Indeed, while we might think of information technology as a newish field, in fact Information Technologist may rank among the world’s oldest professions. – Alex Wright, Glut: Mastering information through the ages
I’m at the third section of this Listen book project and what I’m going to have to work through is how to pull everything together.
I started this project with a vague idea of what I was doing and followed ideas as they emerged.
As a result, I’ve had to retrofit a structure as I’ve moved through the content and selected to go with a simple three-part one, which involves preparation, collection and sense-making.
We’re into sense-making territory now and I’m drawing on ethnographic approaches and management experience to work through this section.
Eventually the plan is that all these words can be put together in a way that makes sense and is readable – but I have to confess feeling that could be a long, hard slog which is never actually finished.
But I think that is the way a lot of artists feel and you just have to work through things a bit at a time and eventually something happens.
If you stop, it doesn’t.
So, in this section, let’s look at how to move ahead, starting with what you have.
What material have you collected?
We’ve discussed in previous posts that you need to take notes, lots of them, as you experience a situation.
People will tell you things, you’ll see things, you’ll have your own ideas or insights into what is going on.
You’ve captured all this somewhere – in your mind, in your notebook.
You’ve done this in private and no one has seen your notes or you’ve done it while being observed and effectively co-created notes.
What you’re looking at is a mass of material.
What are you going to do with that?
Before I go into that, some time back I was wondering about the essential futility of modern living.
I think it was sparked by a quote about how humans have transitioned from being hunters to farmers to clerks.
That seemed like a negative thing – why are we spending so much of our time on mundane, non-essential, clerkish duties.
And then I came across Glut: Mastering information through the ages and started to realize just how critical writing was in enabling the societies we have today.
It’s one thing having a thought or seeing something – but it’s writing it down and sharing it that gives it roots and life and longevity.
And writing down something means you first have to make sense of things – and that’s why it has been such a useful tool through the ages – and why being a scribe or a clerk is actually a rather important job.
I need to make it clearer throughout this book project is that the “Listen” title of the book is not about providing a sympathetic ear to someone going through a difficult time.
That’s what you might normally think of – and the objective there is to allow someone to have a cathartic experience – to talk through what’s on their mind and unburden themselves.
We’re often told that we just need to be there to listen, not offer solutions but instead a non-judgmental ear.
That’s not the kind of listening I’m really talking about here.
This is the kind of listening that helps you work out what course of action is best, what strategies you might take, whether you have options or if you’ve got your back to the wall and your only option is to fight your way out.
It’s the kind of listening that helps you understand a situation, the dynamics, the politics, the culture and get a sense of what could work given the people and relationships that are in front of you.
And what you’ve done, in whatever way works best for you, is scribed it all down, noted down everything you could using the resources and tools you had.
And now you need to do something with all that.
What analysis are you going to do?
The general word for starting to make sense of thing is “analysis” and we can use that to cover quite a large set of activities.
We’ll go into some of them in more detail in later posts, but analysis is the process of taking a pile of material and processing it – sorting it, categorizing it – putting it into buckets so that you can work with it.
In most situations the important information is qualitative – you’re trying to work through what people have said.
It’s tempting to reduce things to numbers, to surveys and spreadsheets, but in reality the things you measure are often not the things that matter – and the answers are hidden behind the words people have used to tell you what’s going on.
And so analysis is not just about what you’ve been told but about what lies behind the words – the hidden meanings of things.
When analyzing material what matters is stepping away from your own position on things.
You need to try and look at your material from multiple perspectives, not necessarily objective but critical.
The difference is that an objective approach reduces the role of the observer – you in this case – while a critical approach allows you to stay in the picture, challenging and questioning and coding and grouping and sorting the material in front of you.
What themes and ideas are emerging?
When you go through the analysis process you find that themes and ideas will start to emerge.
It’s tempting, of course, to stop at the first few, plausible ones but it’s important to keep going, to create multiple sets of ideas and themes and models.
There’s often more than one consistent and logical way to look at a situation.
If you want to make a difference you need to be able to appreciate all of them – or at least the ones that matter the most.
All of this can be hard, taxing work – and you might wonder why you’re doing any of this at all.
Who are you writing for?
And this is where you need to decide who your audience is and why you’re writing in the first place.
If you’re trying to create a business opportunity, then shorter is often better.
If you’re in business, you’re not interested in a book that tells you everything – you really want to know which direction to go in and what pitfalls to avoid.
You might have a short conversation and a fairly simple presentation or document that pulls it all together.
If you’re doing an extended study or writing a book or really trying to understand what’s going on in a way that can be generalized or commercialized then you will need to do more work.
One way of thinking about this is the container you’re filling – is it a memo, a presentation, a white paper, a presentation, a book?
We’ll look at how the choice of container affects they way you present your findings.
What’s the point at which you can walk away?
Finally, no piece of work is ever really finished – you have to decide what point you’re ready to walk away from it.
Some people will work on and worry something until the very end.
Some will get it to the point where it works and then move on.
It really depends on how you think of your work – whether it’s a transitional object or something that is permanent – words for the ages.
We’ll look at that as well, what’s the way in which what you create serves you and others.
And then, when you’ve put down your pen or closed your computer file, you’re done with the process.
But we’ll get to that as we work through these ideas in the next few posts.