What if your organization functioned like a video game

My earlier post on games got me digging through my archives (yet again), where I found two posts looking at knowledge management and knowledge work through the lens of games. Both of these posts are based on James Paul Gee’s book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

This second post looks at the role affinity groups play in learning through video games, and compares this to how many organizations work.

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Although James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy is primarily about how individuals, especially kids, learn, there is a lot in the book that can be applied to how organizations learn. This list describes what Gee sees as common features of what he calls affinity groups and their implications. Those familiar with knowledge management concepts will recognize these as traits of a good community of practice.

  1. Members of an affinity group bond to each other primarily through a common endeavor and only secondarily through affective ties, which are, in turn, leveraged to further the common endeavor. Implication: Affective ties and sociocultural diversity can be dangerous, because they divide people if they transcend the endeavor, good otherwise.
  2. The common endeavor is organized around a whole process (involving multiple but integrated functions), not single, discrete, or decontexualized tasks. Implication: No rigid departments, borders, or boundaries.
  3. Members of the affinity group have extensive knowledge, not just intensive knowledge. By “extensive” I mean that members must be involved with many or all stages of the endeavor; able to carry out multiple, partly overlapping, functions; and able to reflect on the endeavor as a whole system, not just their part in it. Implication: No narrow specialists, no rigid roles.
  4. In addition to extensive knowledge, members each have intensive knowledge – deep and specialist knowledge in one or more areas. Members may well also bring special intensive knowledge gained from their outside experiences and various sociocultural affiliations (e.g. their ethnic affiliations) to the affinity group’s endeavors. Implication: Non-narrow specialists are good.
  5. Much of the knowledge in an affinity group is tacit (embodied in members’ mental, social, and physical coordinations with other members and with various tools, and technologies), and distributed (spread across various members, their shared sociotechnical practices, and their tools and technologies), anddispersed (not all on site, but networked across different sites and institutions). Implication: Knowledge is not first and foremost in heads, discrete individuals, or books but in networks of relationships.
  6. The role of leaders in affinity groups is to design the groups, to continually resource them, and to help members turn their tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, while realizing that much knowledge will always remain tacit and situated in practice. Implications: Leaders are not “bosses,” and only knowledge that is made explicit can be spread and used outside the original affinity group.

As most of us know all too well, most organizations today operate in ways very different from how these, often self-forming, groups operate. Some thoughts, item by item:

  1. The common endeavor in most organizations is dictated from the top down. Members of the organization don’t usually join the organization because of the ‘endeavor,’ rather they accept the endeavor because they have joined the organization.
  2. In most organizations (in my experience), specific functions are highly structured into departments and sub-departments. Successful cross-functional activity is the exception rather than the rule.
  3. Because of the highly structured nature of organizations, most people know only their area. Because the ‘endeavor’ is not their own, there is very little incentive to understand the ‘big picture.’ Those who do try to understand the big picture are often seen as ’stepping out of their lane’ and put back in their place. After all, how can they be doing their job if they are worrying about what someone else is doing.
  4. This is what most organizations expect of their members – a high skill level in their specific area.
  5. More and more organizations are recognizing the tacit nature of knowledge and the value of network relationships is sharing information. More than any of the other items in this list, it is this area that is receiving much of the attention in the field of knowledge management. It is hard, though, for individuals and organizations to get over the cultural expectation of knowing everything yourself, the ‘not-invented-here’ syndrome, and the sharing – freely – of what you know with others so they can be successful.
  6. Most ‘leaders’ are still just bosses.

Looking back over my list, I think I may be a bit pessimistic, but I’ve been involved with knowledge management, social networking, etc. for almost 10 years now and am still amazed, and frustrated, at how many organizations still don’t get it. Those who know me know that I’m really a glass-half-full kind of guy, and I must admit that I do hold out hope that things will change.

Maybe it will just take the current generation of young gamers, Marc Prensky’s digital natives, to finally get us there.

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Knowledge work, video games, and learning

My earlier post on games got me digging through my archives (yet again), where I found two posts looking at knowledge management and knowledge work through the lens of games. Both of these posts are based on James Paul Gee’s book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

This first post looks at the learning aspects of knowledge management and knowledge work. It could use a little updating, especially the part about “managing tacit knowledge” (which we all know can’t be managed), but I’m still pleased with it overall.

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After reading (and writing aboutMarc Prensky’s Don’t Bother Me, Mom, I’m Learning!, I picked up James Paul Gee’sWhat Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. I was expecting a book about video games and the potential ‘good’ they offered. And the book does discuss this.

But the book is really about how video games are an example of how good learning can be enabled, encouraged, and accomplished in any environment. His area of choice is K-12 science education, but the learning principles – 36 of them– can be applied in many other areas.

In fact, Gee compares the environment that players of modern computer and video games inhabit to the world of what is commonly known as knowledge work. In the process, Gee describes a couple of key concepts and processes that those who work in the field of knowledge management will be familiar with.

Because Gee looks at these topics from the perspective of learning, his depictions are a bit different from what I’ve typically seen. For example, here is how Gee describes ‘tacit knowledge‘ (emphasis is mine):

Finally, the Intuitive (Tacit) Knowledge Principle is concerned with the fact that video games honor not just the explicit and verbal knowledge players have about how to play but also the intuitive or tacit knowledge – built into their movements, bodies, and unconscious ways of thinking – they have built up through repeated practice with a family of genre of games. It is common today for research on modern workplaces to point out that in today’s high-tech and fast-changing world, the most valuable knowledge a business has is the tacit knowledge its workers gain through continually working with others in a “community of practice” that adapts to specific situations and changes “on the ground” as they happen. Such knowledge cannot always be verbalized. Even when it can be verbalized and placed in a training manual, by that time it is often out of date.

What stood out to me was the emphasis on the importance of the “community of practice” in the development of an individual’s tacit knowledge and the fact that tacit knowledge is dynamic, never fixed. Tacit knowledge is, in my experience, typically addressed as something unique to an individual, something static. And while it is true, I suppose, that individuals do possess a certain amount of truly unique knowledge that never changes, to be useful most tacit knowledge must be flexible enough to be useful as the individual interacts with the environment.

A key challenge in the field of knowledge management is how to manage this tacit knowledge. Understanding both the individual and social nature of tacit knowledge is an important consideration to keep in mind. In fact, the social aspect, the tacit knowledge of the group if you will, may well be more important than the tacit knowledge of any one individual.

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Life is not a game (or is it?)

Games, especially video games, have always been a big part of my life, both when I was young and now with my family. We all know that games are an important part of growing up, and despite the bad rap that video games get they can be a very positive experience, too.

Over the past few years, I’ve also been contemplating the role games, including video games, influence our life and work. In my “to blog” list, I have a draft, started about 3 years ago, called “Welcome to the World of KnowledgeCraft”.

A couple of days ago, Hacking Work posted this TED Talk from Jane McGonical in which she tells us that if we want to solve the world’s big problems — hunger, war, environmental devastation and more — we need to be gaming more.

Time to dust off that draft and add my own thoughts.

Video games save the radio star

It may be true that “video killed the radio star” back in the early ’80s, but it looks like video games are coming the rescue here in  the late ’00s.  From the AP story Boom in music video games helps original artists:

Artists from Nirvana to the Red Hot Chili Peppers have seen sales of their music more than double after being released on the games [Rock Band and Guitar Hero].  Some bands are featured on special editions — like Aerosmith on “Guitar Hero” this year and, soon, The Beatles with MTV Games — and last month, The Killers released two new songs on “Guitar Hero” the same time their latest album came out.

Aerosmith made more money off the June release of “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith” than either of its last two albums, according to Kai Huang, co-founder of RedOctane, which first developed “Guitar Hero.”

And yes, in case you are wondering, we do have Rock Band in the house and I can tell you it is a blast to play.  What’s really great, at least to me, is the ability to download and play all that good classic rock I grew up on – like, for instance, the entire Moving Pictures album from Rush!  The kids have been introduced to all that good old stuff, and I’ve actually picked up a few new things, too.

Interestingly, this turn of events is actually helping the artists more than it is the record companies:

Although labels get some royalties from the play-along games’ makers, they are often bypassed on image and likeness licensing deals, which the bands control and which account for a rising proportion of musicians’ income. Meanwhile, the Recording Industry Association of America pegged its U.S. members’ sales at $10.4 billion in 2007, down 11.8 percent from the year before, with a further drop expected for 2008. By comparison, sales of music video games more than doubled this year, hitting $1.9 billion in the past 12 months, according to NPD Group. And they’re expected to keep growing.

Though Warner Music Group Corp. Chief Executive Edgar Bronfman Jr. bemoaned the “very paltry” licensing fees record labels get from game makers in August, the labels haven’t stopped sending their music to game makers.

That’s partly because they lack leverage. Even the largest label, Universal Music Group, controls just a third of the U.S. market, said Wedbush Morgan entertainment analyst Michael Pachter.

“There are literally probably 2 million songs out there, and fewer than a 1,000 were used in these two games combined in these last two years,” Pachter said. “If Warner wants to say we’ll take our 20 percent of the market and go away, a lot of bands are going to leave the label if they think they can get better exposure by being on these games.”

Amazing to me, after all this time, that the record labels still don’t seem to get it.  They are still trying to make a buck selling product, when what people want to buy is content.

Games and learning

I’ve had a strong interest in video games on a personal level for many years (see this page for some of my thoughts). More recently, I’ve become interested on a professional level in the potential for games to be used to support learning and other ‘serious’ purposes – hence the name “Serious Games“.

I see the techniques and technologies of video games playing an increasing role in helping to close the work literacy gap. This is especially true as games and systems become increasingly “network ready” and the games become more multi-player and social.

Commenting to a story in the Wall Street Journal, the Educational Games Research blog writes in the post PSP Mini-nets Show Small Group Potential:

The possibilities of harnessing the mini-net features of the PSP are striking. Small groups could be set up with the PSP to tackle a project together in an educational game. Excluding other players from the groups would allow a room full of students working on PSPs to organize into teams working on objectives within the game.

This is obviously a very small-scale, artificial (ie, classroom) situation, but it does show the potential of “social” games to help teach, and to help learn.

The paths of knowledge creation


ThiagiIn his foreword to Marc Prensky‘s book Digital Game-Based Learning, Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan recounts the following (emphasis is mine):

Early in my life, my mentor explained to me the three paths that lead to the creation of knowledge. The analytical path, where philosophers reflect, meditate, and make sense of objects and events; the empirical path, where scientists manipulate variables and conduct controlled experiments to validate reliable principles; and the pragmatic path where practitioners struggle with real-world challenges and come up with strategies for effective and efficient performance.

I think we’ve all been down each of these paths at various times in our lives and careers, the challenge is to understand how these paths intertwine to get us where we are trying to go.