Blogging for knowledge workers: incubating ideas

by Lilia Efimova on 11 January 2010

While my Dutch is still far from perfect I am happy with any opportunity to reach local audiences. One of them was writing two articles on blogging for Dutch magazine Informatie Professional – on weblog as an instrument to develop ideas and as a networking tool. Next to the hard work of translating insights from my PhD research it involved serious magic of turning work submitted in one language into a publication in another, so big thanks to everyone involved.

The first article appeared in the January 2010 issue of Informatie Professional which is currently available online for free (as far as I know only till the new issue is out) – Bloggen for kenniswerkers: weblog als buitenboordbrein (pp. 18-21). For those of you who don’t read Dutch the English draft of the article is below (and please don’t be surprised with some reuse from what you saw in this blog or in my academic writing :)

[The second article – Blogging for knowledge workers: personal networking]

***

Weblogs are often discussed as a tool that supports bottom-up knowledge management. They might be useful to tap into insights that escape more formal documents, to see faces behind ideas, to have conversations across hierarchical boundaries and to connect with experts found in unexpected parts of an organisation or outside it.

However, having a vision and installing blogging software is not enough: getting blogging to work in an organisation means helping potential bloggers to find out how weblogs might be useful for them personally and how to sustain blogging in a long-term.

Blogging is primarily known as an instrument for personal publishing, reaching a broad and often unknown audience without pushing content on them. While blogging is personal, most of its advantages are the result being part of an ecosystem, where weblogs are connected not only by links, but also by relations between bloggers. Those relations do not appear automatically: it takes time and effort before one can enjoy social effects of blogging. To sustain blogging before those effects appear it is important to find a personally meaningful way to use a weblog.

In a series of two articles I will discuss how blogging might be relevant from an individual perspective, focusing on two tasks that come along with knowledge work: developing ideas and personal networking.

Weblog as an outboard brain

For its author a weblog might be useful as as personal information management tool, a kind of outboard brain (Cory Doctorow, 2002), used to organise information and thinking. What makes weblogs useful in this respect?

  • Personal space. While blogging is public and the usual norms of civilised writing apply, it is you who is in control. Unless intended to be used for a very specific purpose (e.g. to communicate to customers about a product) or within a restricted environment one can use a weblog to write on personally interesting issues in a personally meaningful way.
  • Microcontent and flexible organisation of it. Writing and reading small fragments is easy to fit between other tasks and then organise in multiple ways. Next to categories and tags there are always opportunities to link relevant weblogs posts or rely on chronological organisation that it there by default. This flexibility allows emergent organisation of weblog content, avoiding premature filing into fixed categories while providing an opportunity to add more structure later.
  • Ecosystem, where capturing ideas in a weblog post also results in sharing it with others. While replies are never guaranteed there is always a chance that someone will be interested. Linking by other bloggers serves as a recommendation of your content and also unleashes the power of search engines to bring new readers to your weblog.

Incubating ideas

New ideas need time to develop. At the beginning it is about awareness and capturing, when a new idea first comes to your radar, either being brought by others or articulated as a result of reflecting on your experiences. At this point ideas are often fuzzy and not connected well to the rest of your expertise, so making sense of them is another step. This is when you discover different aspects of an idea, its relations and its meaning to you. Finally, there is a moment when ideas are ripe: they are used to get things done, turning into reports, advice and mental models you use when making decisions or communicating.

Now let us look at how using a weblog as a personal information management tool can help during those phases.

1. Awareness

Being an expert means knowing what’s going on in your field. Reading weblogs on topics you are working on provides an opportunity to get into direct contact with other experts and hear about new ideas before they make it into publications. Information filtered by blogger networks that you belong to is likely to be relevant to you personally.

Start with a couple of weblogs you like (ask others for recommendations or search via blogsearch.google.com), read them for a while and follow interesting links. Over time you will discover bloggers whose personality, content and style resonate with you. If there are not any than you have a good chance to become an authoritative source yourself.

Think of weblog posts as a coffee-table discussions with a colleague who tells about an interesting article: blog content is not necessarily objective or complete, however it is presented in bite-size chunks and accompanied by the personal opinion of someone you know. Since many weblogs are person-centric rather than focused on a particular topic, you are likely to get exposed to the insights from other fields that bloggers you read find interesting, supporting cross-fertilisation that drives innovation.

2. Capturing ideas in a trusted external repository

Before ideas grow and mature they are vulnerable: it is not necessarily clear why a particular topic is worth exploring. It is often difficult to relate it to the work one is doing at the moment and, as a result to find time for it. Compared to writing a document, which has a particular purpose and audience in mind, personal nature of blogging requires less mental restrictions around what is appropriate: you can always imagine writing for yourself. It is also easy to write a couple of paragraphs that do not necessarily connect to anything (yet), so a weblog can capture many seemingly random notes, creating an opportunity to build on them over time.

In addition, as David Allen suggests in Getting Things Done (2005), capturing anything that distracts you in a “trusted system outside your mind” helps to focus on a task at hand and it also creates an opportunity to notice connections and to generate more ideas. In this case a weblog can serve as a parking space for things that do not fit into your current work, but might be useful in the future, such as comments on interesting articles, observations of working practices or paragraphs that do not fit the main argument of a report.

The open-ended nature of a weblog helps to capture emergent insights before they can be expressed systematically. In a way it is similar to brainstorming with post-its or to a spatial arrangement of papers on one’s desk: at early stages of developing ideas we can more easily say that something is relevant than to explain how exactly it connects to the rest.

3. Sense-making

A weblog helps to develop ideas further in multiple ways. First, the writing process itself is thinking: in many cases putting ideas in words pushes us to think further and to be more precise. Knowing that they will be shared in public and might be relevant for someone else provides an additional motivation to explain emergent insights.

Organising and retrieving weblog content aids establishing connections between fragments and pattern recognition. Adding tags to mark weblog posts on a topic is similar to categorising data in qualitative research: being able to retrieve fragments related to each other helps to notice similarities and differences and to identify bigger themes behind them.

Finally, weblogs provide an opportunity to tap into collective intelligence: there is always an opportunity that someone has a solution on a problem you articulated or have an alternative opinion on the book you reviewed. Something you wrote could be also picked up by another blogger, who blogs about it linking back to you exposing your ideas to a different audience.

4. Getting things done

Over time ideas captured and organised they provide a fertile ground for reflection and reuse. For example, going through old posts on a particular topic could suggest an idea for a new project or an article; looking at the issues you covered in a particular month could help to remember what to include in a progress report. It is not uncommon to hear bloggers talking about reusing their archives, either to save time by sending a link to old weblog post to answer a question, or by turning them into a report or even a book.

A lot of knowledge work requires writing. Blogging helps with a writer’s block, since any idea could be first drafted informally as a blogpost. Sharing parts of a bigger writing project via the weblog provides opportunities to try out different ways to structure an argument and to make it stronger through the feedback. A weblog could be useful to spread the word that a report is finished and available. While a formal publication takes time and is often controlled by an intermediaries, weblogs provide a direct way to reach potential readers and a possibility for viral recommendation of the work via other blogs.

Practical tips

  • There is a lot of stuff in the weblogs. Don’t read everything. Scan post titles and themes that bloggers are writing about and zoom into those that are relevant. Trust your network to filter information for you. Don’t worry that you might miss something important: big news tends to appear over many weblogs and are not likely to escape your attention.
  • Finding time to blog is the biggest challenge. Instead of thinking of it as an extra tool, check if blogging can replace something you already do. For example, find things that you write anyway (e.g. trip reports, overviews of a new domain, interesting quotes) and think which part of those could be shared in public. The chances are high that it is not confidential and would be useful for others. Once it is in the weblog it might be also easier for you to find it back.
  • Being personal is valuable. Personal stories that go next to information add context, so it would be easier for you to recall why you wrote it. They also make your ideas and your weblog memorable for the readers.
  • If in doubt – be selfish. It is often difficult to predict who will be interested in a weblog post and why. If you are not sure who is your audience when writing about a particular topic, choosing which information to link to or how to tag a weblog post, make sure that you can understand it in a few months. Weblogs work as magnets and eventually will attract readers who resonate with your writing.
  • When one’s thinking is documented via a weblog, it is essential to learn how to make mistakes in public and how to handle them gracefully. Don’t delete old controversial posts (unless legally required), but instead write an update and link to it from there.

Visible expertise

Weblogs provide a space for articulating and capturing ideas that might be undocumented or hidden in private collections otherwise, parking them in a trusted external repository shared with others. Writing, organising and comments by others help making sense of emergent insights and then use them to get things done. Used this way weblog provides a visible trace of one’s expertise, turning it into an instrument for personal networking.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 caheidelberger 13 January 2010 at 23:09

I like the note about trusting our network to filter information. The big news will bubble up — maybe that will help me relax about trying to read everything on my feed reader!

2 Lilia Efimova 13 January 2010 at 23:26

There is a bit more on that at Blog networking study: dealing with a network expansion and filtering information it bring (=I didn’t invent that myself :)

3 Erica America 14 January 2010 at 18:32

Thanks for such a compelling post. I have been blogging for about three years now – and I am considering what’s next and how to add additional value to what I do. Your explanation of Idea Incubation and the four steps — Awareness, Capturing, Sense-Making and Action — helped me to see everything in a new light. Now that’s a great blog post. :)

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