Signals, Knowledge, ‚Ambient‘ Learning

Oscilloscope

Ever since my first internship in an agency I’ve been thinking a lot about organizational learning. Knowledge management if you want. It’s a bit like the holy grail, or as Ehrenberg calls it, one of marketing’s ‚romantic fantasies‘.

Knowledge management is the latest marketing mantra. It is unrealistic when we are mostly drowning in catadupes of undigested data.

What Ehrenberg talks about is generalizable, quantifiable laws of behavior. Over the course of his life, he has dedicated himself to finding these laws with marketing science, and promoting them. This, however, is not the knowledge I’m referring to here. It’s knowledge markting people and planners should have, but it’s static knowledge. You learn it and that’s pretty much it. Same is true for other findings about human behavior as derived for example by the behavioral economics folks.

What I’m more interested in, however, is dynamic knowledge about people, culture and society, and this is for a simple reason: this is the knowledge we use to mould ideas with. Pasteur once said that „In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind“. The updated version of this quote, „Chance favors the connected mind“ by Steven Johnson, refers to the same concept. Connections foster the exchange of knowledge, which is followed by new knowledge. In the business of coming up with ideas or ‚insights‘, this applies as well. Creativity – as an outcome, the socially perceived trait of something – is a function of many individual, group and organizational traits (see e.g. Woodman et al 1993, Amabile 1998) and knowledge is an important factor.

But knowledge in what area? I’d argue that it is culture, and with the success of business books about collective behavior like the Chief Culture Officer by McCracken and Herd by Mark Earls and cultural ideas, like the Brand Innovation Manifesto by John Grant – I suppose I can spare you the argument.

So, we’re talking about cultural knowledge – knowledge about ideas and ideologies floating around, about human behavior being adopted, about social groups forming. While you could obviously argue that no one can be outside the realm of cultural knowledge, ‚culture‘ is so vast and complex and fast that whenever you chose to look at one thing, you could be looking at something else as well. Therefor, dividing and conquering this task is essential. Often, this task is, as Rob Campbell doesn’t get tired to remind us, reading blogs and the newspaper, watching the telly and talking to good old normal people. With big data, network science and computing power available, there’s also more of a cultural science coming along, that’s a bit more sophisticated. Nevertheless, the challenge of knowledge exchange and sensemaking remains.

Simon Kendrick recently posted about a Dynamic Knowledge Creation Model on his blog. There, he describes the different forms of knowledges and the ways of exchanging them.
Dynamic Knowledge Creation Model

Routine knowledge (explicit to tacit) – learning by doing
Experiential knowledge (tacit to tacit) – judgement of individuals
Conceptual knowledge (tacit to explicit) – frameworks and models to utilise
Systemic knowledge (explicit to explicit) – editing and synthesising multiple sources

While I think that people are usually well trained in the conceptual and systemic sphere, often after practicing how to verbalize stuff hard at university, I think there could be better ways of sharing experiential knowledge. Sure, within and organization there can never be a 100% congruent body of knowledge. Sure, experiences as such can’t be properly shared anyways. Sure, knowledge exchange that require you to pick up and consciously reflect upon something (newsletters, RSS feeds) probably never work the way they are intended to, if they aren’t coupled to a concrete task. But I still think that something catering to low-involvement, low-attention in your environment could do a lot.

So what I’m thinking about goes more into the direction that Berg London (with Dentsu London and Timo Arnall) take with their concept of incidental media.

Each of the ideas in the film treat the surface as a focus, rather than the channel or the content delivered. Here, media includes messages from friends and social services, like foursquare or Twitter, and also more functional messages from companies or services like banks or airlines alongside large traditional big ‘M’ Media (like broadcast or news publishing).

All surfaces have access to connectivity. All surfaces are displays responsive to people, context, and timing. If any surface could show anything, would the loudest or the most polite win? Surfaces which show the smartest most relevant material in any given context will be the most warmly received.

[…]

We’ve drawn from great work from the likes of Chris O’Shea and his Hand from Above project to sketch something peripheral and ignorable, but still at scale. The installation could be played with by those having their colours stolen, but it doesn’t demand interaction. In fact I suspect it would succeed far more effectively for those viewing from afar with no agency over the system at all.

In contrast to a Minority Report future of aggressive messages competing for a conspicuously finite attention, these sketches show a landscape of ignorable surfaces capitalising on their context, timing and your history to quietly play and present in the corners of our lives.

Media surfaces: Incidental Media from Dentsu London on Vimeo.

This is not about the Minority Report-like social media control centers that are now starting to pop up. It’s rather about sharing a stream of pointers to implicit knowledge and experiences. About what happens before the team members consciously construct McCracken’s big board. Media that doesn’t need conscious elaboration but rather works in our peripheral vision feeding us proverbial weak signals. Think headlines from delicious bookmarks, foursquare checkins, tweets from people in the organisation, but shared not in a creepy ubiquitous way on your (first) screen, but embedded into office life. How could that look like? And would it help?


Amabile, T.M., 1998. How to kill creativity. Harvard Business Review, 76(5), p.76–87.
Bentley, A. & Earls, Mark, 2008. Forget influentials, herd-like copying is how brands spread. Admap, 43(499), pp.19-22.
Ehrenberg, A., 2002. Marketing: Are you really a realist? strategy+business, p.22–25.
Grant, J., 2006. Brand Innovation Manifesto: How to Build Brands, Redefine Markets and Defy Conventions 1st ed., John Wiley & Sons.
McCracken, G., 2009. Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation, Basic Books.
McCracken, G., 2006. Flock and Flow: Predicting and Managing Change in a Dynamic Marketplace, Indiana Univ Pr.
Woodman, R.W., Sawyer, J.E. & Grifn, R.W., 1993. Toward a theory of organizational creativity. The Academy of Management Review, 18(2), p.293–321.