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Use your community to improve how you think

04.15.2013
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How to take the knowledge of individual employees and spreading that throughout your organization has been a key focus of knowledge managers for decades.  Nonaka and Takeuchi developed their knowledge spiral to model how this internalization of knowledge can occur.

In the wider social media world this process has been experimented with in real time, as social network members rate, edit and curate content and inadvertently make the community wiser.

New research from Carnegie Mellon and Microsoft delves into this process of distributed sense making but chose instead to focus on improving the process of how we think.  In an increasingly knowledge based economy this is crucial as research suggests that knowledge workers are especially unproductive.

The research team looked at how digital knowledge maps can help make sense of the information we devour each day and how a community can make those knowledge maps increasingly effective.  A digital knowledge map helps to determine the processes used to make sense of the information we consume.

They found that when these mental processes had been honed by other users the quality of their own work was significantly higher than if they started from scratch or with a newly created knowledge map.

“Collectively, people spend more than 70 billion hours a year trying to make sense of information they have gathered online,” says Aniket Kittur, assistant professor in Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. “Yet in most cases, when someone finishes a project, that work is essentially lost, benefiting no one else and perhaps even being forgotten by that person. If we could somehow share those efforts, however, all of us might learn faster.”

After major projects it is quite common to have a postmortem to thrash out what went well, what didn’t and try and internalize the learnings from that project.  Some even conduct pre-mortems to identify potential problems before they’ve occurred.

For knowledge work however it would appear that this kind of procedural scrutiny does not occur anywhere near as often.  The research revealed that the benefit from the iterated knowledge maps did not come from the content itself but rather how the map was organized.

For instance, two people looking to start a garden might live in different climates or settings, so the types of seeds they might plant could be different, but each would benefit from elements such as “design ideas,” “how to,” and so on.

In a multinational environment the same could apply, with the circumstances of each situation unique, but the processes required to deliver good results similar.

Using eye tracking, the researchers showed that as multiple users successively modify knowledge maps, new users spend less time looking at specific content elements, shifting a greater balance of their attention to structural elements like labels. “This suggests that distributed sense making facilitates the process of ‘schema induction,’ or forming a mental model of the information being considered,” Counts says.

The key is however that this focus on structure did not occur until the map had been modified at least once.

Improve how you think

So just as organizations are now concentrating as much on the how of business as the what, this research suggests that if we are to get the most from our knowledge workers we need to get them collaborating on how they think rather than just on what they’re thinking about.