Knowledge Webs

2015-02-23

Organization of information and tools. It doesn’t seem like an important topic, but it is critically important. How do you organize the file folders in your office? How do you organize the folders and files in your computer? How do you organize the books on your shelf? How do you organize the tools in your shop? How do you organize your office? You have a strategy for each of these. That strategy has been honed with experience and perhaps wisdom from others. Virtually everything at your disposal is organized in some way (even disorganization is a form of organization).

Here’s one you probably haven’t thought of, though: How do you organize the knowledge in your head?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been exploring principles of the science of how people learn from How Learning Works: 7 Research-based Principles for Smart Thinking by Susan A. Ambrose and four colleagues. I explored the general challenge and importance of learning and growing in Learn. Grow. Change. Then, in How Does Learning Work? I offered a definition of learning that attacked some conventional wisdom and practices. I also addressed the importance of assessing prior knowledge as a foundation for adding new knowledge in Assess What You Know.

In this installment, I explore the importance of how we organize knowledge and what it tells us about our expertise level and depth of understanding of that knowledge.

When people learn something new, at work, school, or elsewhere, they usually acquire only sets of single data points. That is, they are only taught single data points. Facts and bits of information are provided, hoping that the necessary connections will be made and applied in the correct manner. For example, a student of American history might be taught a series of dates and events:

  • 1754-1763 The French & Indian War
  • March 22, 1765 The Stamp Act
  • March 5, 1770 The Boston Massacre
  • December 16, 1773 The Boston Tea Party
  • September 5-October 26, 1774 The First Continental Congress
  • March 23, 1775 Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” Speech
  • April 19, 1775 The “shot heard ‘round the world”

On their own, these are just data points. Each is independently an important topic and there are books, articles, and even dissertations written about each. However, a deep understanding of how they relate to one another, and how each event influenced all the others that followed, is required for a more complete understanding of the ensuing American Revolutionary War. That then leads to a more complete understanding of the current American culture, political system, legal system, economy, and other facets of the country.

True mastery of the subject of American history, politics, culture, economy, etc., requires knowing much more than single data points. It requires knowing how those data points relate to and influence one another.

This is true of any subject. Sales and marketing. Operations management. Supply chain management. Communication. Human resource management. Conflict management. Education and learning science. Film. Classical piano. Middle Eastern foods. Etc. Etc. Etc.

New knowledge is acquired better, and better applied, when taught with the intended use in mind. It must be put in the proper context. To do this the relationships of those data points must be explored (and this is often done best through experience). To illustrate, let’s explore various ways that people organize knowledge. The graphic below depicts four general methods for organization of knowledge in someone’s mind.

2015-02-23 Supplemental

At the left side, the data points of knowledge may be connected to one or two others, but those sets are not connected to other sets. This represents a low level of expertise and a superficial basis of understanding of that knowledge.

In the middle are two illustrations, one of a linear or sequential understanding of knowledge, and the other hierarchical. This might represent a process, such as assembly of a product, and a taxonomy, such as the Dewey decimal system or the biological classification of species. These are increasing levels of expertise and understanding of the knowledge.

At the right side of the diagram, the illustration represents what might be called a “web” of knowledge, which, to the person with less expertise, would seem otherwise random and unconnected. The person with expertise founded in problem solving, though, sees how these are connected and supportive of one another. They understand how a person’s cultural heritage impacts their personal values and their approach to problem solving and communication. They see how increasing demand for fresh water, the world over, will influence the development of new manufacturing techniques for a wide variety of products. They understand that the email about to be sent out about the new product launch may have an unintended consequence on the productivity level in another part of the company.

In general, people who possess webs of knowledge have a deeper understanding of how data points relate to one another, how they influence the resulting meaning of each, and how each helps or hinders problem solving. Using these webs, they are able to solve more complex problems and see insights into emerging problems that would otherwise go undetected.

How do we develop the expertise that can create these webs of knowledge? Ambrose et al. (2010) cited research that found “when [people] are provided with a structure for organizing new information, they learn …. more effectively and efficiently than when they are left to deduce this conceptual structure for themselves.”1 Experts who share new knowledge must be intentional about going beyond “dumping” data points. They need to help others organize that knowledge in meaningful and useful ways. Their expertise and the subject matter will determine what that organization strategy is, but it must accompany the presentation of knowledge.

In addition to giving people a strategy for organizing knowledge, Ambrose et al. (2010) cited other research finding that two techniques help people organize knowledge around “deep, rather than superficial features.” These include: (1) Giving people already solved problems and directing them to explain the solution to themselves, and (2) Helping them assess problems through analogy to encourage assessment of deeper characteristics, rather than superficial.2 This is where the experts teaching this knowledge can have fun. This is where they get to tell their own stories of how they used knowledge to solve problems. They get to tell their battle stories and engage the students. They can help students see parallels to other issues and make connections to helpful word pictures.

What would happen in your organization if you enlisted your existing experts to not just identify knowledge that needed to be shared, but to guide others in seeing how issues relate, how to organize information, and how to practically apply what they know? Your boring training sessions could become popular events that transform the culture into a self-sustaining learning culture!

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Credits
Photo “Dew Web” by photophilde. Available at Flickr.com

Notes:
1: Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Marsha C. Lovett, Michele DiPietro, and Marie K. Norman. How Learning Works: 7 Research-based Principles for Smart Thinking (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 53.
2: Ambrose et al., How Learning Works, 58.

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