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January 21, 2011

By jleffron

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Knowledge Management, Social Media

More Than Words… Building Productivity Out of an Abundance of Ideas

There are probably writers who work in a nice tidy sequential fashion.  They have an idea, sit down, research it, write it, hit ‘save’ or ‘publish’ and move on. I’m not one of those writers.

Well, I used to be one of those writers, but I’m now solidly in the school of writers whose work-flow goes something like this: “Start with a couple dozen open tabs on Firefox and a collection of journal articles spread out on the desk, add a few though provoking conversations, have the connections start pinging in the brain …. and next thing you know, there are the notes for 3 or 4 different posts and articles, but nothing actually written.”

At some point I realized that this is the blessing and the curse of living in this Web 2.0/SocialMedia world.  An abundance of resources, an abundance of conversations to trigger ideas, and an overabundance of details to try to do something useful with.

I’m realizing more and more that the problem is not a lack of information structuring, nor of information filtering, it’s that I’ve needed to learn to keep my resources for a given piece of writing all in one place.  My brain is more than willing to be distracted when I write, and it was an awful lot easier maintain a hint of discipline when the only things within my grasp were directly related to the work at hand.  You know, Old School: at the big library table with references and note cards creating the only visual landscape; a wall of focused information blocking out the rest of the world.

So, I’m learning.  Learning when to allow myself time to dig into research and go down those rabbit trails that lead to serendipitous connections.   And learning to remember when it’s time to say “enough”.  Just because one has nearly infinite access to resources doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to gorge on all of them.   If I’ve missed an idea or a connection, I’ll find it later, on my own or through the comments of others.  But if I don’t get it written in the first place, there’s nothing there to improve on, to criticize or to expand on.  It’s that simple, and it’s that hard:  sit down and write.

Now, it would be really great if I had the discipline to tune out the siren song of Google Scholar, and the persistent calls of Twitter.  But it’s human nature, when you lift your head up from writing, to want to dig in and find “one more thing”.    I needed to find a way to keep all the resources for a project in one virtual workspace so I wouldn’t drift off while tracking down references, mind maps, emails, and notes that I’d collected.

For me this ultimately meant finding a software solution;  I started using Scrivener.   It allows me to recreate that giant library table of references and notes, removing the need to wander off to Google (or Mindmeister, or iStockphoto) to finish a project.

Writing is more that words.  It’s words fueled by ideas, challenging conversations, striking images, or problems to be solved.   Creating a virtual library table can make it possible for a writer to step back from the conversation long enough to actually produce something that contributes to the conversation.

August 17, 2010

By jleffron

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Knowledge Management, Learning, Rigour

Information Filtering: the adaptive capacity of the human mind

Each time I’ve read something about “information overload” and how we need better external filters, it’s left me with a vague sense that we are over-looking the obvious.  And it really is obvious, once you stop and think about it:

Human minds are born to filter.

More than that, they are born to build very sophisticated, constantly evolving filters.  You know this intuitively; if you’ve ever taken a walk with a one year old child, they will stop and see every detail – every variation in grasses, or tree leaves; they stop to evaluate every sound, to admire every insect.  You don’t do this; your brain has learned to filter.

There have been a number of studies on infant language development.  A recent study looks at the filtering strategies employed by 18-24 month olds as they work to distinguish and learn individual words from the ambient noise of conversation. A study back in the 1990s looked at how very young children (around age 2) had already learned to filter the normal variations of pronunciations within their native language, but would respond to extremely subtle variations of pronunciation in sounds that were not present in their native language.

Those are some pretty complex filters developing in very young minds.  And our filtering abilities grow and develop throughout our lives; we filter staggering amounts of information every day.  Don’t believe me?  Step outside and turn off your filters.  Try to catch how many ambient sounds, scents and visual details your brain has routinely learned to dismiss because they do not require action – they are background noise, safe, uninteresting.  Thousands of inputs filtered out every second.

You really notice the amount of daily filtering you do if you move to a new environment.  Your brain doesn’t know what sounds or smells it can safely ignore, nor what normal weather patterns look and like, nor which insects it can allow you to simply overlook, what social cues are relevant.  So your senses are bombarded with a much higher level of detail; it can be overwhelming (and exhausting).   But over time your brain builds new filters for the new environment.

To some extent we are starting to see this evolution in our increasingly information saturated 2.0 world.  On first exposure our mental filters are as overwhelmed as they would be if one moved from Duluth to Mumbai.  Over time our filtering ability evolves; we do, after all, have minds capable of the complex  and unceasing inputs of the natural world.  But as we deveolop our media filters, we do have to take care that we are filtering well.**

**e.g.  Simon Bostock discussed an important article, Six Views of Embodied Cognition which, among other things, looks at the cognitive strategies (often short-cuts) we use when time pressured.  If those pressure driven strategies are employed consistently over time, it seems possible they may lead to over-filtering so that it becomes habitual to merely skim the online information stream, instead of selectively reading certain items with the same level of attention one would give to reading a good book.

April 19, 2010

By jleffron

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Knowledge Management, Learning

The Forgotten Filter

I heard it again today – a colleague protested: “There’s too much information!”

Call it what you will:  “information overload”, “drinking from a fire hose”…  however you phrase it the complaint is universal.  And so are ideas for how to manage the deluge.   One of the key tools is filters, and by filters, I don’t mean the ones in your email inbox, but the incredibly perceptive, flexible filter of the human mind.

Experience and awareness of goals and needs will go a long way toward effective filtering when you try to decide which of the 200 links coming in on your twitter feed are actually worth clicking on, let alone which ones are worth reading in detail. But a filtration system on one end of the information stream will only be able to do so much.

Think about the water system – you may have a filter on your tap at home, but that filter is designed with the assumption that there are some really substantial filters “upstream” at the water company.  That upstream filter is critical; it can remove a lot of materials that would otherwise quickly overwhelm the downstream filter at your kitchen sink.

A key to reducing the information overload for our employees or clients is to work on building our own “upstream filters”.  This isn’t a new idea.  Years ago, in the early days of listservs, high membership lists would periodically send the users a reminder: “Before you post, ask yourself:  do 500 other people need to read this?”  That’s still a valid question, and businesses using social media internally or externally can benefit from applying it.  Sometimes that email, post, or tweet is relevant or will build relationships, but other times, it probably really only needs to go to a few people, not to a whole list of followers.

There are fantastic opportunities for serendipity in the unexpected things that are buried in the information streams;  some good upstream filtering would do a lot to improve the signal to noise ratio and make those hidden treasures easier to find.