?

The transfer of (seemingly irrelevant) knowledge is tricky even if you’re not human.
So a final word of advice to my duckling readership:

Don’t go near the heron.

What’s a heron? Oh, here we go…

How to become the go-to expert for go-to experts

How do you become a go-to expert while still getting some work done?

Experts

Who do experts turn to? Image by Mai Le | Flickr

For individuals and organizations alike, having a wealth of knowledge sure helps if you want to be an expert for other experts to turn to.

However if you really know your stuff you may end up filling your days answering very similar questions – without getting to the bottom of a topic that has your genuine interest more than once every few months.

Add structure to your knowledge-sharing

There are a couple of ways to enhance your expert status in a more structured way:

  1. Organize networking and knowledge-sharing events. David Gurteen’s Knowledge Cafes come to mind – as part of a community.
  2. Provide training to experts
  3. Share your expertise online starting, if you’ve been answering questions for quite some time, with a couple of FAQs. There is no end of experts blogging themselves silly 🙂
  4. However, mind the amount of time you want to invest. You might want to get someone to interview you instead.

The advantage of documenting your knowledge in some form is that you can share it while you’re doing something else with your time. Like run a business based on your expertise. Or perhaps you could use your time listening to other people. Expertise should not be allowed to rest on its laurels.

Ultimate content: being the go-to expert for go-to experts

The ultimate expert is the one the experts turn to – the one who provides content they’ll happily recommend to anyone who will listen, because they really can’t add much to your overview. If this is your aim it means you need to get all of your facts right.

Mistakes ruin your reputation as an expert (need I even say it?)

Mistakes, even if you copy-pasted them from another website to save time, render your content useless and could turn your visitors away for good – because you lose trust when you mix facts with fiction. This is something I realized years ago: if you’re wrong about one fact, then it doesn’t matter if you’re right about all the other facts. (I also learned that people who can’t work with absolute accuracy should not be allowed to go near a database).

People can’t refer to your content as the ultimate source on the topic if you leave in a single mistake. Get your facts straight.

So review every detail with care. Content from obscure sources should be checked against not just your own knowledge but also against, say, your biggest competitor’s opinion or even several other websites. If they contradict one another, apply your own expertise, do more research, call in another expert, or leave that particular ‘fact’ alone.

What else would you recomment doing?

Why tools fail: learning curve in knowledge management

Getting to know a tool for knowledge management – or for anything which sounds as if your organization should be doing it – is like receiving a present. It’s gift-wrapped and looks very promising on the outside. But there is an issue.

Big Tools for Knowledge Management?

Using Big Bait for Knowledge Management? – Flickr | HikingArtist.com

Continue reading

LinkedIn skills for (knowledge management) professionals

Nowadays if you visit the LinkedIn profile of one of your connections you are asked to ‘endorse’ their skills. In this post I’ll explore a few questions about LinkedIn skills and give a quick how-to for hiding (!) your endorsements.

Knowledge management and SharePoint skills: when are you skilled enough?

LinkedIn Skills And EndorsementsQuite a few people I noticed have added the skill “knowledge management” to their profile – including people who were no part of any KM (tools) team. What they did do was upload content in a SharePoint workspace. A few of them have added “SharePoint” to their skills too (no comment).

What’s with this LinkedIn skills rage?

These are the ingredients for my famous LinkedIn skills pie:

  1. A social network where you can share your professional skills.
  2. A crisis, so you’re going to add any skill you have, right?
  3. A shift in people’s tasks. They’ll join a new team and add the skills that go with the job before acquiring the skills.
  4. No option to add a level of skill either for your own skills or when you endorse one of your connections. This means the world is fast filling up with experts in adding links to web parts and uploading documents to document libraries.

#3: Most people don’t add new skills to your LinkedIn profile even though they can. This means that virtually the only way to get endorsed is to make sure you add any skill before it’s even properly cooked.

#4: Level does exist for languages, but many people have left those among their skills. (You may add your culinary metaphor in a comment.)

LinkedIn skills and career change: hiding endorsements

Right now, the skill you get endorsed for the most will get peak position. You can influence what other people see only by hiding your endorsements. By lowering the number of visible endorsements you can move your high-ranking skills down the list.

How do you hide your endorsements?

  1. Edit profile;
  2. Click the edit button on the upper right of your skills section;
  3. Click the tab “Manage endorsements”;
  4. Click each skill to check or uncheck endorsements you need to show or hide.
  5. Save.

The last thing you want if you’re considering a career change, is for new or newly (re)activated connections to endorse you on the stuff that’s already popular. It’s like this:

  • Suppose that in your teens you taught yourself to bake pies. I did – mostly because I enjoyed the making and the eating and it wasn’t serious food so it didn’t feel like work 😉
  • Five or ten years on you cook the most delicious risottos. Except no one asks you for them. You end up having to stuff your lovely risotto down people’s throats before they’ll admit you “do a very nice risotto too”. After which they ask for dessert. Preferably pie-shaped.

Have you ever hidden a skill (in real life or on LinkedIn, knowledge management or risotto) so you could finally draw people’s attention to your other skills?

Perception, art, and the space between meanings

How much do we grow used to interpreting symbols around us? When it comes to understanding traffic rules for example, a red or a green traffic light is relatively easy to understand. Red means “stop”, green means “go”. The tricky bit is when your kid sees a green light but it’s for other road users.

Now arrows… arrows are tricky by default.

Perception: Meanings of an Arrow

Knowledge of specific conventions tell us what an arrow means.
[OCAL image]

  • It’s up to you to gain enough general knowledge about the world and our conventions to recognize the shape of an arrow, and to understand that arrows point in a direction,  that it’s the pointy bit that does the pointing, and that there’s a reason for it to point.
  • Your next hurdle is understanding that you need to look around you to see what the arrow is doing in its context – to find the reason for the arrow. Why is it here, what is it supposed to show you, is it even there for you – or for the car in the lane next to you?

Just to point my own arrow at a minor detail here: you’re an expert in a lot of ways without realizing it. You just read the stuff I wrote about arrows and conventions like traffic rules, and you’re still here. Now let’s move a step further.

The effect of learning in professionals

I’ve taken a quote from an interesting post about learning and its effect on us: “…once we have learned to see design, both good and bad, we cannot un-see.”

It’s easy to point at stuff you’d like to learn – but you can’t point at things you’re trying to forget AND succeed at forgetting them. What if you told someone “Right now I’m trying not to think about those purple bears over there, hanging out on the beach drinking pink-and-green cocktails with fake strawberries on straws in them. And they’re wearing high heels, which is no joke for a purple bear on a beach.” Check out the size of that arrow 😉

The author of the quote goes on to list examples of how designers, artists, and other professionals cope with the gap between their trained professional self, and their untrained clients. Like I stated in an earlier post: un-learning is possible, but it takes a conscious effort. It’s a lot harder to forget or ignore specific bits of knowledge that have become entrenched in the corners of your brain, than to focus on learning them. (The one example I’ve run into of people being unable to step away from what they’ve learned is not so much designers but IT professionals. We’re all guilty of being an expert at something.)

Perception, art, and the space between meanings

Some things mean everything to us, and nothing to the person standing next to us. This is particularly clear when art is concerned. A piece of art is filled with meaning by the artist. Compositions as a rule don’t drop from a handy cloud. Details don’t miraculously pop up in a painting. A work of art is constructed, and its details are where the artist put them for a reason.

The way we perceive any piece of art is defined by our personal experience. Our general knowledge of the world. Our knowledge about other works of art and any convention we have grown used to. If our personal knowledge overlaps to a great extent with that of certain artists, we’ll perceive their art much the way they intended. On the other hand, if there is little to no overlap – say you’re admiring a 16th-century Italian painting and you’re

  1. unfamiliar with classical mythology, and
  2. not a religious person,

it’s going to take some explaining to get even a rough sense of what you’re looking at and what story the artist wanted to tell in that painting. That artist was creating a work of art with a specific audience in mind. I guess it’s safe to assume you’re not the audience he (probably not she) was thinking of at the time.

Read more:

Do you watch (your) kids learn about the meaning or meanings of the things around them? What do you make of perception, art, and the meanings of familiar symbols?

Bridge the gaps: how knowledge management helps you learn

How are learning and innovation connected to something as outwardly dull as knowledge management? In this post I’ll explore the question how managing your personal knowledge allows you to focus your learning efforts.

Do You Know Where You Need To Go?

Do You Know Where You Need To Go? Bridge your knowledge gaps
Photo posted on Flickr by Halil Gökdal; Vimeo video byEugenia Loli-Queru.

Learning and humor

In my previous post I compared knowledge management to herding cats. Using metaphors can help explain a topic while adding a dash of fun to dry facts (or severely dehydrated opinions). It helps the learning process along. A post I read some time ago was about “comparing apples to oranges“. I enjoyed the post, which was actually about innovative ideas.

Innovative approaches are often the result of looking at familiar topics from a different angle. In that respect, innovation has a lot in common with humor: take two seemingly completely different topics, crash them into one another, and see what happens. If you want a slightly more predictable result, you try to control the process that leads to innovation (or humor).

Using proverbs, metaphors, and other ‘language tools’ in learning is not without hazards. Reading in a non-native language makes it even trickier. For example, I’ve always thought of “comparing apples to pears” (from Dutch) as measuring two completely different things by the same criteria. In that case a perfect orange would make a lousy apple (or Apple). On the other hand, in innovative thinking, borrowing criteria from one context and applying them in a different context may yield unexpected insights.

Connecting knowledge management to learning – and innovation

You could view personal knowledge management as a controlled way of assessing what you know. ‘Knowing what you know’ gives you a basis for deciding what you else you need to know but don’t. You can then focus on bridging the gaps by either learning about those topics yourself, or by contacting someone who has the necessary knowledge and asking them for help. Both actions have their pros and cons.

  1. By taking control of your learning process, you will gain new expertise which may serve you well in the future. On the other hand, you need to judge what level of knowledge you need. If it’s knowledge on a specialist level which you need urgently, learning may take too much time. If speed doesn’t matter quite so much you can focus on learning the basics and figuring out the rest as you go along. This tends to happen on blogs a lot 😉
  2. By contacting an expert, you ‘risk’ two different world views crashing into each other. If you communicate what you need (and don’t need) from the exchange, and facilitate an honest and open dialogue, you may discover more in less time than if you try to master a new topic by yourself. Moreover, if you bring in a person with a different background, opinion, and expertise, you won’t be able to self-censor anything which doesn’t fit into your view of the topic. This way you open up new possibilities. It’s up to you to then select the things that might actually work for you. This kind of confrontation is useful for innovative thinking, but it’s also a great way to get unstuck if you’re stuck trying out #1.

(I’ve actually done #1 on this blog, and I’ve helped someone out being their ‘nearest WordPress.com expert’ so that’s my #2 for now.)

Using knowledge management (KM) to learn

Harold Jarche, in a post on his KM blog, mentions David Williamson Shaffer’s book How computer games can help children learn. After explaining the word epistomology (the study of knowledge, page 10), Shaffer goes on to say:

“…here I argue that computers create both the means and the necessity to fundamentally rethink what it means to know something – and thus what is worth learning and how we teach it.”

I don’t think it’s specifically a computer thing, but I do think computers have made it painfully clear what happens when technology changes and we don’t accept that change means we need to adjust – to learn. Nowadays it’s worth reviewing our assumptions on a regular basis. The problem for many people is that it usually doesn’t seem worth the effort. You can use your time to do either of these things:

  • sit around thinking about what you know, or
  • get your job done and bring food to the table.

If you lose your job, your first inclination won’t be to sit and think carefully but to put the turbo on to get a job. If that doesn’t work you may spend some time panicking before you sit down and (hopefully) think things through. Most of us only sit and think either when we can afford to take the time, or when we have exhausted all other options – when we have to.

Check up on your assumptions (or ‘knowledge’) at regular intervals

What if you take the proverbial ‘step back’ from your canvas every few weeks to check where you’re going, where you want to go, what you need to do next, and what other options you see? Options which you’ll leave largely unexplored for now, but keep in a treasure chest until you want them.

Read more:

How do you view your (personal) knowledge and its management – how do you decide what to learn next?