Actually, Documenting Is Learning!
Last week, I published the second of my three-part series of “gentle rants” on facilitating learning in groups. The title was, “Documenting Is Not Learning.”
That piece was widely shared on various social media channels, and it also stirred up some controversy. A few of my close colleagues raised their eyebrows when they saw my title. One of those colleagues was Dave Gray.
On my personal blog, I described how I know Dave, why I respect him so much, and what I’ve learned from him over the years. His credentials — founder of XPLANE, author of Gamestorming and The Connected Company, creator of Boardthing — are impressive, but they don’t do him justice. Dave is a great thinker, practitioner, learner, and teacher. He has a deep understanding of collaboration and innovation, and he is a brilliant visual thinker. These are what his notes look like:
He might claim that this is a polished version, but I have seen his “rough” notes, and they look essentially the same.
Dave read my post, and he understood and agreed with my overall message. But he rightfully had a beef with my title, and he called me out on it. I felt like I needed to write a followup post to clarify what I meant, but I thought it would be much more fun to have a conversation with Dave on this and related topics, and to let the content of that conversation essentially become the post.
Yesterday, we spent about an hour talking on a public Google Hangout. (The video of our conversation is below.) To my delight, we had about six people listening in (including my wonderful and wise colleagues Nancy White, Seb Paquet, Beth Kanter, and Natalie Dejarlais), and we all took collective notes using Boardthing. I want to highlight a few points here.
Documenting Is Learning!
In my quest to make my title punchy and provocative, it lost importance nuance. The process of documenting is absolutely a great way to learn for the person doing the documenting. I tried to make that point in my post:
Externalizing our knowledge can be a valuable way for individuals to reflect and internalize, but it’s only valuable for peers and colleagues if they take the time to absorb it.
It’s even more powerful when the act of documenting becomes a collective process, which is what was happening during our conversation on Boardthing.
My rant was essentially about people’s assumptions about why or how artifacts that result from documentation can be valuable for learning. In my conversation with Dave, I shared the three dimensions in which I think about artifacts:
- Transcriptive. A detailed, chronological capture of a discussion or thought process. The video below is an example of a transcriptive artifact.
- Interpretive. A synthesis of a discussion or thought process. This blog post is more interpretive than transcriptive, but it’s still somewhat transcriptive. The same goes for the resulting Boardthing from our conversation. (That also gets special status, because it was collectively as opposed to individually created.) Dave’s image, on the other hand, is highly interpretive and not very transcriptive.
- Evocative. Something emotional that triggers a memory. I told a story about how my photographs from various projects often serve a more useful role in triggering learning than my writing, because they elicit an emotional response. I probably pay more attention to Dave’s idea stream than to other colleague’s because his notes are so evocative.
Focusing too much on the transcriptive and interpretive dimensions of documentation prevents you from designing effective learning processes.
(As an aside, understanding and experimenting with the role that artifacts play in high-performance collaboration is a foundational question for me. I’ll write more about it in future posts.)
Dave and I talked a lot about the nature of learning and knowledge. The truth is that learning is wonderfully messy and contextual, and it’s often done best with others. Attempting to abstract learning into a series of information transactions is not only wrong, it’s harmful.
Dave described how Visual Thinking School (one of the inspirations for Changemaker Bootcamp) came about at his previous company, XPLANE. As an experiment in encouraging more cross-organizational and enjoyable learning, they had decided to designate two-hours a week for people to learn from each other. They wanted to make it optional, but they also wanted to demonstrate a real, organizational commitment to the experiment.
They decided to schedule it on Thursdays from 4pm to 6pm, which meant half of it was during work hours, but the other half was on people’s personal time. They also told managers not to schedule meetings during this time, so that people’s calendars would be clear to attend if they so choose.
Listening to Dave describe the thinking behind Visual Thinking School felt like a case study in how to design effective learning processes. It wasn’t about trying to get people to write down what was in their heads. It was all about creating a delightful space in which learning could happen, facilitating stronger relationships within the company, and focusing on the true nature of craft.
We ended our conversation the way we started — exploring the realities of how we learn. I told Dave about how my parents would always say to me when I was growing up, “We don’t want you to make the mistakes that we did.” Later in my adult life, I decided that I disagreed with this. Sometimes, you absolutely do want people to make the same mistakes, because that can be the best way to learn. You just want to minimize the negative effects of making them.
In response, Dave shared a story about the four kinds of horses that he used to tell to his students who were failing his class:
- The first kind learns to run effortlessly.
- The second kind learns when it sees the shadow of the whip.
- The third kind learns when it first feels the sting of the whip.
- The fourth kind only learns when the sting of the whip sinks into the very marrow of its bones.
Everyone envies the first kind of horse, but only the fourth kind truly understands what it means to run in the very marrow of its bones. There is something deep and wonderful about that kind of learning, painful though it may be.
Many thanks to Dave for provoking this wonderful conversation and to all of my friends and colleagues who engaged with us on our call and on social media!
E – You and Nancy, and Beth and Dave may wish to to have a look at heutagogy.
“Attempting to abstract learning into a series of information transactions is not only wrong, it’s harmful.”
Finally, on ‘documenting’ see –
Eugene, I’m really glad to see this blog post. The previous one seemed odd to me, though (I guess like Dave) I understood your core point.
Maybe the word “repository” is the source of the confusion? You focused on the difference between the words “data” and “knowledge,” but it seems to me that Doug Englebart had that right. From the way you present it, anyway, it seems that he was unequivocally interested in knowledge, not mere data collection.
But if we think of wikis as, perhaps, an example of the kind of “repositories” he intended, it’s important to remember that they can and generally should be living, breathing things. For example, I would say without hesitation that a vast quantity of my knowledge comes from Wikipedia. But I it hasn’t resulted from what I’ve read; it’s resulted from the process of writing for it, seeing what others do with my work, what they delete, what prompts discussions, what they expand; from participating in, and sometimes leading, those discussions; and from teaching others to engage effectively with Wikipedia. Those things have been massively educational, and have been supported by, on occasion, passively reading.
I have often referred to Wikipedia as a “shared notebook.” I first got excited about Wikipedia (and many other wikis) when I returned to find that somebody had “improved” the “notes” I had left in its articles. A notebook isn’t just a repository — I think a writer, an artist, or an engineer might, in a sentimental moment, refer to a notebook as a friend, as a companion, as a thinking partner. It’s not just the dry process of recording data and then accessing it later that makes a notebook useful; the best times are when you get lost in it, jumping between notes from last year and notes from last night, synthesizing, theorizing, dreaming. A wiki (or other digital “repository”) can be like a shared notebook — it can support and sustain and enhance the process of thinking, within yourself and among your peers.
If I understand correctly, I think Doug Englebart was right, that knowledge “repositories” are the way to go — I just think a better word than “repository” might capture the thought better.
This is a disturbing, painful discussion. Have we really fallen backwards soooo far? Where are Nishida, SECI, Nonaka, an, above all, ba? C’mon. Please brush up here…
Doug was close colleague.The DKR is ba and v/v. Period. People here must know this, correct?
Remember, the dictionary definition of ‘repository’ includes people. In the West they are left out of the DKR equation. This frustrated Doug to no end.
Anyway, this discussion concerns me. These matters are settled.
John, I’m not understanding what’s disturbing you about this discussion. Who are you arguing with?
Your points about the relevancy of ba and the ontology of “repository” are wonderful. As it happens, my blog post this week will be about ma and ba, so there’s some synchronicity in the air.
However, I don’t appreciate the dismissive tone you’re taking here. I’m not even sure to whom it’s being directed. If you have a question or an objection, I’d encourage you to reframe it. Thanks.
Let’s dispense with the ridiculous ad hominem claim of a dismissive tone right away. You invited us to reply, “I’D LOVE TO HEAR WHAT YOU THINK!” Then you admonish us for something as subjective as style, tone and rhetoric? Really? Aren’t we further along than this? That’s chutzpah.
My concern is the discussion is severely biased. Respectable people have again been led astray by their own parochial, Western and Cartesian views. It’s common and needs to be called out. Most people are grateful to learn about shortcomings… particularly in a blog on learning!
My objection is that this discussion is turgid and obfuscates rather simple, fundamental principles established more than a generation ago. All the platitudes aside, the pervasive irony in all these sort of discussions, upon further in-depth interaction, is they almost always conclude with ‘violent agreement.’
Most the people here know better. My reaction is not to the mostly excellent points, rather to the obvious errors-of-omission not to any error-of-commission.
Pete, thanks for asking. Newbie comments are important and welcome. They are a good test for how far we’ve come with Collective IQ diffusion. (We failed today’s test.) It is also important for newbies to understand the fundamental principles. The paper is rather lightweight… for smaller bits you may turn here…
John, I still don’t understand what your position is, all I can glean from this is that you’re very angry. I’m sorry for any role I played in that, I had thought this was a casual conversation and I didn’t realize my words had the power to offend in this context. I’m not planning to read that paper, but if somebody can explain why it would be a good idea in terms that I can understand, I might reconsider.
Angry? That’s laughable. The sentiment and empathy is appreciated, just wrong. Look, Pete, Eugene, a long-time associate, offered us, in his words, a ‘rant’ that was deliberately intended, again in his words, to be ‘provocative.’ Mission accomplished.
My simple, thoughtful and cogent response, after being deliberately ‘provoked,’ was to call-out the obvious Western-Cartesian bias. That’s all.
Upon reflection, it is probably a bit tongue-in-check, since the esteemed leaders here know precisely of what I speak, why it is critical, and usually appreciate the friendly response to their deliberate, also friendly, provocation. They know the yin and yang of learning, DKR, ba, and so on.
BTW, maybe this chart helps with ‘terms that you can understand.’
If psychoneuroendocrinology is more your speed, look here –
John, as I’ve noted, I think you’ve made a lot of useful contributions here. What I’m requesting is that you be more conscious of who else might be in this space and how your language might impact other people’s willingness to participate.
I know you, but not everyone does. I also happen to know Pete, who is not familiar with Doug Engelbart’s work, but is certainly no newbie on the topics that I write about regularly here on this blog. You called your initial response to Pete “friendly,” and you challenged my categorization of your tone as “dismissive.” I believe the intent with which you made your comment, but I’m trying to give you feedback that not everyone reading it might recognize that.
For example, you didn’t directly acknowledge anything that Pete wrote in his comment. Also, consider this line:
“The DKR is ba and v/v. Period. People here must know this, correct?”
How many people know what a DKR is, much less ba or v/v? (I still don’t know what the latter is.) It’s a wonderful thing to introduce people to these concepts — that’s one reason why people come here — but we must do it in a way that’s inviting if we want others to listen and contribute. That’s certainly one of my goals, and I know you appreciate that as well.
Thanks as always for your thoughts.
eek – Duly noted. Yeah, some may not be familiar with our shorthand. People like Nancy, Dave, Beth, etc. get it, but it may rattle others.
My content lifecycle starts with raw, quick replies (the response) to requests (the call).
The unvarnished comments are okay for a smaller audience. It is often just thinking out loud… e.g., “The DKR is ba and v/v. Period. People here must know this, correct?” is more a note-to-self in the form of a rhetorical question. It certainly is not an emphatic claim nor is it dismissive. BTW, v/v = (vice versa).
My humility makes it impossible to be dismissive of anything! The fact is my contribution always offers links, research, blogs, papers, definitions, introductions, etc., to support the thesis. On the contrary, these valuable resources were summarily dismissed. Go figure.
Moving along, if the discourse reveals something worthwhile, then it is refined and re-purposed for published blogs, which is a larger audience. Blogs get refined even more for research, papers, Websites, columns, etc. There is a method-to-the-madness, because, after all, DOCUMENTING IS LEARNING!, right?
Honestly, in my most humble opinion, it really isn’t my place to create ‘inviting’ prose with the hopes that people comment on your blog.
It’s demanding enough to make comments that are hopefully cogent and incisive, without gift-wrapping and a big red bow to ingratiate myself to your other readers in the hopes they step-up with a worthwhile contribution. (?)
Maybe some people believe Kumbaya idioms and naively optimistic views of online interaction advances collaborative engagement in discussions and comments, just not me, sorry.
(BTW, as you well know, and used personally in this very blog (your ‘rant’), provocation can be highly instrumental in converting lurkers to contributors!)
In this particular case, it is also very interesting that the call-and-response is inexorably intertwined with the topic of the originating blog. To me, that’s very cool! Nice going.
African call-and-response is an important collaborative archetype for democratic participation. It deserves close attention of top experts like you and your readers. See:
I say: Let’s not overlook call-and-response anymore!
You say: Hallelujah!
John, since Eugene seems interested in some meta-discussion about the dynamics here, let me add a little. (The threading seems a little messed up here — apologies if this seems out of sequence, I’m doing my best. I’ll just quote the relevant bits from your latest post:)
JM> some may not be familiar with our shorthand. People like Nancy, Dave, Beth, etc. get it, but it may rattle others.
Speaking for myself, I wasn’t rattled, but I was pretty sure from your first two messages that you were uninterested in anything I might have to say. By “pretty sure” I mean close to 100%. I’m happy to reconsider since it seems like my conclusion might have been incorrect.
JM> My content lifecycle starts with raw, quick replies (the response) to requests (the call).
This approach sounds familiar, I often do the same thing. But I think this approach can be hazardous, and deserves the kind of reflection Eugene is suggesting. Since Eugene has recently been explicitly asking for us to consider the “100 people in the room” I agree with him — it would be good if you can consider how more people than Nancy (White?) Dave (Gray?) and Beth (?) might read your words. This will probably be a challenge for all of us — in my own comments, I probably also have a short list of people I know in common with Eugene that I’d tend to have in mind.
JM> My humility makes it impossible to be dismissive of anything!
It’s impossible for me or anybody to know what’s in your heart — all we know is the words we see! Maybe your intention was humility, but I think the opposite is what came across.
JM> The fact is my contribution always offers links, research, blogs, papers, definitions, introductions, etc., to support the thesis. On the contrary, these valuable resources were summarily dismissed. Go figure.
I don’t dismiss them, but in a world where there are thousands of interesting papers and blogs etc. to read, I tend to read the ones that somebody has given me reason to read. Are they valuable? To be blunt, if Eugene tells me they are valuable, I take that seriously, because I know him. You, I don’t know (yet). How do I know if your recommendation means something? Until I know something about you, I will need more than the shorthand. And even when I do know you, there are still 95 or so people in this “room” who don’t. When reading that 15 page paper, what should I have in mind — how should I expect it to connect to this discussion? You don’t have to tell me, but if there is value there, a hint or two in language that I can understand will help.
JM> Honestly, in my most humble opinion, it really isn’t my place to create ‘inviting’ prose with the hopes that people comment on your blog.
OK — I’m getting a mixed message here. You do, or you don’t want somebody like me to listen to what you have to say?
JM> Maybe some people believe Kumbaya idioms and naively optimistic views of online interaction advances collaborative engagement in discussions and comments, just not me, sorry.
Hm. I manage to spend time in many online places where people routinely break down complex research and jargon in order to present it to a new audience. Certainly it’s not your duty to operate in that way, but I’m not willing to concede that the last 10-15 years of my online life has been a naive dream.
JM> (BTW, as you well know, and used personally in this very blog (your ‘rant’), provocation can be highly instrumental in converting lurkers to contributors!)
I absolutely agree — and like Eugene, there are times when I am intentionally provocative too. Provocative framing can be a useful tool — but like all tools, it can be more or less effective depending on a lot of factors. This encounter doesn’t reduce to a simple question of whether provocative framing is good or bad.
JM> In this particular case, it is also very interesting that the call-and-response is inexorably intertwined with the topic of the originating blog. To me, that’s very cool! Nice going.
Agreed! We have taken a strange path to it, but I agree that there is now a lot of juicy stuff to consider on the table.
JM> African call-and-response is an important collaborative archetype for democratic participation. It deserves close attention of top experts like you and your readers. See:
Case in point — thanks for the interesting links! And now that I have a better sense of your approach to this encounter, maybe I’ll be able to play along better.
Hi John, is there a way for me to get the gist of what you are saying without reading a 15 page paper? I don’t understand. What is disturbing you? What is settled? If the pain comes from me misunderstanding a deceased colleague of yours, please accept my apologies. I was never able to meet Mr. Englebart and I confess that I am not as familiar with his work as many readers of this blog.