Social business tools augment your memory with facts and context
Can you remember the great ideas of your career?
I had lunch with a scientist last year. We were talking about our multi-decade careers and our accomplishments. My companion put down his fork and said “I had this great idea in 1997 and I wrote it down somewhere. The idea was entirely impossible, but I jotted a few notes about it, anyway. Last month I read about a machine that might make my idea possible. I was excited! I looked through all my notes, online and in paper, but I couldn’t find them. I gave up. A shame, really.”
My companion is a polymath, a Leonardo da Vinci, who is as wide as he is deep in knowledge. He devours news. He’s a cauldron of ideas. Like most people, he can remember only so much. He’s relied on email, files and notebooks to manage his notes. But such storage is ephemera; over time these sources shifted away from him. His knowledge ‘migrated’ or someone else ‘archived’ them. An idea, a million dollar hunch, is lost.
Steven Johnson writes in his his book, ‘Where Good Ideas Come From. The Natural History of Innovation,‘ about the power of the “slow hunch.” His example is Charles Darwin, a geologist by training, who developed the theory of natural selection. Darwin didn’t have a ‘eureka!’ moment. A prodigious man, Darwin took a volumes of notes in his commonplace book over the decades of career. Each time Darwin observed something, he wrote notes to his future self. He indexed them. Darwin re-read them from time to time. Although he was blessed with strong intuition, Darwin was a man with a normal memory. He needed devices like his commonplace book to give it a leg up. Darwin didn’t just happen on his theory; it was his good notes, his intuition and several years of re-reads before it revealed itself.
A 17th Century English Commonplace book (Courtesy Yale)
Johnson says the slow hunch is one of the essentials for innovation. As creative people progress through their careers, their intuition tells them when an obsevation may be important. Even if it is unsolvable at the moment, they will store it in the back of the mind. When a related piece of information later appears, intuition links the hunch with the new fact. Tenacity, intellect and creativity is the personal engine for innovation.
In today’s world of information torrents, it is easy for the mind to lose track of its valuable hunches. This is worsened in the enterprise. Employees are exposed to too much trivial information. Email dissipates knowledge. Most corporate systems, with their need for conformity and categorization, also destroy hunches. Personal knowledge is lost year by year.
Imagine if you are a creative person in the enterprise [scientist, engineer, IT professional… ]. There are knowledge-destroying forces arrayed against you: corporate automation that obliterates creativity; workflows insisting on conformity; and legal missives mandating knowledge sarcophagi — or destruction!
And sometimes profitable ideas just disappear on their own …
Perhaps creative employees could benefit by using social business software to annotate their present selves for later discovery by their future selves. Keeping a personal wiki, bookmarks and tags are great ways to assemble a virtual commonplace book. Not only is knowledge kept, but context is preserved this way. Employees are their own best curators.
But annotation for the future won’t be enough. Like Darwin, they must make a point of re-reading their material. As we age, our perspective changes. A re-read of our notes is the final trigger for creativity to happen.