(Some) Rules are meant to be broken

On vacation over the last couple of weeks I spent a lot of time with my own kids teenagers, and had the opportunity to watch a lot of other parents’ interactions with their kids.  The following thought occurred to me while driving home last week:

A big part of a parent’s job is to teach their children the rules of life, to let them know which ones shouldn’t be broken, and to help them understand when and why the rest can and/or should be broken.

As I jotted that quote down in my notebook I recalled some advice on the topic of rules from Leonardo da Vinci, as quoted by Michael Gelb in his book How to Think Like Leonardo DaVinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day as part of his introduction (my first) to Mind Maps. After a brief description of Mind Maps, Gelb lays down the rules of Mind Mapping before presenting some exercises.

The rules themselves are important, but what really grabbed me when I first read the book was Gelb’s “justification” for using rules, the aforementioned quote from DaVinci’s Treatise on Painting:

These rules are intended to help you to a free and good judgment: for good judgment proceeds from good understanding, and good understanding comes from reason trained by good rules, and good rules are the children of sound experience, which is the common mother of all the sciences and arts. (emphasis added by me)

As anyone with children – especially teenagers – knows, though, rules have a very bad reputation. From the kids point of view, rules are evil things meant to repress (oppress?) kids and limit their adventures in life.  Unfortunately, many people in organizations have this same perspective.

Rules in the form of organizational processes, best practices, etc., are all too often ignored – often quite blatantly and proudly. The not invented here syndrome is alive and well. Part of the problem is that most, if not all, rules are presented as “you cannot / should not break this rule.” The rules aren’t there to help you develop your ‘good reason’, they are there to tell you what to do and how to do it.

You can see this in the way many organizations apply the idea of “best practices”: capture past practices that worked and apply those practices, as is, to future situations that are similar. While this works fine for what I call “information” processes – and is a critical step in helping any organization improve – it is not appropriate for “knowledge” processes. Or, in terms of DaVinci’s scheme above, the blind use of rules, in the form of best practices, stops short of the goal – good judgement.

This is not to say that past experiences should not be exploited in creating/acquiring new knowledge. Except for the rarest of occasions, most new knowledge created today is derivative of something past. It is important to know what has come before and learn from the successes and failures of others. The rules that come from those past lessons then become the framework for the future, not the fully developed solution to be applied like a generic template to a MS Word or PowerPoint document.

What is your language?

Another of my posts from the past, on a similar theme as my re-post last night of Knowledge in translation.  This time, the translation in question is that between the language of autism and the language of the non-autistic.

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Everyone has their own path to follow through life. Easy to say, somewhat harder to believe because most of our daily experiences involve others who live incredibly similar lives to ours. This sometimes gets in the way of us realizing that there are differences in this world, and that the path that we’ve chosen for ourselves – or that has been thrust upon us – may not be the best path for everyone.

Earlier this week, Dr. Sanjay Gupta from CNN blogged about his recent introduction to and conversation with Amanda Baggs, a 26-year old autistic woman who gets around in a wheel-chair and communicates through a text-to-voice device. In his words, Amanda “opened his eyes about the world of autism.”

Amanda is obviously a smart woman who is fully aware of her diagnosis of low-functioning autism, and quite frankly mocks it. She told me that because she doesn’t communicate with conventional spoken word, she is written off, discarded and thought of as mentally retarded. Nothing could be further from the truth.

— Paging Dr. Gupta: Behind the veil of autism

A far cry from how autistics, especially “low-functioning” autistics, are typically portrayed in the media. (Compare, for instance, to this portrayal on ABC’s PrimeTime earlier this week.)

Just as technology allows her to communicate through the voice synthesizer (on which she can type over 100 words per minute), technology – in the form of YouTube – has allowed her to be heard by a much wider audience. In fact, it was her video “In My Language” that caught the eye of CNN. Amanda’s description of the video:

The first part is in my “native language,” and then the second part provides a translation, or at least an explanation. This is not a look-at-the-autie gawking freakshow as much as it is a statement about what gets considered thought, intelligence, personhood, language, and communication, and what does not.

I encourage you to take about 10 minutes and view Amanda’s video. If you are already somewhat familiar with autism, this will help you understand even more. If you are not familiar with autism at all, this is a good start in understanding that you really can’t judge a book by its cover.

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Amanda was also featured this week on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360.

I’ve also written a bit about this on my autism blog in 29 Marbles – Why don’t more people understand this yet?

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Knowledge in translation

I revisited the following, originally posted in July ’07, after putting Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language back onto my currently-reading list.  It is still relevant, so thought it worth sharing again. With any luck, I’ll have some new insights to share after I’ve read the book again.

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Several years ago I read Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, an examination of the creative process in the form of poetry translation. Hofstadter established some structural and literal guidelines and had several friends and colleagues translate a 16th Century French poem. (See the wikipedia entry for a bit more detailed synopsis.)

The book was brought back to mind by a post by Jack Vinson and his thoughts on a post by Victoria Ward entitled Traduttore-traditore, in which she discusses the challenges of (you guessed it) translating poetry. Comparing the translation of poetry to knowledge work, Victoria leaves us with this:

And these five tips on translating poetry are as good for knowledge work as any other guidance I’ve come across if, for the word poem, you substitute the words ‘knowledge thing’ – a bit graceless I know, but it serves the purpose for now. The first sentences here come from the original tips. The companion sentences are mine.

1. Stay Close to the Poem. Get thoroughly intimate with the thing.

2. Know the poet. Understand it’s context and origins inside out. Get familiar with everything you can about the thing.

3. Go for Grace. Convey the essence of the thing with pith and elegance.

4. Be Wary. Don’t take other’s people’s ways of looking at the thing as your own. Own your own way of relating to and conveying the thing and ignore the noise.

5. Take a Deep Breath. Sit with it. Go away. Come back and look at it again.

What I think that Victoria is hinting at is that, in many ways, knowledge work is often an act of translation. Not from one language to another (though that undoubtedly happens, too), but within the native tongue of the knowledge worker. The translation, then, is one of culture not language, but instead of having to translate between British English and American English or Mexican Spanish and Spanish Spanish, knowledge workers have to translate between Engineering and Production or Sales and Human Resources.

After an e-mail exchange with Jack on the subject, I went back into Le Ton Beau de Marot and found this related passage that I had marked when I read it the first time. I apologize for the length, but felt it best to include the whole thing.

Distortion-free Idea Transmission: A Chimera

Any good translator’s ideal is to get across to a new group of readers the essence of someone else’s fantasy and vision of the world, and yet, as we have repeatedly seen…, the mediating agent necessarily plays a deep and critical role in doing such a job. A translator does to an original text something like what an impressionist painter does to a landscape: there is an inevitable and cherished personal touch that makes the process totally different from photography. Translators are not like cameras – they are not even like cameras with filters! They distort their input so much that they are completely unique scramblers of the message – which does not mean that their scrambling is any less interesting or less valuable than the original “scene”.

A curious aspect of this analogy between the translation of a piece of text into a new language and the rendering of a scene as a painting is that the original text…plays the role of the scene in nature, rather than that of something created by a human. The original text is thus a piece of “objective reality” that is distorted by the translator/painter. But what, one might then ask, about people who read the text in the original language? Are native-language readers able to get the message as it really is, free from all the bias and distortion inevitably introduced by a scrambling intermediary?

As the letters and words of the original text leap upwards from the page into a native reader’s eyes and brain, they shimmer and shiver and then suddenly splinter into a billion intricately-correlated protoplasmic sparks scattered all over the cerebral cortex and deeper within – unique patterns in the unique mind of the unique reader that each distinct person constitutes. The idea that all native-language readers see “the same thing” falls to bits. It’s true that in the case of native-language readers, there is no intermediary human scrambler, but it’s not true that, because of this lack, there is no idiosyncratic perceptual distortion. How sad it would be if that were the case!

Since this is the theme song of George Steiner’s “After Babel”, I can think of no better way to end this chapter than to quote a few sentences from the end of his first chapter, entitled “Understanding as Translation”:

Thus a human being performs an act of translation, in the full sense of the word, when receiving a speech-message from any other human being. Time, distance, disparities in outlook or assume reference, make this at more or less difficult. Where the difficuulty is great enough, the process passes from reflex to conscious techniqe. Intimacy, on the other hand, be it of hatred or of love, can be defined as confident, quasi-immediate translation….

In short: inside or between languages, human communication equals translation.

In other words (my words): Just because everyone is told the same thing doesn’t mean that everyone hears the same thing.

Or, to be more specific to the world of knowledge management and knowledge work: Just because all of your knowledge workers have the same knowledge doesn’t mean they all “know” the same thing.

Tools do not a master – or failure – make

I’m working on a new post to address the question “Is modern technology ‘dumbing down’ America’s youth?“, as posed in the most recent edition (22 July 09) of the local news weekly – West News Magazine. (The html version of the article isn’t available as of my writing this, but you can read it here.)

This question seems to come around every year about this time as everyone is preparing for the annual back-to-school ritual and teachers, parents, and others lament the sad state of our children at the hands of modern technology. Going all the way back to when I heard this discussion about allowing calculators in math class, I’ve never quite understood how a tool, especially one as broad as “modern technology”, could be given the blame or credit for anything that an individual or group achieves (or fails to achieve).

Along that train of thought, here is a reprint of something I wrote back in August 2006 that looks at another much maligned tool – Microsoft PowerPoint – while I work up a “long answer” to the question.

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Tools do not a master make

No tool of modern technology is as universally used, and almost as universally reviled, in the world of business and government as is Microsoft PowerPoint. Perhaps most famous of the PowerPoint bashers is Edward Tufte, writer of several books and essays on information design. (I was fortunate enough to attend one of his courses in the late ’90s, his poster of Napoleon’s March to Moscow still hangs on the wall in my office.)

Tufte has described his issues with PowerPoint in magazine articles (such as PowerPoint is Evil in Wired magazine), in a self-published essay entitled The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, and in a chapter in his latest book Beautiful Evidence. In the past week or so a few others have also lambasted PowerPoint, including Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge in a couple of posts (Festival of Bureaucratic Hyper-Rationalism and Tufte and PowerPoint) and Scott Adams (via Dilbert).

Don Norman, of the Nielsen Norman Group, has a different take on PowerPoint. In his essay In Defense of PowerPoint, Norman places the blame not on PowerPoint but on those who use it improperly. “Don’t blame the problem on the tool.” Or, put another way – PowerPoint doesn’t bore people, people bore people. Cliff Atkinson is another who believes that PowerPoint can be used effectively. For some great ideas check out the Beyond Bullets blog or Atkinson’s book Beyond Bullet Points.

Of course, this problem is not limited to the world of business. One of the big promises of ever faster and more powerful consumer technology (if we are to believe marketing campaigns) is that everyone will be able to perform like an expert. Take, for example, the following pitch for Apple’s GarageBand software (emphasis is mine):

The new video track in GarageBand makes it easy to add an original music score to your movies. And don’t worry about your musical talent — or lack thereof. Just use GarageBand’s included loops, or try a combination of loops, software instruments, or any previous audio recordings you created.
Apple – iLife – Garageband

Don’t get me wrong, I love GarageBand (and the whole iLife suite for that matter, I use it almost every day). It is very easy to create a ’song’ using loops, like my First Song. Once I got comfortable with the GarageBand interface, it only took me a couple of hours to browse through the loops, pull some together so it sounded good, and export it to iTunes. The ’song’ is listenable, but doesn’t reflect any real musical skill on my part. I didn’t apply any knowledge of time signatures, keys, tempo, or anything. I just dragged-and-dropped.

I guess my point is don’t get pulled into a false belief that a tool, any tool, can make you an expert at something or give you expert results. Remember, good tools are nice to have, but in the hands of a master even the simplest of tools can create wonders.

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As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, my  “short answer” to the question is an emphatic “No, modern technology is not ‘dumbing down’ America’s youth.” More to come.

Use it or lose it (or, The importance of continuous practice)

Talking with a friend this morning about the idea of “use it or lose it”, I told a story about a conversation I had a couple of years ago with my son on the subject of lunar eclipses.  I wrote about that conversation not long after it happened, and since it came up I thought I’d share it again.

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You’ve forgotten a lot of things you used to know, haven’t you Dad?

This astute observation from my son came at the end of an interesting conversation we had about lunar eclipses. We were driving east on I-44 in Southwest Missouri as the sun went down in the rear-view mirror. A short time later, we saw the moon coming out from behind some hills in front of us.

When I pointed the moon out to my son, he said, “It’s supposed to be a full moon tonight.” Which was odd, since what we saw appeared to be a crescent moon. “Maybe it’s just blocked by some clouds,” I tried, not really believing it myself.

Not long after, we stopped for gas. On getting back in the car, we noticed that the moon was now a “half-crescent,” something that doesn’t normally occur. Knowing now that it wasn’t the clouds I offered the only explanation I could think of – a lunar eclipse.

I explained that the shadow on the moon was actually the shadow of the earth. Having never experienced one, and obviously never exposed to it in science class, he asked what, to me, was the best question possible: How exactly do eclipses work?

I won’t bother you with the details of the discussion that followed, but we got to the point where I had to say, “I used to know how to figure that out, but I’ve forgotten.” Which, I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, led to the question I opened this post with.

Part of it may be me getting old, but I think it mostly comes down to the old saying: Use it or Lose it. Mastery – fluency – in any pursuit requires constant practice. And one of the most important things that we can master, and thus continually practice, is the ability and desire to ask questions, to figure out how the world around us works.

For a lot of great photos of the 03 March 07 total lunar eclipse from around the world, check out the ‘loony’ group on flickr.

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I’m happy to say that Ian has not lost his desire – nor his ability – to ask incredible questions, and to actively seek out the answers. He definitely keeps me on my toes.

Some new thoughts on “my dad is a knowledge worker”

Several years ago (has it really been almost 5 years?!?) I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek blog post entitled “My dad is a knowledge worker“:

While I was reading Martin Roell’s Terminology: “Knowledge Worker”, a TV commercial I saw a while back came to mind: elementary school students were telling the class what their dads did for a living, and after a couple of well defined jobs (policemen, construction, etc.) were announced one boy proudly stood up and stated, “My dad’s a pencil pusher!” I don’t remember what the commercial was for, but the imagery stuck with me I think for the same reason Geoffrey Rockwell, as described by Martin, doesn’t like the term “knowledge worker”: the job title gives you no real idea of what the job is.

Apropos of what I’m not entirely sure, but this old post came to mind earlier today when I was thinking about some ideas related to Work Literacy.  It occurred to me that calling someone – say a Systems Engineer like me – a “knowledge worker” would be like calling Albert Pujols an “athlete”.  (Not that I’m comparing myself to Albert!)

Sure, he is an athlete, but he is a very specific type of athlete, in a sport that requires a very specific set of skills and experiences. You can not get across what he does, or what he must be able to do, with a generic description of “athlete”. Like all athletes, though, there is a core set of skills and abilities that Pujols must have simply to be able to consider participating as an athlete in his specific sport. Fitness, endurance, flexibility, etc., all things common to most athletes.

In the same way, each individual knowledge/concept worker is a very specific type of k/c worker, requiring a very specific set of skills and experiences in order to do the work they do.  But like athletes, there is a core set of skills and abilities that anyone who would be a k/c worker must have. And that core set of skills and abilities is, I believe, what the term “work literacy” should encompass.

The question then, of course, is what makes up this core set of skills and abilities?

(As you may be thinking, I am not the first to raise this question – visit WorkLiteracy.com for more on the subject. On completing this post, I realized that it was simply my way of putting the question into a context that made sense to me.  I hope it makes sense to you, too.)