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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.

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Too Much Information

1 Nov
Information overload.

This is the newest and greatest challenge of our information age: With all of the content published everyday, how can we make sense of it, organize it and reference it after the fact? Clearly we need some way to separate the wheat from the chaff. Recommender systems, such as Amazon uses, are one potential answer, but they’re a little hit or miss.

The best judges of value are still people. Even better, are people like us. Those who share are interests and background. This is where the concept of a folksonomy is effective; a list of tags and categories supplied by other users. In the context of a focused private community, that folksonomy can be powerful indeed.

Of course, such communities don’t spring into existence magically. That’s a result of the 90/9/1 rule: 90% of of the members in the community simply ready the content, 9% will add comments, tags, ratings, etc. to existing content, and 1% will actually generate or introduce new content. New communities tend to be small, and 1% of small is a whole lot smaller.

The secret to being an effective online community manager is to actively work to shift the proportions. Identify and empower those individuals most likely to contribute. Given them responsibility. Give them a title. Give them a prominent profile within the community. When given the chance (and the “go-ahead”) community members will add a lot of value in the form of input, content, community policing and of course, social curation. By reaching out, thanking and encouraging good social curation practices among the most active members, a vast knowledge base will build quickly. That will attract others to participate, and the community will thrive.

The Kindness of Strangers

27 Oct

Association communities can depend on “the kindness of strangers” to bring huge benefits to all association members. In case that phrase rings a bell; it is by Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and the full quote is “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”.

Association member engagement requires association member time which is a valuable commodity. Members of your association may initially log in to a community out of curiosity but what will keep them coming back? There are many member benefits to being part of an association community, but research and expert opinion ranks networking and access to specialized information close to the top. Adult learning recognizes a related fact. People are most ready to learn when faced with a problem that they can not solve by themselves.

How does this relate to associations and the kindness of strangers? A simple example is a person at work faced with a problem. They need help. In the past, they would ask someone that they thought could help by visiting or calling a coworker, colleague, boss or supplier.

An online association community that has a question and answer capability allows members to easily ask questions 24/7 and get an answer from an expert across the country or in another country. Software with reputation measures helps evaluate the person answering and thus, to some extent, the quality of the answer. Backup documents can be placed in the community library so that the rest of the community can benefit not only from the question and answer but from the references. Subsequent discussion relating to different views or greater detail can lead to refinement of answers and alternative approaches to a problem. A simple question can create a collaborative forum with member comments and even polls.

Why should a member answer a question or make a comment? To some degree this is the advantage of a private association community. The comfort of being in your own association and the ability to give back to colleagues and friends makes relying on the kindness of strangers a workable option and a real association benefit to all concerned.

Communities of Practice

29 Sep

Don’t blink. You are likely to miss something. There is so much change happening in the way we communicate and collaborate within associations that it is difficult just to keep up. Luckily, one of the advantages of all this change is that it helps bring your members closer together, and helps them to benefit from the collective power of the whole.

Take for example the problem of continuing education within associations. One of the main ways in which professional organizations have served their members is through formal continuing education courses. In the past, physical presence at a training location or (at best) a computer-based training system,where members have little or no contact with one another, were considered the most efficient ways to keep members informed, their training current.

But formal courses are not the only aspect of the ongoing process of education that has become part of almost all of our careers. The members of your organization have a huge body of knowledge about the practical realities of working in the field. What is needed is a way to leverage this knowledge; enter communities of practice.

Most association members are dedicated individuals who want to do their part to help the greater good of the community, and will work together to help one another when called. Taking advantage of online tools, we can network these individuals together and have everyone benefit from the collective expertise of the entire membership. Properly executed, members are empowered to be more active and collaborative than ever.

When you start your search for tools that will make this possible, the “usual suspects” are the first to come up in conversation: Facebook, Twitter and now even Google+ has caused rumblings among the tech savvy folks in your organization, be sure of that. Each have their advantages, and each have their own limitations. However, on the whole, these services are addressed at the public as a whole. Although they provide some control over privacy, they are not geared to creating inherently private communities. And although they provide some measure of support for collaboration, they have not been designed to support the types of interactions typical for sharing and curating knowledge.

At AssociCom, we are building technology to solve this problem for associations, and give them a secure way to communicate and collaborate with/amongst members. Focused squarely on the needs of associations, organizations and societies, we empathize with the unique needs of those groups to extract the most value out of social networking, and keeping that value where it belongs; at the domain of the org itself.

Discussing a solution to a problem is only the first step; taking action and learning is the next step. That is why we have created the ability for associations to try our software for free, or have the option of joining one of our existing networked groups to experience private social networking first hand. We encourage you to try one or both, and ask us any questions you have along the way. With the tools, strategies and practices of associations changing every moment, it helps to have access to a support system with their finger on the pulse. We are happy to be that support system, so feel free to lean on us anytime. We’re here to help.

Social Curation

22 Sep

I work as a software developer. Every day it seems like new technologies come along and I don’t want to ignore them because my own personal experience is that some of them will make a huge difference. They may help me automate some process that is currently done manually, or they may provide some service or feature that I would have to build myself otherwise. In a few rare cases, they change the way that I think about software development, and so the way that I do my job changes substantially.

But its hard keeping up with the changes. I have Twitter feeds set up from other developers that I admire and trust. I’ve got Google Reader set up with a bunch of RSS feeds from source that I have found reliable. I use Google Alerts to try and track developments on specific topics. And yet, in many cases I end up finding about new developments in a conversation over coffee, or an email from someone I used to work with.

How I wish there were a way to gather together the best and the brightest, and have them create a repository of what they have learned, what they think is interesting, what they think is groundbreaking. I’m not aware of such a community for my particular area of endeavours, but when I look around at many associations, I see just that kind community. Unfortunately, in many cases, associations fail to take advantage of that potential.

One way to harvest the bounty of your members is through social curation. Provide a way for them to identify what they’re reading, what they’re using to solve their problems, what they think is the next big thing in their field. Look into mechanisms for rating and recommending content. Maybe consider packaging some of the most highly related material into your magazine, if you have one. Or use the most highly rated authors to find people to come and speak at your conferences. Your members are thirsty for knowledge, and in an interesting apparent paradox, are also probably the best source of that knowledge.

Social curation is something that we at AssociCom are tremendously interested in. We’ve experienced ourselves the difference it can make, and we’re passionate making it available to others. If you want to find out more, give us a shout.

Stay in Touch

8 Sep

I was working on my laptop between sessions at the recent WA-ACTE conference near Seattle when I overheard a nearby conversation:

– Did you hear the keynote speech?
– Yes, it was excellent. I wish I could get a copy of that presentation.

My ears perked up because we had just the solution.

Tim Knue, the Executive Director of Washington Association for Career and Technical Education (WA-ACTE) had the foresight to create an AssociCom community web site for the members attending their summer conference. Attendees could see who else was attending, could message one another, discuss and comment on the conference, ask questions and see conference information.

The solution to the wish I overheard was the community’s web based document sharing library which allows any member to upload documents and web sites.

James Pullman is WA-ACTE’s Social Media Consultant. He had the keynote PowerPoint. We quickly put a “2011 Conf. PowerPoints” folder in the library on the Community site and uploaded the file. Result:

  • Immediately every conference attendee could download the keynote.
  • No sign up sheets with incomplete and illegible emails.
  • No one had to email out an 8.3 MB presentation.
  • The presenter did not have to type emails from a pocket full of business cards in a plane on the way home.

James gave the file a short description and tagged it “presentation”. Later other members could add other tags they preferred to search on. They could also:

  • comment on it
  • engage in a discussion about it
  • ask questions about it
  • create a poll pertaining to it
  • flag it if they thought it was inappropriate or incorrect
  • add it to their personal web based community library

A web site provides information to members, but a community site with discussion capabilities and a web based library becomes a focus for member interaction and engagement.

It is farsighted to realize that the conversations in the hallway after a presentation can go on 24/7/365 with the aid of a well-designed online community. In fact, they could lead right up to the next WA-ACTE conference.

As I left the conference, I said to Tim, James and others I had met. “Stay in touch.”