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Personal Toolkit: Apertures of articulation

This article appears in the issue July/August 2005 [Volume 14, Issue 7]

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While this column typically covers knowledge work hardware or software, this month's offering is a metaphor.

Most of us involved in knowledge management would agree that we can be smarter together than we can be individually. We work and learn in living networks. Together, we comprise great bodies of knowledge and expertise. But how does that really work? To what degree do we know and learn together? What responsibility does an individual have to learn something that no one else knows? What responsibility does an individual have to make his or her unique knowledge or perspective available to others?

Because no puny human can ever hope to squirrel away for winter all the knowledge stored in the social contexts of cultures, communities and conversations, the key question is: How does any individual relate to the larger context?

The fallacy of point source knowledge

It’s almost impossible to trace the real origin of ideas or information. Facts move in and out of the shadows, concepts tunnel out of other thoughts, observations echo out of context, innovations and discoveries appear and reappear in disparate times and places. Each quantum of knowledge, in almost any epistemology, derives its validity from other, older packets of "justified true belief," which depend in turn on other … well, you get it.

Only when articulated does knowledge really seem to be captured or created, like a snapshot freezing a facet of the narrative context.

Ecological metaphors illustrate the organic complexity of knowledge work from an external perspective. But an external point of view depends on a disconnected objectivity that few of us can manage with our own experience--our own day-to-day interactions and deadlines.

In 2000, anthropologist Bonnie Nardi and her colleagues published a paper, "It's Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know: Work in the Information Age," in the online journal First Monday. (See They didn’t just make the point that knowledge exists in social networks rather than information systems; they argued that it's today’s emphasis on personal relationships, rather than new organizational forms, that enable work to get done.

"Rather than being nurtured by institutionalized group structures, we found that workers are increasingly thrown back on their own individual resources," they wrote. "Instead of being able to rely on various forms of teams and communities, access to labor and information comes through workers’ own social networks--structures that they must carefully propagate and cultivate themselves."

That doesn’t invalidate the importance of teams or communities, though it takes informal, emergent structures a lot more seriously than formal, artificial structures. However, it makes it pretty clear that relationships—and the mutual trust and shared context they depend on—are resources that cannot be owned or managed by employers.

It also says something about what happens to information and ideas as they circulate through a network.

Through the lens of the individual

The basic dynamic of collaborative knowledge work is not the deliberate creation or spontaneous self-organization of teams and groups, but rather the conversations that happen in them. Even ideas that emerge because they accrete and percolate in extended formal and informal networks get accepted, articulated and accelerated by one knowledge worker at a time. In one-to-one dialogues or one-to-many presentations, a speaker acts as a lens--an aperture for the knowledge of others in the network behind the speaker, the communities and organizations whose information and ideas he or she presents and represents.

The aperture is a metaphor from photography and other optical fields. It’s the pinhole through which ambient light is allowed to pass. And although I spent years earning my living as a photographer, it still mystifies me that the opening of a shutter would seem to suddenly "attract" just the right scattering of photons to record an image of the narrative context around me.

The diaphragm in a camera—or the iris of an eye—controls exposure and depth of field. In photography, apertures are all about balancing quality and quantity: The larger the opening, the more light is let in, but the smaller the opening, the sharper the focus.

The thing is, in subtle ways the aperture always imprints itself on the light passing through. In a camera, for example, the shape of the aperture formed by the shutter blades inevitably leaves its octagonal outline visible in the unnoticed highlights recorded on the image.

Just as we rarely radiate an original idea purely of our own invention, neither can we simply relay the information and ideas we share with others without altering the image in some way. Each of us, as facets of the network, reflects and refracts our collective knowledge in a unique way.

Steve Barth writes and speaks frequently about KM, e-mail For more on personal knowledge management, see his Web site