Free Yourselves from the Tyranny of the Document Metaphor!

(My title comes from a former colleague who buried this bon mot in a client deliverable – if she wishes me to name her, I shall. Else, know this headline gem is just something I wish I’d written.)
I interjected myself into a listserv conversation last week, stating “documents present a barrier to knowledge – We need to move beyond the document metaphor if we’re trying to cultivate knowledge.”
I was asked to explain myself, as this is considered by some a contrarian view. I first waited a few days while those more eloquent took up the cause – but here is what I responded this morning. I believe a reasonable response is to roll one’s eyes at such talk – I don’t offer a useful alternative to documents (yet), so why attend? Simple: I am trying to shake us free from the belief that improving documents will improve somehow knowledge flows and understanding. If you’ve already begun focusing on enabling conversations rather than uploading more documents to your portal – you have the message.
One friend offered that documents are not barriers but constraints. Here is where I part company: the document may be intended as a constraining frame, but when so much of the ‘system’ is omitted, this framing becomes cropping (as in image cropping). Constraint becomes distortion. The brain itself tells us why documents are cropped images of knowledge, not sufficient frames.
The brain knows spatial and temporal patterns, and predicts patterns in its environment. Language shapes expected patterns, and predisposes the brain to predict in certain ways. The marvelous thing here is that our media distinctions such as images, sound, written language, spoken language, emotion, physical response – are blended in memory. In addition: these memories are not stored as blended, but are blended at the point of recall. What is stored are fragments – all knowledge is fragmented until the point of use. An author uses her knowledge to create a document, which – if well crafted and discovered and interpreted well – will form one input for the learner.
For documents from this morning’s email to early religious texts – the context lost between author and reader is significant and meaningful. Even the term ‘context’ seems to me to be a false reference to content metadata. For the brain, context is content. This is why we know more than we can say, and we say more than we can write down. (Polanyi, Snowden.)
{ The photo below is of neolithic ‘art’ from Newgrange in southern Ireland. The meaning for these carvings is utterly absent now, as eons washed away all metadata, culture and context. }
But more than this, our brains make use of our bodies in ways we are only beginning to understand. My wife and I sat sipping wine on the deck last night, during a difficult conversation. At one point, her reassuring squeeze on my forearm conveyed a silent message that got me thinking about haptic memory, pattern expectations, and the “non-verbal” communication that characterizes some of this transfer. (I compared this favorably to the times she kicks me under a dinner table, the forearm message was much clearer – or perhaps I was “listening” this time.)
Research into everything from micro-expressions to mirror neurons shows us that face-to-face conversation is the richest knowledge transfer experience. Given the flow of information, both conscious and not, during a conversation – the notion that a document can capture the richness of this flow is laughable. For simple problems, documents can be sufficient: (my most recent data point being the bookcase I successfully assembled from instructions penned in China, all the more remarkable if you know how useless I am at such tasks).
The reason I say documents are a barrier, then, comes from their omission of so much context/content – but also from our mistaken confidence in their ability to transfer knowledge of any depth. So long as we believe improving document structures or access will increase knowledge transfer – we will continue to erect barriers to true knowledge transfer and maintain the high error rate that we all swim through each day.

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Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Fascinating post! The document paradigm is especially damaging in how many Federal departments train their people. The usual pattern is to have the subject-matter expert (SME) write up some standard operating procedures along with printouts of some “helpful” emails. This is placed in a binder and, if you are lucky, the participants get a half-hour training with the SME. During the session, the SME will refer you to the documentation and then cut the session short for his or her retirement party. The employees dutifully read the documentation several times and then decides among themselves what the process must be (sort of like the parable about the six blind men and an elephant).

John Bordeaux

Wow… Just wow. I lost count of all the bad assumptions in that “process” you describe. Someone decided that SOPs somehow “captured” the SME’s knowledge; that SOPs would endure and change never happens; that reading an SOP is sufficient to capture the SME’s knowledge (if nothing else, check Shannon Information Theory); etc. Like I said, I lost count.

I find it a useful exercise, btw, to explore the assumptions that undergird absurdities. They didn’t start out as absurdities, no one person thought the process you describe was a good thing (unless no one really cares, that is). What assumptions lead to such absurdities? Illuminate, question, break down. Some of my favorite hobbies.

tony joyce

One need look no further than the War by Powerpointstory for proof that a incessant focus on process will lead a group astray. It is a great case study as the context that was lost is also laid out plainly for all to see. At least it is clear to outsiders a little removed in time and space from the tyranny of the battle rhythm and the bunkers.