IT Learning at the Boundaries of Your Ignorance

To maximize learning, operate at your boundary of ignorance

To succeed at knowledge work, effective learning must be one of our central activities. The key question is: What strategies can most productively guide our learning. I suggest that the boundary of your ignorance is the best place from which to direct your learning strategy.

Suppose we visualize what we know as lying inside a circle; outside the circle are all the things we might possibly learn. As we learn, we expand our circle of knowledge; at the same time we expand our knowledge of the things we might learn that we don't yet know. Inside the circle, we are comfortable with what we know, yet there is little opportunity to learn something new. Outside the circle, our lack of knowledge makes learning nearly impossible.

As our circle of knowledge expands, so does our boundary of ignorance. At that edge, we are most likely to find the best balance between a base of knowledge to work from and new territory worth exploring. It is at the edges of what we know where maximum learning can occur.

Learning how to recognize and use those edges is a key skill we need to develop to become more effective learners. We generally don't know much about how to plan our learning. In formal school settings, someone else worries about what we need to learn when. Schools devise and organize curricula to provide a map to knowledge and the prerequisites for the knowledge we hope to acquire. Outside of school, learning occurs more often than not by accident.

Neither of these experiences helps us develop skill in mapping what we need to learn. Until we have a a map, there is little else to be done. With a map in hand, we can make informed choices about how to best do the actual learning and can work out the challenges of fitting learning into the day-to-day demands for performance. Two techniques can help identify and map a learning agenda at your boundary of ignorance: monitoring your curiosity and your conversations.

The late Isaac Asimov once observed that "the most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'that’s funny'." What piques your curiosity is an excellent indicator of where your learning energies ought to be focused. Curiosity is an edge phenomenon where new inputs have enough structure and content from your perspective to emerge as something more than background noise and chaos, yet are not so well-defined as to be immediately classifiable. Becoming more mindful of the terminology, issues, and phenomenon that are separating themselves from background noise helps identify topics you should consider investing learning time in.

For example, I started my professional career as a systems and database designer. As I delivered systems to clients, I was struck and disturbed by the generally glacial pace at which users adopted and integrated these systems into their daily work practices. As a first step that led me to pestering the senior consultants running the projects I was working on to learn more about the business functions and departments we were building our systems for. Their answers, and the subsequent questions those answers raised, led me to an MBA and eventually to a Ph.D., where I spent most of my time learning about organizational behavior and design instead of SQL or third normal form.

Fortunately, not all investigations of curiosity lead to six more years of formal education. As a more mundane example, I've been trying to figure out the role of technology in knowledge-management efforts. That effort began with attempts to better leverage Lotus Notes, shifted to Web-based content management, and later to open-source content management systems. At each stage, the learning was driven by problems I couldn't quite solve, terms I almost understood, and issues I couldn't articulate crisply. That quality of being on the edge of almost understanding was the principal marker of when I was in learning mode instead of performance mode.

Outside of schools, learning does not come packaged in courses with a list of prerequisites. Monitoring your curiosity consists of becoming aware of terms, tools, topics, and techniques that you are encountering in your environment, yet are not part of your current knowledge and skills. As these become visible to you, the next step is to cluster and chunk that material into a learning agenda; a sequence of topics ranging from the nearly familiar to the barely recognized.

Your Learning Agenda

Your learning agenda can be as simple as an outline of terms and topics to follow up on or it can evolve into a more comprehensive plan of subjects to pursue depending on your own goals and the demands of your job. Regardless, as you reach this stage, you can also reach beyond your own internal resources to vet and refine your agenda. Conversations with your network of peers and mentors replace a visit to an academic advisor.

Armed with a learning agenda, some portion of your conversations can now contribute to elaborating that agenda. From a learning perspective, your network of peers and contacts is now a resource for fleshing out your learning plans, helping to map your questions into resources and pointers that will start to develop answers to the questions you are now exploring.

With a learning agenda in hand, you are now in a position to begin work on the learning itself. In the real world, as opposed to the classroom, that learning can take many forms depending on the specifics of your learning agenda and your biases and preferences about ways of learning.

Moreover, we are also faced with balancing learning and performance. As performers we are expected to operate within the boundaries of what we know, while our changing environments demand that we simultaneously learn and push back those same boundaries. Both of those challenges are worthy of more explorations, but depend initially on having a workable explorer's map. Such a map is silent as to the details of exact roads and directions, as we are operating in unexplored territory. A series of questions to guide our explorations, however, is enough to connect us to what we do know and point us outward in the direction of new skills and knowledge.