Anatomy of learning: how we (individuals) make sense of information

We talk a lot about PKM – personal knowledge management, i.e. KM for individuals – but as Nick Milton indicated recently, at heart KM is a collective effort; when done well it becomes the effort of social learning.

Where do the two scales (individual – social) really connect?

Let us assume that KM is about conversations, documentation and learning. That’s what I do. My friend Jaap Pels has his own framework (embedded in this program’s theory of change) but it speaks to this foundation very much too.

Jaap Pel's KM Framework

Jaap Pels’s KM Framework

Since I want to build on the equation KM = CDL and want to explore how individual and collective spaces interact, I am starting a journey, here and now, exploring a possible framework (on a series I’ll call ‘Anatomy of learning’) which is progressively shaping up in my mind.

The starting point here is this graph from Jaap and the related set of activities, particularly learning: at a personal level, what do we do about learning?

  • We sometimes focus (we seek, Harold Jarche might say); I’d say we sometimes envision, we sometimes simply seek, we often just stumble upon stuff… But whatever it is, there is a relation between us and different sets of information that we are interested in or engaging with;
  • How do we create that relation and let it develop from there? We read, we chat, we just relate ideas in our head and it makes us realise some connections in information. Contrary, perhaps, to Jaap I’d argue that it’s not just in the conversations that we learn, though conversations are terrific learning teasers. Yet sometimes we just start exploring something with ourselves, on our own – like me on this blog – and the reel of thread starts unfolding little by little;
  • As we make connections we may decide to register these by documenting our thoughts, readings, conversations, to single out patterns and slice through them. Or we simply add these connections to our existing thought system, as updated appendices to our previous insights on the matter;
  • In the process we thus transform our mental pictures, our interests: we codify data into information through our knowledge capacity, either into something that becomes unconscious, something that becomes obvious, something that starts to become apparent (an emerging pattern) or something that just starts puzzling us because we’re early on our journey to get our head around it.

So we end up with a quadrant of insights like this, vaguely relating to the Cynefin framework:

Stuff that starts to become apparentWe need to discuss this further (or do something about it)

Complex domain

Stuff that becomes obviousWe need (us and others) to do something about it as we understand how it works

Complicated domain

Stuff that starts puzzling usWe need to unravel this (alone / together)

Chaotic domain

Stuff that becomes (or adds on to our) unconscious competenceWe don’t need to do anything about it except occasionally update it

Simple domain

Some might think we follow these steps in a linear and ideal manner, but we don’t. Ever. Or only for very short dashes of time. And then our human nature kicks in again, like a Pavlovian reflex rebelling against routine, against what is good vs. what feels good. We return to random. Thank goodness for that. We’re not robots!

But just like practice doesn’t make perfect – purposeful practice does – it takes regular efforts to expand the field of our conscious incompetence (remember this?), and that happens more easily with others at our side, exploring together.

So the next step in this journey will be to look at other scales related to us as individuals – how learning moves from individual to become collective, or event social – something which I’m sure will turn clearer as I delve into Julian Stodd’s book ‘Exploring the world of social learning‘.

In the meantime, any light is welcome as ever🙂

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5 thoughts on “Anatomy of learning: how we (individuals) make sense of information

  1. Pingback: From pervasive attention to purposeful intention (the rituals of learning) | Agile KM for me… and you?

  2. Hello Russell,

    Fun link to #Permamarks. Good name for a blog because anything on the #Web seems to stay there forever.

    In my humble view #learning needs at least two SSS cycli; see at:

    On “Conversations, Documentation and learning = knowledge management? or are all CDL=KM?” my point of view is #KM is about interventions; for example geared or aiming at conversations, documentation (a process), information and dissemination (communicating, advocacy / etc ), but for sure also interventions on #KS happening in conversations and activities.

    I once was in a workshop where groups get some 100 pictures to figure out what route to follow. The pictures need to be sorted in a logical order based on a path to follow in the real world. It is nice to observe the group working and reflecting on their personal knowledge sharing; #PKS is born!

    Cheers, Jaap

  3. Ewen, another gallant effort to explore your thinking on learning. In a recent blogpost on Jarche’s PKM model and the Triple S (Seek>Sense>Share) process I observed that the model is deceptively attractive -it holds up at individual and organisational level – it is as jarche point’s out just a tool; if you take it as a KM approach it is particularly useful on technology connected/driven settings; to me there is an evidently socio-cultural dimension (Descartes: I think so I exist; Ubuntu: I participate and so I exist = Share = conversations) to these concepts and models that is often ignored in KM (and other discussions). One of the related conversations I am currently engaged in features the role of sensemaking – think of Karl Weick; Otto Scharmer & Senge theory U as differentiated from Dave Snowden’s take on sensemaking (see or in more detail ( From this it is apparent that you will need to identify, make explicit, what take on the key concepts you are using. As a trigger can you explain under which conditions the reverse of your equation holds? When are Conversations, Documentation and learning = knowledge management? or are all CDL=KM?
    Further curiosity emerges around the combination of of key ‘processes/behaviour’ of Conversations, Documentation and Learning? Do they need to be combined in + and + or do they as separate activities make up KM? It might be worthwhile to delve into the underlying principles of your concepts and of your equation. These principles could well reveal what the underlying values are (that you want to adhere to). Being able to explain your choices will make you transparent and vulnerable, this will trigger further discussion…

    Three other rich resources that could be of use in your learning exploration quest:
    1. => from this map it is necessary to plot your route of exploration, although you know you you will deviate from that route – as you should…🙂
    2. on the implications of being connected and learning.
    3. A further source of inspiration for me is to look at one or more of Ken Robinson’s talks (better than his writing) his performances always trigger the fun of learning and presentation.

    With interest

  4. Hi Ewen,
    Just house keeping: my name under the picture needs editing🙂
    See: and click the image for the discussion🙂 I also explain a conversation with oneself🙂

    The model is meant to point at major blocks of processes for KM interventions.

    I assume a ‘Network of people’ to have conversations and do activities represented by the top block. Activities like ‘Learning, Research & Sharing’ must take place, from very cumbersome to highly complicated and perhaps even un-learning.

    This block also entails happenings like workshops and (lifelong) education, AAR (After Action Review = a conversation on (past) activities), but also planning (having a conversation on activities) etc. Phenomena like ‘oral history’, twittering, ‘learning paths’, but also self-study I put also in this box.

    To enter a (learning / progress) loop – following the arrows – any process needs to reflect and document state of affairs, main problems, write academic paper, video tape, etc , a plethora of methods, tools and approaches. We cannot continually have a conversation (we also have to sleep) and activities cannot be perpetual managed by the same person. Some way or another records have to keep track and for that we create information and there we arrive at the bottom block.

    A person is studying on KM tools (top block; have a conversation with oneself) and keeps track of interesting URLs with a bookmark app. This way she / he is documenting the process. He keeps track of the places visited, perhaps with comments or tags. That information collection could be – curated or not – disseminated amongst a group of users. Shared bookmark apps exist. Instead of bookmark app you can also read ‘blog’.

    Now, take a meeting (top block and more than 1 person) with only pen and paper for documentation (right block). The minutes / action lists / etc will be information (bottom block); perhaps store in a file cabinet. The communication (left block) might be wall newspaper or a bulletin board at a supermarket. It is not difficult to think how the blocks populate when running a website; the editorial team is top block and the website the bottom.

    With a little effort one can find the four blocks in real life constantly. A village group organises itself and produce a handpump maintenance scheme and keep track of developments (information). Perhaps the developments must be reported back (left block) to the whole community (top block).

    Please be aware of the multiple top blocks indicating that there is a multitude of networks of people. So the above village group is network 1 and the whole community network 2.
    There are also networks of people that do not want to document at all or only think in 1 top box. In organisations the various conversations are squeezed into hierarchies where ‘lower level conversations’ report to higher ones.

    Now Web X.Y effects the whole loop. For example the speed going through the loop increases. It is easier to capture data / information (and call it documentation) with IT
    IT is going to be more and more personal though mobile technology use; some conversations are more digital than F2F. So for the lower three blocks it is obvious IT / Web X.Y will disrupt; positive or negative. But also the top block is influenced by IT. Village engineers in Mindanao run a text-based help desk and spare part network; they research, share and learn with their phone. If you fancy the ‘People, Process, Technology’ framework you will have to draw a good proportion of overlap for ‘People’ and ‘Technology’.

    Last, description of the arrows depend on the context (I know, a bit easy argument) and the content. The top right arrow could be writing a report, but mind you, that means in the top block a KM intervention must be planned (for example a knowledge sharing fair, a lecture, a round table discourse, regional consultations, ‘open spaces’, transect walks, etc). So here is a strong argument for KM people! The right bottom would be – sticking to the report – storing it in a place where other can find it. Left bottom could be desk-research or current contents or a tweet, buzz-app message (Facebook etc), an email with a link to a URL or a comment on G+, again a plethora of methods and tools. And the left top arrow would be the RSS feed, news letter, lecture, reader, video collection, etc.

    My point is that if you arrange KM interventions one must be sure all blocks are addressed as suitable.

    Best, Jaap

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