Tag Archives: knowledge

Conversations about conversation – Gurteen knowledge café

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Estimated reading time 4–6 minutes

Last Wednesday evening I attend my first “Knowledge Café” hosted by David Gurteen. I have heard a lot about these cafés at various information events and so was pleased to finally be able to attend one in person. The idea appears to be twofold – firstly that knowledge and information professionals can find out what such cafés are for and how to run them and secondly simply to participate in them for their own sake.The “meta-ness” of the theme – conversations about conversation – appealed to me. (I’ve always like metacognition – essentially thinking about thinking, too).

We had plenty of time to get a drink and network before the event started, which is always a good thing, then David gave us a short introduction to the topic. He talked about Theodore Zeldin‘s book about Conversation: How Talk can Change our Lives and reminisced about a conversation from his own childhood that had held personal significance. He then set us three questions to discuss, about whether conversations can help us to see the world differently and how we can use them to bring about change for the better.

We then had a quick round of “speed networking” and formed groups to talk about the first question, moving on to different groups subsequently, so that we were well mixed by the end of the evening. To conclude we gathered into one large circle to talk further. This way we spiralled out from a single speaker, to speaking in pairs, then small groups, then all of us together.

Some common strands that everyone seemed to touch on at some point included discussing whether conversation was medium agnostic. Some people felt quite strongly that only a face-to-face discussion was a real conversation and that chatting via email, by text, by IM, and even by telephone were not the same. Others felt that the medium was irrelevant, it was the nature and quality of the communication that mattered. They agreed that signals, such as body language, shared environment, and instant interactivity were lost when not face to face, but that other factors, such as power imbalances between participants, could be minimised by talking remotely and unseen. Most people agreed that it was far easier to chat in highly constrained media, such as texting, with people one already knew well and had talked to frequently face to face, as that acquaintance helped smooth over misunderstandings due to lack of tone of voice or hastily chosen and ambiguous words. Clarity of vocabulary was also seen as key, especially when dealing with diverse groups or communities of practice.

Trust, power, empathy, and the ability to listen were noted as important factors in productive conversations, as was persuasion, but also that people needed to be open and receptive if change – and perhaps even communication at all – were to be achieved.

I was surprised that fewer people mentioned the physical surroundings and settings of good conversations. I remembered Plato, with Socrates sometimes in the marketplace and sometimes going off to sit in a quiet place under a tree. I find the best conversations need a calm neutral space, without interruptions, where participants can be comfortable, can hear each other clearly, can see each other easily, and have space to move about, perhaps to draw, gesture, etc. if they want to emphasise or illustrate a point. Poor acoustics in restaurants can be disastrous for dinner conversations if all you can hear is clattering chairs and clinking cutlery. Chirruping mobile phones, staff requesting answers, and children needing attention break conversational rhythm and flow, not to mention trains of thought.

Interestingly, in the group discussion, and as so often happens in all conversations, people drifted off topic and became increasingly animated by discussion of something unintended and not particularly relevant. In this case it was a purely political debate about whether the competitive nature of humans was a good or bad thing. Despite mutterings that we are becoming less politically engaged, people seem to want to wear their politics very much on their sleeves.

On the way home, I wondered whether the conversations I had participated in that evening had changed me or the world. In a small way, every experience we have changes the world. I met some interesting new people. I had some new ideas and learned a few new piece of information (apparently it is less tiring to listen to a telephone conversation using both ears – e.g. through a pair of headphones instead of a single earpiece). This blog post exists as a result of the evening. However, I took to heart the point that change has to come from within and I resolved to try to remember to stay adaptable and open to new viewpoints. I also resolved to listen more attentively and to try to facilitate better, more productive conversations while at work. I certainly hope this will change the world for the better, albeit in a very subtle way.

Communities of Practice

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Estimated reading time 3–5 minutes

I found Communities of Practice (CoP) by Etienne Wenger to be one of those strange books that lots of people told me I must read – and it is relevant to taxonomy work (although this post digresses) – but when I did read it, it all seemed so totally obvious I could hardly believe it had taken until the 1980s to be formulated. Barbara Rogoff and Jean Lave also pioneered the thinking, but I feel sure the ideas must date back at least to medieval trade guilds. It is one of the odd features of academia that sometimes the obvious has simply not been noticed and it is the recognition of the obvious that is revolutionary.

The core ideas are that we don’t just learn about doing something or even how to do something, we learn to be a person that does those things, and this shapes our identities. So, I can get my editorial assistants to read Judith Butcher on copy editing to teach them about editing, I can give them practical exercises so they learn how to copy edit, but it is only after they have been given real copy editing work, amongst other copy editors, that they experience how copy editors behave, and so learn how to be copy editors. Learning is therefore a continuous lifelong process.

In the UK there has traditionally been a divide between learning about (academic) and learning how (vocational), with learning to be happening outside the educational system, in workplaces (e.g. via apprenticeships). Wenger emphasises the need to encourage learning to be, and of course it is vital, but politically it worries me that too much responsibility for this is currently falling on academia and not enough on employers (I’m probably misrepresenting Wenger here). As an employer I think I ought to invest in training new staff (and in ongoing staff development), mainly because I can train staff to be exactly the way they need to be in the specific employment context. There is no practical way that a national education system could be so specific, unless it only caters to a handful of big corporations, which don’t need the help or the additional social power. On the other hand, I really don’t want to have to teach new staff lots of learning about – grammar and spelling, for example – that can be taught perfectly well in the classroom.

I think a civilised society should be willing to pay collectively for some essentially uncommercialised public spaces (e.g. universities) where people can just think in order to get better at thinking. A vocational element is great (I have personally enjoyed and benefited from the vocational aspects of my course) but part of my motivation for returning to university was to have time to explore questions and experiment with ideas without limiting myself to only those that I could show in advance would bring in some cash.

How does all this relate to taxonomy work? A taxonomy may be needed within a single community of practice, in which case recognising the user group as a CoP may help make sense of the project and the terminology required. Conversely, a taxonomy may need to be a boundary object between CoPs, perhaps even linking numerous CoPs together. By recognising and identifying different CoPs in an organisation, a taxonomist can get a picture of the different dialects and practices that exist and need to be taken into account.

A new taxonomist also needs to learn to be a taxonomist, and the taxonomy communities of practice (both specific and theoretical) already out there play a vital role in this process.

The Social Life of Information

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Estimated reading time 3–5 minutes

The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid is an info classic. It’s one of those delightful books that manages to be very erudite, cover a huge range of theory, but reads effortlessly and even had me laughing out loud from time to time. (My favourite anecdote was that BT’s answer to homeworkers’ sense of isolation was to pipe a soundtrack of canned background noise and chatter into their offices!)

Essentially, the book argues that information and information technology cannot be separated from its social context and ignoring the human factors in technology adoption and use leads to fundamental misunderstandings of what it can and does do. This may mean overestimating the potential of information technology to change pre-existing institutions and practices, on both a personal and collective scale, and underestimating the ability of people to adapt technology to suit their ends rather than those envisaged by the technologists.

The authors argue that many “infoenthusiasts” miss subtleties of communication, such as the implicit social negotiations that take place in face-to-face conversations or the social meanings conveyed by a document printed on high quality paper or a book with expensive leather binding. Such nuances are easily lost when the words from such communications are removed from their original context and placed in a new environment – such as an electronic database.

Similarly, although personalisation is often touted as a great advance – you can have your own uniquley customised version of a website or a newspaper – such personalisation diminishes the power of the information source to act as a binding-point for a community. If we all have different versions of the newspaper, then we can’t assume we share common knowledge of the same stories. We then have to put additional work into reconnecting and recreating our knowledge communities, so the benefits of personalisation do not come without costs.

The importance of negotiation, collaboration, and improvisation is argued to be highly significant but extremely hard to build into automated systems. The social nature of language and the complexities of learning how to be a member of a community of practice, including knowing when to break or bend rules, are also essential to how human beings operate but extremely difficult to replicate in technological systems.

The theme of balance runs throughout the book – for example between the need to control processes while allowing freedom for innovation in companies or between the need for communication amongst companies and the need to protect intellectual property (knowledge in companies was often either seen as too “sticky” – hard to transfer and use – or too “leaky” – flowing too easily to competitors). At an institutional level, balance is needed between the importance of stability for building trust and openness to evolution (the perception of the value of a degree is bound up with the established reputation of an educational institution).

I found this very interesting, as my brother has been trying to persuade me that Daoism with its emphasis on things moving gradually from one state to another is a more productive way at looking at complex systems than the Aristotelian view that something can be in one category, or its opposite, but never both at once. (Here is a sisterly plug for an article he has written on the application of Daoist ideas to environmentalism). It also fits in with the idea of balancing the stability of an ordered taxonomy with the fast-flowing nature of folksonomies and of finding a way of using social media to support rather than compete with more formalised knowledge management practice. Brown and Duguid say: “For all the advantages of fluidity, we should not forget that fixity still has its charms. Most of us prefer the checks we receive and the contracts we write to remain stable”, which seems particularly apt given the global credit crisis!


Meta Knowledge Mash-up 2.0 (2008)

Estimated reading time 6–10 minutes

This joint ISKO UK/KIDMM (Knowledge, Information, Data and Metadata Management) workshop, hosted by the British Computer Society on October 9th, boasted an impressive menu of speakers and delegates.

Alan Pollard (BCS president-elect) welcomed us and Conrad Taylor (KIDMM co-ordinator and organiser of the event) provided a very handy literature review and reading list and summarised concepts of knowledge and its management. He encouraged us to “turn data dumps into real knowledge stores”, referring to Etienne Wenger’s work on Communities of Practice and Karl Popper’s notions of “three worlds” (physical, internal/mental, and socio-cultural). The reification of knowledge was another theme and I was struck by the proposal that language is a reification of knowledge that enables participation.

As the spirit of the day was collaboration, we were seated “cabaret style” in small groups and encouraged to talk to each other and share ideas and formulate questions at the end of each presentation. This was a great way of meeting other delegates and giving the day an informal conversational feel.

Marilyn Leask (Brunel University) described her experiences building large-scale and international knowledge-sharing communities in education (TeacherNet, European SchoolNet, and I&DeA). She warned that projects that begin as community-based knowledge-sharing initiatives can be co-opted by the authorities and become accountability measurement instruments or mechanisms for disseminating information, rather than as spaces for true collaboration. It is therefore important to know what you are trying to achieve with your community and who will ultimately be responsible. It may not be appropriate to have community areas on a site that is ultimately a government tool – there are no wikis on TeacherNet – as private professional discussions cannot take place freely when there is government awareness, if not systematic monitoring, of what is being said.

Where funding is required, patience is necessary as projects can take many years to get going. Often it helps to “seed” an idea, leave it to germinate, and wait until enough people start asking why the idea has not already been acted on before funding can be obtained. It takes a critical mass of people accepting the idea to give it momentum.

Another good tip is to find “champions” of the idea and allow them to provide proof of concept. There will always be “late adopters” who are unwilling to participate and there is no point in trying to convince them in the early stages. It also helps to have knowledge-sharing and participation in community sites built into people’s job descriptions and time allowed for them to learn and join in within their normal working day, so that participation does not become yet another additional burden.

It is possible to provide return on investment (ROI) and value for money figures – for example by using costs of purchasing documents from the British Library (about £30 each) or costs of re-writing existing policy documents unnecessarily (often in the region of £5,000-£10,000).

Lindsay Rees-Jones and Ed Mitchell from CILIP talked about the discussion forums and blog spaces they had created for CILIP members. They pointed out that members of the community are contributing a valuable resource – their time – and so need to feel they receive some benefits in return. It is important to ensure social as well as technical cross-sections to make communities work and establishing behaviours, protocols, and processes is more important for administrators than proposing topics for discussion.

The two presenters agreed that participation needs to be part of job roles, not a voluntary extra, and that buy-in will start slowly, with just a few early adopters, but that others will follow. They also felt that quality of content is more important than the number of contributors.

They found it useful to have some “walled gardens” that were kept completely private and some public and semi-public areas for different groups and different purposes. They also pointed out a difference between networks and communities – networks radiate out from a person, whereas communities occur collectively and separately from any individual.

Jan Wyllie (Open Intelligence Ltd) talked about a knowledge community formed in the mid-1990s to produce the “Tomorrow’s Company Inquiry” report for the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). Content was gathered through paper-based questionnaires and letters (mainly sent by fax). Content analysis was used along with a pre-existing taxonomy to identify shared meanings and structure the content. However, a purpose-built taxonomy might have been preferable. Classification is a powerful tool in knowledge discovery, as well as organisation, allowing key questions to be brought to the surface of complex and large collections of information.

Using social networks to organise knowledge is a powerful way of rating discussion – by monitoring who is discussing a subject as well as what is being discussed, a far more detailed picture of trends in thinking and emergent topics can be produced.

Christopher Dean (Airbus SAS) described building knowledge-sharing communities within industry. He classified communities into three types – organic, declared, and manufactured. Organic communities typically grow in a stepped manner – a “punctuated equilibrium” – with bursts of growth followed by plateaus. For communities to succeed, membership needs to be an attractive proposition, with perceived benefits (such as socialising, co-learning, co-production); affordable (in terms of costs and risks – which may be in time as well as money); and voluntary (easy to join and leave). Communities are more successful when they have a clear purpose and attract “birds of a feather” rather than arise out of a process of “herding cats”. Empires fall when their citizens stop believing in them and communities tend to wither when they cease to have a clear purpose.

Communities can be disappointed when an imbalance arises between the state of knowledge within the community and within the wider organisation, as specialist communities often find that things they take for granted are not understood by outsiders.

Dialogic design is a hot new topic concerned with teaching people to participate effectively.

Sabine McNeill (3D Metrics) talked about creating communities to raise political issues and lobby governments. Focusing on a proposal for “Green Credit for Green Growth” and the “Forum for Stable Currencies she described the process of moving from data through knowledge to wisdom. She described online communities as being forums for “software-aided thinking”. She also talked about the community-building value in schemes like LETS that sidestep the problems associated with the wider economic system and environmental destruction.

In our groups we then took part in an entertaining card-sorting exercise to identify key features and requirements for a new knowledge-sharing software tool and website to be built for KIDMM by Susan Payne (De Montfort University). I thoroughly enjoyed this, although unsurprisingly – given that I was amongst expert taxonomists – we tended to focus on classification issues! Susan presented her plans for the Know*Ware software and called for participation and collaboration in its creation.

To round off, there was a panel session which focused on how the Know*Ware tool would be built and what its aims should be.