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At long last, the conference of the future

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For the first time ever, the KMWorld conference is going completely virtual this year. This presents an excellent opportunity to apply the principles and practices of virtual collaboration and knowledge sharing we KMers have been promoting for many years. They apply not only to this conference, but to any online activity involving two or more people. Here are three key principles and practices, along with proposed enhancements for bringing them into the post-COVID world and beyond: sense of location (Where am I?), the need for cognition (Why am I here?), and sensory acuity (How can I make this a vivid and memorable experience?).

Sense of location

Sense of location is a basic human need for a frame of reference. It’s directly related to spatial intelligence, which is often referred to as a distinct category of human intelligence.

You’ve seen those map kiosks in shopping malls with the arrow labeled “You are here.” When attending a conference, your information packet has similar orienteering aids: “Knowledge Capture Track sessions in Room 201A, second floor,” etc.

Sense of location is closely related to physical proximity, for example, finding places and things such as the nearest coffee/ snack bar, business/mail center, concierge desk, or news/taxi stand. Physical proximity also applies to people. With Bluetooth-enabled mobile apps, you can find out who is in the same room or nearby—people you know, people you’d like to know, and maybe even a few people you’d like to avoid!

We can kick this up a notch by adding topic proximity to the mix. When and where are topics of a similar or complementary nature being discussed? XML Topic Maps (ISO/IEC 13250) have been around for almost 2 decades. We need them now more than ever to give users a sense of location regarding what they know, what they don’t know, and what they need to know, as well as links to the knowledge sources behind each topic. Food for thought: What additional proximity attributes would you use to identify, locate, and connect people, places, and things?

Need for cognition

The need for cognition, or NFC, is the extent to which an individual is willing to go in order to understand and relate to what’s happening in the world. In other words, it is one’s need to experience “cognitive closure” around a specific topic or issue. NFC is closely tied to one’s sense of purpose. Why expend the effort trying to understand something unrelated to what you’re trying to accomplish?

This is important because, compared to the physical world, cognitive stimulation in a virtual environment tends to be limited. Dan Holtshouse addressed this in an article he wrote for this column back in 2006, in which he described the cognitive space as one of four key elements of the future workplace. He wrote that “workers approach thinking and problem solving differently, so the one-size-fits-all approach to IT infrastructure has limitations.”

In past epochs, usually when a civilizationis at or near its peak, the architectureof prominent structures masterfully blends the physical and the cognitive. Space and time are harmoniously woven into a vivid presentation of a story, a plan, or a road map leading to a desired future state. You can see this on full display in the world’s great temples and cathedrals, libraries, halls of government, markets, and, more recently, travel hubs such as airports and train stations.

We need to be thinking along the same lines as we build platforms for interacting in an increasingly virtual world, including virtual conferences. If you’re thinking, “Wait a minute—I can only do so much with my mobile device,” you’re at the right starting point. The challenge is to take what these great architects of the past have done for physical and cognitive spaces and apply it to the virtual environment. This brings us to …

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