The Difference Between Living And Dead Practice


Saturday, 9.05pm

Sheffield, U.K.

An education is not so much about making a living as making a person. – Tara Westover

What does it mean to be knowledgeable?

To answer this question you have to first draw a boundary around what you think of as knowledge because people start to argue definitions very quickly. Take my field of interest, for example. I started with an interest in Sketchnotes as a way of taking notes in lectures. I was introduced to Soft Systems Methodology (SSM). I became aware of a Visual Thinking community that ranges from Scribing, which is creating a record of a discussion to quite complex forms of facilitation that use visual methods. Then you have a host of methods, frameworks and philosophies, such as Lean, Agile and Scrum. And we shouldn’t forget old favourites like Mind Mapping and lesser known techniques like Thinking Maps. I’ve then learned, as I started my research, that Operations Research encompasses many of these methods, unless you’re an Operational Researcher that thinks it doesn’t.

In a situation with this kind of complexity I ask again, what does it mean to be knowledgeable?

One explanation that I’ve found as very useful is to think of a knowledgeable person as being someone who is familiar with books that are seen as “authoritative” in their field [1]. For Sketchnotes that means the work of Mike Rhode and “The Sketchnote Handbook” while for Thinking Maps you need to read David Hyerle and for SSM your starting point is Peter Checkland.

An easy way to find out what is authoritative is to ask someone in the space what books you should read. The book list you get will help you draw the boundary between what’s considered as acceptable and what isn’t. A little like the books used by religions. This definition also helps you understand what it means to teach – teaching involves getting students to become familiar with the books in the list.

Being knowledgeable and being able to teach is a starting point – and it’s seen as the place to get to these days. Everyone who wants to be anyone writes a book, creates a course and starts a certification scheme, because these are the ways to get you to gain knowledge of their approach, to buy into their belief system.

But there is a problem with this. Once someone starts to teach something as their primary job you have to ask yourself why they are doing that. Can’t they make money doing what they’re teaching? This is most visible when it comes to providing financial advice. If someone knows how to make money in stock markets or crypto currency or forex trading then why aren’t they just doing that instead of wasting their time teaching you? Ah, they say, we’ve made our money. Now we’re giving back – but a cynic might wonder why so many gurus don’t actually seem to have all that much in the way of tangible assets. But that’s not my point.

The point I want to make is that you have to learn to tell the difference between archaeology and the present. Some knowledge is like a monolith – a perfect creation set into a landscape created by artisans from a bygone age – serving a purpose that might not be entirely remembered. Like Stonehenge. Sometimes I look at a concept like Mind Maps – created and trademarked and owned and protected by Tony Buzan. From what I can tell the instructions you get are to put an idea at the centre and draw out from there. The special thing is that there is one idea at the centre and only one – because that’s what makes it a Mind Map. If you had more than one idea then it would be closer to a cognitive map or a mental map and you’re treading on the toes of other researchers.

When you look at knowledge in this kind of way, enclosed within boundaries created by the literature, I think you’re dealing with ideas that are dead inside – ones where what’s important is protecting and profiting rather than using and learning. If you want to see where the real work is being done you have to go and look at living practice – at the work that people are actually doing rather than the work they’re teaching. And I wonder whether that’s something that’s worth exploring in more detail.

A living practice would look something like a tree. If you’re interested in using pictures to help you think and make better decisions you’re calling on a literature and practice that goes back to early humans drawing on cave walls to a bewildering array of techniques and methods across differing fields. If you want to learn what is being done in practice then you have to go and see – go to the place where work is being done and watch it being done. Not learn it from an expert or read it in a book – unless that books is one that describes how the work is being done. The way to understand archaeology, it turns out, is to go and watch living practice. You’ll learn more about scraps of pottery by seeing how people make and use it now – if they still do so, that is. This is ethnographic study – watching and learning.

The takeaway from this post is that we are surrounded by a social media world where people want to teach us the One True Way. Resist the temptation to buy into that idea and instead go and see real people doing real work. That’s where value hides.


Karthik Suresh


  1. “The orders of documents, the orders of activity, and the orders of information”. Charles Bazerman. 2012. Archival Science

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