becoming collectively smarter

We are in the midst of a nano-bio-info-techno-cogno revolution. We are entering the network era and change is coming fast, which may sound like a cliché, but consider the last major shift we went through. We had lots of time for our institutions to adapt.

When markets came about, we had a few hundred years to move from the Hanseatic League, adopt double-entry bookkeeping, and progress to high frequency trading. We also were able to develop education systems, from one-room schoolhouses, to public universities, and later business schools to fuel the new corporations. Today, we are seriously lagging behind in learning how to deal with the scientific advances of the network era. We do not have the time afforded to us during the last shift to a market society. We have to jump from following state-established curriculum to creating our own learning networks: in this generation. People need to learn and work in networks, shifting their hierarchical position from teacher to learner, or from manager to contributor. They need to not only take control of their professional development but find others who can help them. It is becoming obvious in many fields that we are only as good as our knowledge networks. We have to become collectively smarter.

Personal Knowledge Management/Mastery is but one way to address the need to keep up with the scientific revolutions around us. I have worked on this framework for the past decade. It is designed to be appropriated and used in a different way for each person. But like e-learning and knowledge management, PKM is at risk of becoming a technology to buy and consume. Software vendors are turning PKM into a commodity, as well as other sense-making frameworks like personal learning networks (PLN). Society, and the workforce, cannot afford this. Consider the number of unemployed PhD holders today, educated for the last economy but adrift in this one. We need to take control of our learning, as neither the established institutions nor the markets will help us. Networks are the only answer, but we have to build them. PKM is not the only solution, but let’s not relegate it a box of code before even testing it out at scale.

PKM is only a technology in the sense that Harold Stolovitch defines it, “Technology is the application of organized and scientific knowledge to solve practical problems.” If anyone is selling you a PKM system, they do not understand it. Walk away before you waste your money. The only technology for enabling PKM is the Internet, and particularly the Web, as long as it remains open. People don’t need anything else, other than getting rid of barriers that impede their learning. Internal barriers include social media policies, firewalls, inefficient work practices, defining people by their job, and many others, too numerous to name. Usually the barriers stem from the organizational structure or from management.

PKM is not productivity improvement, though that may be an emergent result of the discipline. It is not collecting things and filing them away, no matter how fancy it looks on some software platform. PKM is creating a sense-making process that works for you, and that you regularly use. PKM is beyond the workplace, just as workers are not always at work, but are always learning.

For me, it’s using writing, particularly here on my blog, to make sense of concepts, theories, experiences, and opinions related to my professional life. Sometimes my non-professional life gets involved, and that’s just fine with me. For you, it’s probably something else, and that is the wonderful thing: there is no single PKM system for all. People practising PKM, in their own ways, add to the diversity of thinking in organizations and society. A single system would kill diverse thinking, which in turn would destroy any potential for change or innovation.

PKM builds reflection into our learning and working, helping us adapt to change and new situations. It can also help develop critical thinking skills. The discipline of PKM helps each person become a contributing node in a knowledge network. It is the foundation for social learning, which will help us develop new network era infrastructures to replace outdated institutions and markets. It does not matter what it is called, but seeking knowledge networks, active sense-making, and sharing publicly, are practices that need to be widespread. Our collective future depends on it.

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