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IT Learning at the Boundaries of Your Ignorance

To maximize learning, operate at your boundary of ignorance

by Jim McGee


To succeed at knowledge work, effective learning must be one of our central activities. The key question is: What strategies can most productively guide our learning. I suggest that the boundary of your ignorance is the best place from which to direct your learning strategy.

Suppose we visualize what we know as lying inside a circle; outside the circle are all the things we might possibly learn. As we learn, we expand our circle of knowledge; at the same time we expand our knowledge of the things we might learn that we don’t yet know. Inside the circle, we are comfortable with what we know, yet there is little opportunity to learn something new. Outside the circle, our lack of knowledge makes learning nearly impossible.

As our circle of knowledge expands, so does our boundary of ignorance. At that edge, we are most likely to find the best balance between a base of knowledge to work from and new territory worth exploring. It is at the edges of what we know where maximum learning can occur.

Learning how to recognize and use those edges is a key skill we need to develop to become more effective learners. We generally don’t know much about how to plan our learning. In formal school settings, someone else worries about what we need to learn when. Schools devise and organize curricula to provide a map to knowledge and the prerequisites for the knowledge we hope to acquire. Outside of school, learning occurs more often than not by accident.

Neither of these experiences helps us develop skill in mapping what we need to learn. Until we have a a map, there is little else to be done. With a map in hand, we can make informed choices about how to best do the actual learning and can work out the challenges of fitting learning into the day-to-day demands for performance. Two techniques can help identify and map a learning agenda at your boundary of ignorance: monitoring your curiosity and your conversations.

The late Isaac Asimov once observed that "the most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘that’s funny’." What piques your curiosity is an excellent indicator of where your learning energies ought to be focused. Curiosity is an edge phenomenon where new inputs have enough structure and content from your perspective to emerge as something more than background noise and chaos, yet are not so well-defined as to be immediately classifiable. Becoming more mindful of the terminology, issues, and phenomenon that are separating themselves from background noise helps identify topics you should consider investing learning time in.

For example, I started my professional career as a systems and database designer. As I delivered systems to clients, I was struck and disturbed by the generally glacial pace at which users adopted and integrated these systems into their daily work practices. As a first step that led me to pestering the senior consultants running the projects I was working on to learn more about the business functions and departments we were building our systems for. Their answers, and the subsequent questions those answers raised, led me to an MBA and eventually to a Ph.D., where I spent most of my time learning about organizational behavior and design instead of SQL or third normal form.

Fortunately, not all investigations of curiosity lead to six more years of formal education. As a more mundane example, I’ve been trying to figure out the role of technology in knowledge-management efforts. That effort began with attempts to better leverage Lotus Notes, shifted to Web-based content management, and later to open-source content management systems. At each stage, the learning was driven by problems I couldn’t quite solve, terms I almost understood, and issues I couldn’t articulate crisply. That quality of being on the edge of almost understanding was the principal marker of when I was in learning mode instead of performance mode.

Outside of schools, learning does not come packaged in courses with a list of prerequisites. Monitoring your curiosity consists of becoming aware of terms, tools, topics, and techniques that you are encountering in your environment, yet are not part of your current knowledge and skills. As these become visible to you, the next step is to cluster and chunk that material into a learning agenda; a sequence of topics ranging from the nearly familiar to the barely recognized.