At the edges of knowledge work, the new beacons of ever-sharper collective intelligence


Modern knowledge workers don’t really exist. Not with all the highly desirable features we may want them to have. But breaking down what such a super human should do into distinct functions could be a good start to training us all at becoming better knowledge workers. I noted a few of these functions in the profile of a modern knowledge worker such as documenting conversations, filtering information etc. Yet these functions are dynamic and reinvent themselves, and new ones appear.

What are the next knowledge work super-hero functions? (credits - Photonquantique / FlickR)

What are the next knowledge work super-hero functions? (credits – Photonquantique / FlickR)

These new functions are partly addressed already by agile knowledge workers, but perhaps not always with enough intent and consistency. While we may not recognise the following functions, they may become increasingly pertinent in the modern knowledge era, with the intention of mobilising collective knowledge as best we can, particularly around events (online or offline) that bring people to strike rich conversations:

Ex-post sense-maker 

An event that is documented properly leads to rich notes on e.g. a wiki, a Google document, a written report (or otherwise). This is great: anyone participant in such conversations – anyone at all actually – can find and use these traces of conversations. But digital conversation notes are often TOO rich. Too long, too complex. A very useful extra mile for knowledge work would be to go through these notes and tease them out in useful bite-size chunks and compelling formats. An excellent example of this is this documentation of work done on ‘anticipating climate risks in the Sahel‘.

Memory connector (literature sifter)

This is the normal job of researchers. They dig through past documentation and build upon it. But they do it in a specific way – not always most straightforward. So before any planned/structured conversation happens (or any event gets organised), having someone go through all the literature related to the issues at hand, summarising key questions and issues that were raised around that field the last time around (picking up on the trail of ex-post sense-makers), on the latest recommendations etc. would add immense value to the conversations. It’s about mapping out the grid of our collective intelligence and building on it.

Too often we reinvent the wheel out of laziness or lack of awareness about related past conversations. The trick is again to package that preexisting information in ways that make it attractive to the people who will be engaged in the audience. Cartoons? A short video? A Pecha Kucha presentation (see example below)? A list of documents commented with humour? There are many ways to do this. So why do we too often fail at linking the past with the present?

Visualisation engineer

The documentation of conversations is more often than not done in a written format. Or in the best of cases in a myriad of videos. This makes it hard for us to absorb and synthesise that information. So how about visual engineers: people who are able to prepare visual handouts as the conversations unfold, organise intelligent lists of contacts that make networking and connecting easier, sifting through stats and presenting graphs in a radical and compelling way, developing complex thoughts into an-image-is-worth-1000-words kind of graphs and conceptual models.

Graphic recording - a whole palette of options before, during and after... (Credits - Susan Kelly)

Graphic recording – a whole palette of options before, during and after… (Credits – Susan Kelly)

There’s already a lot of graphic recording (see above) happening. I believe in our Instagram-culture of Pinterest drives we are only at the dawn of on-the-spot visual engineering. And this is perhaps not as much a function as an activity that just should occur more systematically.

And here’s another example:

Social network gardener

Perhaps this function is covered under any of the above. The idea is that someone really uses the information recorded and nuggets harvested to plant it/them in the right channels, networks and locations. Combined with the work of a visualisation engineer, this job allows targeted sending of compelling information to the right people.

Social media gardening - takes time but pays off! (Credits - j&tplaman / FlickR)

Social media gardening – takes time but pays off! (Credits – j&tplaman / FlickR)

Social network gardening does take time, but really adds a lot of value to the exchange that happened in the first instance, because it contributes to a universal information base that can reduce the learning curve the next time a group of people are wondering about a similar set of issues. And it does so not just by making information available but also by connecting people, i.e. knowledge – so it’s much more dynamic. Of course a lot of modern knowledge workers are already doing this to some extent. The point is to add structure and intent to this, to maximise opportunities for interaction beyond the group of people already involved.

Interestingly, what all these functions have in common is to combine conversations (knowledge sharing) and their documentation or processing (information management) both before, during and after the conversations happen… Acting upon the conversations as they happen, the nexus of agile KM don’t you think?

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