Shared Experiences


Toby and Granda – Christmas 2009 – Transforming Bumblebee (c) SJPONeill

The title of today’s post is drawn from Christopher Stasheff’s novella of the same name that was included in the Bolo anthology, The Unconquerable. The story is of a small group of Bolos fending off a horde of harpy-like adversaries; as each Bolo is overwhelmed, it passes on its lessons of combat against this foe to the surviving Bolos. In this way, the enemy is finally defeated. It is that ideal knowledge transfer that prompted this post.

Observant visitors may have noticed a new addition to the Blogroll (on the right →) last week, Portable Learner – this is one of those sites you just stumble across sometimes when you click accidentally on the wrong link. The first thing that caught my eye was the definition of Portable Learner…”Portable Learner, n. An individual who carries their knowledge and skills in their memory or in their social networks, spec. so that it can be employed in all sorts of circumstances…” This struck me as being similar to that ideal sought in knowledge management “…the right information to the right people at the right time – and ensuring that they know what to do with it…” especially if reworded ever so slightly to “…an individual who carries their knowledge and skills in their memory or in their networks so that it can be employed in all sorts of circumstances…” and this is reinforced by the quote at the top of the home page…

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.” — T.H. White, The Once and Future King

The first post I read on Portable Learner was Knowledge is Out, Focus is In, and People are Everywhere which is short enough to repeat here in its entirety:

David Dalrymple thinks that in the net age, filtering, not remembering is the most important skill. In his response to Edge’s annual question for 2010, How is the Internet changing the way you think?, he says that those who are able to resist the distractions posed by a deluge of unrelated information and focus on what is important are better equipped than those who are knowledgeable. “Knowledge was once an internal property of a person, and focus on the task at hand could be imposed externally, but with the Internet, knowledge can be supplied externally, but focus must be forced internally.” The idea that an external information repository can replace human memory is interesting, but the dichotomy strikes me as a little extreme. We can’t turn off our memories, and there is value in serendipitous findings. Focus and distraction work in concert in any undertaking. We’ll just have to be more mindful of which one is leading the quest for knowledge.”

This was a one of the themes of our discussion with the Centre for Defence Studies at Massey on Monday – how do you filter the deluge of contemporary doctrine, publications, reports, commentary, opinion, PowerPoints, etc, etc, etc in order to deliver timely, practical and relevant training. It is simply not reasonable to expect force elements to train themselves, or worse, figure ‘it’ out for themselves as a twisted form of empowerment and mission command. This is an easy out for doctrine staffs, too often employed as an excuse for failing to step up to the plate and accept some responsibility for what is taught. There was a general feeling that there is a need for an organisation that sits above doctrine and training staffs to filter the deluge, in accordance with national policy and mission-specific criteria, to ensure what is passed on for doctrinal development and delivery and development in training is actually contemporary, relevant and practical.

During the Great COIN Doctrine Review of 2007-08, all but formal doctrine publications were specifically excluded from the review. This step was partially in recognition of our own depth of COIN knowledge (or lack of thereof!) and also an acknowledgement of the amount of work involved even in the reduced publication list that this decision left to be reviewed. Things have changed since those days and now our primary source of catalysts for change in contemporary operations is the surging sea of the information militia, the blogs, commentaries, media reports, articles, discussion boards etc etc etc. In attempting to quantify the work involved in keeping pace with the daily flows of COIN-related information, the best we could do was reduce the load to a minimum of two hours a day for at least four days every week – and that was without any attempt to distil any information into any form of product other than the most basic reading list. 

I agree totally with the point from Portable Learner “…Focus and distraction work in concert in any undertaking…“. Focus is great for progressing a large workload but runs the risk of missing that serendipitous find that may greatly influence your area of interest – distraction is often good, when married up with discipline, as means of stumbling across those nuggets. The WordPress Dashboard is an example of this as it lists (way down the bottom of the page) the latest, and the hottest blogs – certainly I’ve found the odd gem when scanning this list; similarly tag clouds offer a similar distraction attraction to oft interesting journeys. 

The downside of focus is that inexperienced or unadventurous or simply lazy staff apply focus lists too dogmatically. Critical Topic Lists (CTL) may sound like a top tool in Internal Audit and Organisational Learning classrooms but their utility in the real world, especially in the Lessons Learned field, is limited at best. Time and again, such lists are over-long (our rule was no longer than 20 items but I’ve seen them bloat out into 100s of items), rife with hobby horses, and lack relevance to actual need. a key finding of  CLAW 1 in 2005 was that there were scarily few similarities between the issues identified by the CLAW, based up operational  reports, and the CTL that they were meant to reinforce.

So, anyway, this is why I’ve decided to add Portable Learner to the blogroll. As with the other members of the blogroll, feel free to visit them and draw your own conclusions, contribute where you can, and share back into your own communities…

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