Dec 2008

The Challenge of Knowledge Capture

Ask any of my friends and they will confirm that I read a lot. One category of books that I read are to learn some form of process or technique that I hope to use to improve my personal work processes (or sometimes non-work).

Take, for example, the excellent “The Art of the Long View” by Peter Schwartz. This book describes the process of “scenaric thinking” for coming up with different scenarios for visualizing different kinds of futures. Today we would probably call this a form of strategic planning.

Strategic Planning is a difficult thing to do, let alone do well. Schwartz proposes a method in this book that I have used in the past successfully.

The problem with these types of books is that the information is rarely presented to me in a form that I can immediately use. I frequently need to extract the essence of the information out from the book before I can use it. Otherwise, the information is trapped in the book and when I’m in the thick of things in the middle of work, I don’t have time to reread the book and try to get the juicy parts on the fly. I don’t expect or want books to spoon feed me, of course. I know that I have to do the extraction work if I want to get the value out of the book.

This however points to the bigger problem of knowledge capture. How do I learn something and then codify it in a form that I can actually use? If I can’t accomplish this then the book sits on the shelf to dust.

I’ve struggled with different methods of knowledge capture over the years, and have settled on the notion of putting information into “templates”. By this I mean that I rewrite the information from the book in a substantially reduced form, but I also change the presentation of the material so it is in a file that can be immediately opened and used. Think of Word templates for business letters or Excel templates for budgets and you get the idea.

I’ve experimented with different approaches for doing this. A simple approach is to use Word. Word templates have the advantage that I can put anything I want into them and get a document up and running quickly. Once I’m done with the template, I usually paste things into whatever other material I am working on at the time.

However, I abandoned that approach a few years ago because Word still locked me into a linear way of thinking about whatever problem I had. These types of knowledge capture problems needed a more dynamic way of thinking about the problem.

This was solved when I discovered Mindjet’s MindManager several years ago. I’ve been a constant user of the program since version 4, which was released somewhere around 1999. It’s a great program for brainstorming, but I use it for much more than that.

Take Schwartz’s scenaric thinking, for example. I have created the MindManager template below that extracts the essence of the process from my copy of the book. I can’t show you any details because that would probably infringe on the book’s copyrights, but each of the notes on the branches contains text that I’ve summarized from the book.

Whenever I need to create a scenario, I open this template. The “Approach” branch is set up to act as a trigger in my mind. It tells me what I need to think about and I start adding this information as sub branches to the map. If I need to jog my memory further then I can look at the notes.

In this way I can add new processes into my daily workflow without slowing things down too much. If I slow things down too much then I am no longer productive and I can’t get my work done.

Once I’m done with the template I can export the information into some other format, usually Word or Powerpoint, and add it into whatever material I am working on at the moment.

This isn’t a perfect system, but over the years it seems to be the one that has worked the best for me. The templates are harder to create than they first appear. It’s far too easy to create templates that have too much information from the book and become unusable because, again, they slow me down too much due to information overload.

Here are a few of the templates I have created over the years:

They often change as I add new information into my work processes. All my templates are provisional in that they can always be improved. They all have the benefit that they give me a good start when I need to do these tasks in my job.