Archive for the ‘memory’ Category

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Today I was intrigued by a programme on inspiration and genius.  Intuition is often mistaken for inspiration because it is that fast recognition of a connection between one thing and another, a couple of ideas, or notions.  But most people agree with Einstein: Intuition is simply the sum of all your experiences. As the Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman points out in his recent book , intuition is fast thinking. It evolved so that we could respond without delay to threats, but it can be very misleading, and needs to be used carefully in conjunction with our slower thinking processes, to double check the evidence. But inspiration is different from intuition. Certainly , it always comes to people who are well prepared, who have spent hours and weeks, even months pondering a problem. So the idea that it is 99% perspiration is probably valid. It’s not just a fast response based on past experience either.  When people try to study others who have been inspired, they also find that the unconscious plays a big part in effective processing. Why because often that is where we reframe the way we understand  the world. To cope with the world  on a day to day basis, we have to put boundaries around events, ideas, abstractions, concepts.  We grasp what is important about situations and have a sense of the limitations. But if we change the shape of those boundaries, new connections and possibilities have a chance to emerge. We see things in a different light, look at them through a different lens, figure them in a novel way.  We make connections ACROSS categories, and go beyond previously understood constraints.  That’s why dreams are often a helpful process for inspiration. Another alternative path to inspiration is a change in context combined with a change in the type of mental activity you are engaged in.   Some scientists get break throughs when, after hours of mental focus, pondering, researching and examining a problem, they change state. That can involve sitting peaceably in a garden or in the countryside. Marcus de Sautoy in one of the recent BBC TV programmes called the Story of Maths admitted that he often solved apparently intractable mathematical puzzles as a result of talking a walk.  All of that seems within the bounds of possibility, for many of us.  We can certainly imagine how all the detailed information and stimulus to thought, the multiple alternative perspectives, challenges to boundaries, opportunities for distraction offered via the social media would do a good job of supporting these aspects of inspiration.

But that isn’t all, apparently. A powerful driver for the inspiration behind genius seems to be something akin to extreme introversion – the desire to spend long periods in intense and singular concentration, in isolation with one’s own thoughts. This is often combined with the ability to tolerate the deep anxiety associated with uncertainty and searching for something unknown.  Creative people often pursues their interests alone, they have the courage to see the world differently and look for ways to challenge accepted beliefs and boundaries. Some may feel that the associated sensations are almost the edge of madness.  Certainly great inventors admit to being so devoted to their search that they drive themselves almost to the point of illness, working with such focus that everything else becomes inconsequential.  However, I wonder if these final pre-conditions for inspiration and genius are damaged by continuous participation in the social media?  In these times where being social seems to have become an essential facet of identity, where constant activity is valued more than slow thinking, intensely pondering a problem, will societies produce less inspiration? Will genius be even more rare?  If you read Nicholas Carr,’s book the Shallows, perhaps the answer is yes. Carr’s argument is that the internet is rewiring our brains, so that we are excited by continuous new input, but less able to concentrate for long periods of time; more disposed to follow prevailing opinion, but less interested in marginal ideas; we prefer to externalize problem solving, rather than internalise the anxiety; we spend hours socialising with others on line, but less time close to nature or in quiet contemplation with lack of stimulus.  Daniel Wegner’s research suggests that dependence on computers is affecting our memory (thanks to Susan Frost for that link). One can only imagine the long term consequences for knowledge economies that do not invest time and effort in encouraging contemplation, spending less time with the computer and more in physical activity.

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Serendipity is a wonderful thing, when you are thinking about topics for blogs. In one weekend I got three lucky breaks.   Last night, I was catching up on the BBC I player with the second instalment of Super Smart Animals.  One item struck me as very relevant to KM.  Nine minutes into the programme we meet  Dr Mike Chase who has spent a decade using GPRS to track African elephants in a bid to learn from them about what is important in their habitats.  Such an understanding would help us reduce the havoc an expanding human population can wreak on these magnificent and intelligent animals.   Elephants need 200 litres of water and 150kg of food a day. Protected areas like the Serengeti National Park are not enough. To survive elephants  have to know where to find food and water in vast landscapes where borders and human structures may affect territory that they learned about decades ago. Elephants are social animals; their survival depends on the matriarch of the herd, the oldest wisest female in the tribe, using her memory to lead them to sites where food or water may have existed over a decade ago. This sort of long term memory has evolved to overcome problems of annual and seasonal variations, though not man-made climate change.  The astounding thing is that, at certain times, 1000’s of elephants from many different tribes congregate at a single water hole simultaneously. You can see them coming in this you tube video below (The video is apt, but I suspect the contributor hasn’t ‘herd’ of a dictionary!)

Elephants may trek over 100 miles to come together at this particular spot, and somehow they know when to arrive. It appears that these are meeting points for knowledge sharing and communication, a place to update and spread new insights that might keep them alive as a species, as well as a place to build the bonds and ties that unite family groups.   Mike Chase’s maps of elephants trekking patterns show that watering holes for elephants are just like water coolers for humans.

Having just made the connection between elephants and KM, I had another stroke of luck.  I was delighted to find that David Griffiths, who is speaking at the Henley KM Forum conference, has just written a fascinating blog about the importance of legitimising water cooler conversations.

Then the third connection was even more fortuitous. The writer of the article David is citing went from a discussion of research about how proximity improves the quality of knowledge sharing to some reflections on Steve Job’s reconfiguration of workspace at Pixar.  Paul Aitken, Bill Rainey and I are presenting the outcome of this year’s research on Developing Knowledge Driven Leadership Agility. The project set out to identify which leadership practices contributed critically to a conduce climate for knowledge sharing and learning, and then design a leadership challenge to help more people in the organisation understand what sort of social and organising behaviours are required for effective knowledge work.  We decided two weeks ago to use the Steve Jobs story as an example to illustrate some of the leadership practices in the conference presentation.  Three relevant connections in two days!  Synchronicity? Serendipity? Or simply sensitivity to surroundings spurred by my specific situation?  I think the latter, but it’s amazing how valuable those close encounters at the water cooler can be.

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I spend a lot of my time doing research. Inevitably that means lots of web surfing to tune into the trends.  Then the inbox is inundated with chances to read papers and attend conferences; twitter and the blogosphere highlight a myriad of opportunities to listen to podcasts, watch relevant videos and attend worthwhile events. After that, it’s time to catch up with the blogs of the key movers and shakers in the field to see what they are up to, contribute a bit to the discussion, and move on to the next thing. It’s very stimulating following the endless trail of intriguing connections.  It’s also rewarding to be busy and seemingly investigating. But then I pause…….. reflect………… Suddenly I notice how much time has passed, how hard it is to remember where I’ve been and what the thread of my thinking was.  Sometimes, it’s a real relief to get back to reading a book, writing notes or wrestling with the logic of an article. I find the time for thinking and reflecting without additional input to distract me has a calming effect .  Yet, when I try to move directly from the exploratory state of hyper-connectivity to a slower more measured activity, I’ve noticed that my concentration is weaker and my desire for distraction increases.    

Of course, my poor concentration could easily be old age, or something more sinister.  So I was relieved  to know that I’m not the only one who has experienced the problem. Nicholas Carr, the author of a book called “The Shallows – How the internet is changing the way we think read and remember” also experienced the same thing. He’d noticed it earlier and  went off to investigate why.

The worrying thing is that research suggests that extended hyperactivity is changing the shape of our brains.  Worryingly the chance to be connected and constantly stimulated can get to be something like an addiction. There is evidence to suggest that hyper connectivity can lead to superficial reading, mistaken understanding of the evidence.  The Web stresses working memory which means we have less mental energy available higher reasoning. The mental activity gets in the way of long term memory and laying down deep mental schemas.  To quote Carr ‘The Web is a technology of forgetfulness’.   The implications for long term decision-making are worrying. If social media is enabling upheaval in societies as in Egypt and Tunisia, but the individual citizens have less capability to think deeply about the taxing dilemmas underlying many of the social and political problems, will acceptable and enduring solutions be more elusive?  If organisational decision makers are less attentive to detail,  can’t connect new information with knowledge in long term memory, then what are the consequences for KM?

As yet there are no easy answers. Some things are clear.

It’s worth applying some discipline over how long we spend in a fragmented state, stressing our working memory and how much time we invest in deeper contemplation and making connections to existing knowledge alongside exploring new input.

 It’s worth consciously devising a personal approach to discrimination.  To cross check the value of new connections and question why the next link adds value. For example, Carr mentions that on-line researchers often bypass the peripheral articles that researchers who are reading would follow up on, because they can more easily identify the trend of opinion, and lock into that. So the risk to innovation and new insight is increased.  

Deliberately schedule some time for your brain to relax.  Either a walk in a natural setting or a conversation with a coach or some personal reflection time .  I’ve tried some basic relaxation techniques and personally I find they help restore balance.  

Tom Davenport’s article in McKinsey quarterly (sign up is free) starts to consider consequences of broadband access to information for organisations and how this might affect knowledge worker productivity.  He explores the challenge of free access to information vs the benefits of more focused structured offerings.  This seems the start of a process for thinking through how KM can help alleviate some of the downsides of information overload.   

On the bright side, the advantage of this blog is that it gives me some discipline to write about what I have been exploring, and forces me to reflect in a way that captures the essence of my thinking, which I hope will start to transfer it into long term memory.  It’s a shame that according to the Pew internet survey the younger generation are increasingly disinclined to blog and in practice, according the table below, the blog is probably the least popular of all social media.

Social media survey Summary of the Pew Internet survey

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