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Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom – The Hierarchy of Learning

2 May

The internet has profoundly changed the manner in which information is created, published, and disseminated. For virtually every topic imaginable, you can do an internet search and come up with not just one or a few relevant items, but a veritable cornucopia of opinions, guides, tutorials, examples, and even further questions. Sometimes you find just what you need and you’re off to accomplish whatever brought you to the web in the first place. But I’m sure you’ve also had the experience of coming away from such a session with more questions than you arrived with; different questions, often questions reflecting a deeper understanding, but more of them nonetheless.

At this point in its evolution, the internet is very good at delivering information, but not as good at delivering knowledge. Knowledge is information that is both filtered and modified by context and experience. For example, I can easily go and search for information on how to insert an image into a Word document, but there are a number of ways to do this, and knowing which is most appropriate depends on a fair amount of contextual information about the type of document you’re working on, how the image is related to adjacent text, whether you need a caption, whether you want that caption to appear in a list of figures, etc. Experience with placing images in Word documents is what enables one to know what questions to ask in order to clarify the context in a way that actually leads to a solution.

This is just one example, but I imagine that you have had similar experiences yourself. You search around on the web for the answer to some question, you find various answers, and you experiment with them until you find something that actually solves the particular problem that you had. It’s not that the internet wasn’t useful; it was incredibly useful in providing potential solutions, but you still needed to learn how to apply that information to your specific situation.

This leads me to postulate that knowledge = information + context specific experience. I’ll even push on this idea a bit more, and postulate that wisdom = knowledge + global experience. What I mean by this, is that knowledge is about being able to assess the details of the situation you are in and come up with a solution. Wisdom is being able to look at not just the details of the situation you are in, but the wider scope of the various factors that led to that situation and being able to consider alternatives. To return to the example of embedding images in a Word document, wisdom would involve asking questions like what goal you are seeking to achieve through the document you are producing, and considering whether there are other tools (e.g PowerPoint) or even other approaches (e.g. screen capture) to achieving that same goal.

So, in the internet age, how do we move from simply finding information, to acquiring knowledge and even wisdom? Social media and online communities are excellent vehicles for this process. They provide us with a way of connecting to other people who have related experiences, and they give us the opportunity to share our experiences and learn from theirs. In particular, I think that smaller online communities related to associations, trades, or groups can be especially powerful in this way because the participants have enough of a common context to be able to quickly understand the problems/experience that others bring to the table. These communities effectively become informal communities of practice that can be highly effective at helping members move from information, to knowledge and wisdom.

From Authority to Enabler

13 Apr

Association executives are often proud of the role that their association has played as a trusted source of information for their members. And rightly so because associations have developed finely tuned systems for producing excellent content. The trouble with this model of the association is that the internet is radically transforming not only how content is produced and disseminated, but perhaps even more fundamentally how trust is developed and maintained. In the age of social media and crowdsourcing, the notion of a trusted central authority is becoming, at best, quaint.

Does that mean that there is no longer a role for associations? I don’t think that is the case. But I do think that associations have to transition from being authorities to being enablers. This entails understanding what your members are trying to achieve or what they need, and determining if there are ways that you can facilitate that. Since that advice is sufficiently general as to approximate being useless, I thought I would provide some specific examples of what I mean by being an enabler.

  1. eLearning – Most associations have a strong history of helping their members to develop within their professions. If your association serves a profession with both broad and deep technical needs, then it is likely your members are looking for ways to learn new technologies or improve their skills in their area of expertise. For many professions, there will be online course providers who have developed the types of training that your members are looking for. You can be an eLearning enabler by seeking out these providers, licensing course materials, and aggregating them into a cohesive offering for your members. For an example of this, have a look at the ACM’s Professional Development Center.
  2. ePortfolios – For many professionals, the work that we do becomes the intellectual property of our employers. This can sometimes make it challenging for an individual to demonstrate their past achievements. For example, if I have made significant contributions to a particular software package, I would like to be able to show prospective employers that software, but in many cases I won’t be able to because of licensing restrictions. An association can be an enabler in this scenario by creating a trusted environment in which employees could showcase projects that they had worked on. The association would need to work directly with employers so that they would be willing to allow their products.projects to be showcased there.
  3. Mentoring – Another approach to continued professional development is through mentoring. An association can act as an enabler in this situation by creating the infrastructure that would collect information about potential mentors and mentees, assist with the matching process, and provide a forum tracking progress in the mentoring relationship. Additionally, the association could provide online tools for mentors to share best practices, useful documents, etc. Have a look at MentorNet for an example of how such a system might look.
  4. Best Practices – Whether it’s a task that is part of our day at work, or a problem that we’re trying to solve for a project that we’re working on at home, a lot of what people are looking for on the internet are ways to solve their problems. In particular, they are often looking for guidance about the best way to approach a problem or task. An association can act as an enabler in this context by providing an online platform for the exchange of information and the ongoing aggregation of best practices as identified by their members. For example, consider the knowledge base developed by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
  5. Local Meetings – Even in a world that seems dominated by the internet and social media, people still like to get together and discuss topics of mutual interest. Have a look at Meetup.com to see just how much of a driving force this remains — at the moment when this was written they were helping to organize 280,000 monthly meetings. And if Meetup.com does such a good job, what role is left for the association? Well, it turns out that there are still challenges in organizing a local meeting, and a significant one is simply finding space in which to hold a meeting. So, an association can act as an enabler in this circumstance by working with the community to build up a library of organizations/companies who have space that they are willing to allow to be used for professional meetings.

That’s just a few concrete examples. If you get to know your members and their needs, I’m sure that you’ll uncover many more. And this is where the future of your association lies — in helping your members achieve their goals. So start looking for those opportunities to be an enabler.

Conferences and Blended Learning

27 Mar

One of the most interesting results to come out of the early experimentation with online learning systems was that students performed best when the learning environment consists of both face-to-face and online components (e.g. Murray Goldberg’s initial work with the system that would become WebCT). Intuitively, this is because these different components allow students to approach the learning experience in a manner that is consistent with their own needs and learning styles.

What does this have to do with associations and their conferences? Well, one connection is completely obvious: The conferences that an association puts on are often the focus of the professional development activities of their members. That is, to a large extent conferences are learning experiences for attendees.

A lot of effort has been placed on improving the learning outcomes achieved at conferences. Presentations have shifted away from droning talking heads to more interactive experiences. But given the limited timespace in which a conference occurs, it’s essentially impossible to encompass the full range of learning contexts. This isn’t a drawback, it’s an opportunity.

The opportunity is to use the conference as the keystone event of an ongoing learning process that occurs throughout the year. To achieve this, one must follow the precepts of blended learning that I referred to at the start of this post, that is, provide both online and face-to-face interactions that keep professional development moving forward all the time. Here are some more concrete ideas that have proven effective in my experience:

  • Use online tools to help plan for and evaluate your conference. In particular, you can start to identify trends, new technologies, etc. that are of interest to your members, engage with them online about these, and then plan out your conference to focus on those areas that generate the most interest.
  • Use an online community platform to create book clubs that focus on new articles, blog posts, and books that have been referred to at your conference. Online community platforms make it easy to share information (such as blog posts) and provide an opportunity for everyone to get involved with the discussions since the interactions are not constrained to a single time or place.
  • Find members of your association who are passionate about particular topics and organize short lunch or after-work seminars for them to share their knowledge and experience. Passionate professionals are often deterred by the logistics of arranging such meetings, so having the association deal with that aspect will be appreciated all round. Try to find members whose interests relate to topics that were popular at your conference.
  • Set up a mentoring program with both online and face-to-face components. Either your AMS software, or an online community platform can serve to help organize both mentors and mentees, and assist in the matching process. Private online discussion areas can help foster mentor/mentee interactions, or can just help them organize times and places to meet in person.

These are just a few of the possibilities that exist.

Everyone who has ever been to a conference comes away with the feeling that there just wasn’t enough time to really dig into the most interesting material. Discussions get cut short, questions go unasked, activities don’t get the time they deserve. But it doesn’t need to end there. Pull those discussions, questions, and activities into an online environment in which they can thrive beyond the time and space boundaries of your conference. Blending the online and face-to-face experiences of your members will deliver better outcomes, just as blended learning does for students.

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