Learning how to learn. The new Knowledge Activism

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In a fast-changing world, the skills, knowledge, and competencies of individuals and organizations must evolve fast. Connecting the dots on ideas from different domains is more and more required at any role and hierarchical level. Learning must change from an ad-hoc event to a continuous, lifelong process. Bottom-up, pull-like knowledge creation must support and complement traditional top-down occasions of learning such as courses and presentations.

Thus, a new Knowledge Activism movement is emerging to support and accelerate the development of individuals and organizations.

The Learning Organization

The idea of learning organization strongly emerged within the last decade of the 20th century in the corporate world and management research. According to Peter Senge, an influential proponent of the concept, organizations learn through individual learning.

In Senge’s words:

– “Organizations learn only through individuals who learn… without individual learning no organizational learning occurs” and
– “Personal mastery is the phrase we use for the discipline of personal growth and learning. People with high levels of personal mastery are continually expanding their ability to create the results in life they truly seek. From their quest for continual learning comes the spirit of the learning organization.”

In the last twenty years, we have witnessed a further acceleration of change in culture, technology, markets, and the environment. We were used to the idea of learning a job, but nowadays learning has become the job. Frequent role changes are common in contemporary workplaces, and workers are expected to be able to quickly learn and unlearn.

Furthermore, in-depth “vertical” specialistic knowledge must live today side by side with a basic understanding of many different domains, in order to allow for fluid team performance. We often refer to this concept as T-shaped skills as opposed to I-shaped, when an individual only possesses one in-depth specialistic skill but lacks basic mastery of other, peripheral domains. T-shaped skills are required for working in lean agile cross-functional teams, i.e. Scrum teams or Kanban Teams.

Carol Dweck research found that mindset and attitude towards learning make the biggest difference in students’ and workers’ performance. She describes it as a growth mindset vs a fixed mindset. Individuals with a prevalence of fixed mindset want to be perceived as experts and tend to avoid challenges from unknown domains. On the contrary, when a growth mindset is prevalent, individuals see themselves as learners, with strong confidence in the potential of learning and they are more inclined to accept new challenges. The Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella sum it up with “The learn-it-all does better than the know-it-all”

But organizations traditionally struggled to provide the effective environments for individual and teams growth that Personal Mastery requires. What’s new today, is that an individual has much more control and leverage on creating his/her own learning environment, in order to make a habit of the Personal Mastery discipline Peter Senge talks about.

The graph for the Zettelkasten permanent note I used to write this post

The new Knowledge Activism

A new environment

The exponential growth of information available, a supporting management culture, the diffusion of knowledge creation practices such as the zettelkasten and PKM personal knowledge management tools, are creating fertile ground for a new Knowledge Activism within growth-mindset workers striving to continuously improve their knowledge.

Writing as a learning tool

Foundational to the new activism is the act of writing as a learning tool. Writing has long been known to improve retention and critical thinking in dedicated learning environments such as schools and universities. But the adoption of note writing-based workflows is now becoming more and more common in workplaces around the world.

Jeff Bezos, with his Amazon meeting rule, can be considered an early and strong proponent of a similar idea. In his 2017 letters to shareholders Bezos told how he outlawed PowerPoint slides in important meetings. Instead, employees are required to write six pages narratives with high-quality standards such as they need one or more weeks to be written.

PKMs, Personal Knowledge Management systems, are personal environments that workers can autonomously build, and populate with their own notes, to improve their own critical thinking and become more productive by owning their own learning process. A PKM is primarily defined by a workflow and a connecting technology.

The worklow

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The original Zettelkasten was built on paper notes, manually numbered, ordered, and linked to each other.

Image Courtesy David B. Clear, Zettelkasten — How One German Scholar Was So Freakishly Productive, in: The Writing Cooperative, 31 December 2019. CC BY-SA 4.0

The PKMs I am talking about here, is loosely based on the zettelkasten concept. The zettelkasten (German for slip-box) is a method for writing, archiving, processing, and linking notes. The method was popularized by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann.
In the zettelkasten ideas are connected, organized, and categorized. Links between ideas create a train of thoughts that is fertile ground to discover new ideas. New ideas will create a new train of thoughts, and so on.

According to Ahrens Sönke in “How to Take Smart Notes” The method is built on three categories of notes, filed in different sub-systems.

  1. Fleeting notes. Any unsorted idea that pops into your mind
  2. Literature notes. Here you file your learning about content that you are reading from external sources. Must be written with your own words, no copy&paste allowed
  3. Permanent notes. These are structured notes, written in your own words, that you create by refining and connecting ideas from the previous steps. Full sentences are used as well as references. Once the permanent note is created, related notes from previous steps are trashed (the fleeting notes) or archived as references (literature notes)

The technology

In Zettelkasten, you don’t rely on folders for categorizing and searching ideas. The problem with the traditional taxonomy/folder approach is that, while the same concept could be part of many different categories (i.e. folders), folders are silos that hide information to the outside. You can benefit from folder information, only within the folder. For instance. Let’s say you are writing a note about measuring performances. Where should it stay? Strategy, Sport, Measurement, Mathematics or Business folder? Once the info is filed into a folder, you don’t access it anymore from the other folders and chances are, that you will not remember it and will not be able to find it anymore.

In order to overcome the issue, Zettelkasten uses direct links between notes and reference/tags in order to create new trains of thought, while contaminating each idea with concepts coming from different perspectives.

The graph view of the knowledge nodes in a zettelkasten

Luhmann used to organize his zettelkasten in thousands of paper notes. Nowadays we have options available to digitalize the process. The revamped popularity of the zettelkasten and PKM systems is partly due to the appearance of new apps targeted at the personal productivity ecosystem.

Roam Research, for instance, raised 9M US$ on Seed funding in September 2020 to develop its note-taking and knowledge development app. Obsidian and Notion are similar apps, focused on the same market. These apps allow you to create digital versions of your zettelkasten, as well as an easy refactoring and linking of your notes.

Takeaways

As the change rate around us is increasing, we are more and more required to learn new ideas and create new knowledge. A light, tailored, well-structured process for learning is our best safety net for experimenting, innovating, and living the best part of us.