knowledge catalysts

Most people have heard Clay Shirky’s quote that, “It’s not information overload, it’s filter failure.” The professor and author has coined terms such as ‘cognitive surplus’ to explain that we have the mental capacity to do a lot more with our collective intelligence, but too often, societal barriers inhibit us. We are too busy with the day-to-day commute, usually in a deluge of noise from radios, billboards, and news sources, to reflect and consider bigger issues. Getting paid every two weeks focuses employee attention on the short term, as do quarterly reports for executives.

Filter failure is only part of our challenge to make sense of our world. Even with good information filters in place, we remain passive consumers of information. We can share our filtered information, which many do on social media or over a coffee, but what value are we adding to it? It takes more time and effort to take our filtered information and make sense of it. Shirky, once again, says that “Curation solves the problem of filter failure”. I would say that curation adds a layer of value, but is still not enough.

Co-creation enables large scale change. Harold Stolovitch wrote a book called Telling Ain’t Training . Well, curation ain’t creation. Curation is an important aspect of personal knowledge mastery. But we have to do something with our knowledge. That means experimentation. Probing our complex environments is the only way to understand them. Businesses that do not experiment will fail over time. People who fail to continuously learn will be replaced by machines. But it is not necessary for each of us to do this on our own.

We can become knowledge catalysts — filtering, curating, thinking, and doing – in conjunction with others. No one can live in an ivory tower of knowledge any more. We need to use our own knowledge in conjunction with others. Only in collaboration with others will we understand complex issues and create new ways of addressing them. As expertise is getting eroded in many fields, innovation across disciplines is increasing. We need to reach across these disciplines.

For example, I have been working on the personal knowledge framework for over a decade. Each PKM workshop that I conduct, I learn by doing it with participants. This is why the workshops are conducted as cohorts of a dozen or more, so that our learning is social, and grounded in reality. In addition, I work with organizations to see how the PKM framework could work in their context. Recently we examined how an international NGO could implement it. Currently we are looking at PKM as a framework for professional development for educators. PKM is also used as a change management framework in healthcare. In each case, people had to put into practice what they were thinking. Just talking about it, or curating relevant information, was not enough. A comment [paraphrased] from a participant on one of our PKM workshops shows how we need to re-frame our perspectives on knowledge.

“A doctor cannot tell me anymore, on his own, what sickness I have, but only in collaboration with me. I have to make an effort to learn about the topic, and he must make an effort to listen to me. We can have a much better impact collaborating like this.”

Good knowledge catalysts have diverse knowledge networks from which to seek knowledge. These networks are part of their filters. Catalysts also share, adding value through processes such as curation. In addition, and most importantly, they are catalysts in creating and doing something new.


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