7 January 2011

Knowledge Externalization: BA Friend or Foe?

Library of knowledgephoto © 2009 Shironeko Euro | more info (via: Wylio) One of the things that I'm known for around the office is using technology in what most people see as 'novel' ways. I was one of the first people to cart around his laptop to every meeting, taking use of the wireless access in conference rooms to open up reference documents or take notes. Now, my laptop gathers dust on my desk and my iPad is my constant companion in meetings. Using Simplenote and Dropbox, I can access and edit all of my documents from my entire career, with just a few finger-taps.

Let me level with you, I hate memorization. Always have and always will. It just seems such a waste of time to me. If I know how to find the information in a very rapid manner, why should I bother to memorize it? It doesn't help that, when you look at my ratings on IQ tests, that memorization is the absolute lowest score of all categories on the tests. I'm bad at it, so I've found ways to compensate for the thing I'm not really all that good at.

It is with this background that brought me to a TechCrunch article about the 'dangers' of externalizing knowledge. Truthfully, I do get the author's point, that if we completely devalue retaining any information, then we will have a lot of problems learning anything new. I just feel that he takes the point to the level of absurdity.
We’re looking up more things, more often, and not because we’re more curious. It’s because we can’t be bothered to retain even the data that matter to us. The GPS in cars is an advance party of this trend: every couple months we hear of some driver who has followed the GPS to the bottom of a lake, or used a highway as a walking path because it was labeled as such on their phone’s map.
Let me contrast that quote with an anecdote from my mother, a 6th grade english teacher on the usefulness of vocabulary memorization versus learning to use a dictionary. She disliked the amount of class time she was required to spend on vocabulary quizzes. To her, if she taught a child the proper way to use a dictionary, then they could deduce the spelling of a word closely enough to look it up and confirm the exact spelling. If she had stopped there in her argument, then the TechCrunch author's points might have been valid, but my mother took it one step further. After a child looked up the same word half a dozen times in the dictionary, they would no longer need to look it up because the memorization would happen. Why would this occur? Simple, the process of looking up the word repeatedly would cause the word to become so familiar that the process of repeatedly looking up the word would become a disincentive to the child.

In simple terms, the bother of looking up that same word again and again would become so great that the word would imprint itself in the mind, just so the child wouldn't have to pick up the dictionary again.

To me, externalization of knowledge is just another way to learn, one that values process and creativity over rote memorization. We learn the information both ways, but using an external repository ensures that we only learn the most important things and allows us to keep our minds clear for what I consider more important tasks: knowledge synthesis and creative thinking. I look up knowledge and spend my time trying to put together the big picture instead of trying to commit it all to memory, then synthesizing it.

For Business Analysts, I think this presents some interesting implications. One of the reasons that I feel I've been successful at business analysis, is that I've developed the skills needed to think like my stakeholders. Given a short amount of exposure to a business process, I can generally determine the needs, fears, wants and desires of the people who carry out or manage that process. I do this not by memorizing every rule, step or decision point in the process, but by immersing myself in the thought patterns of the people in those roles.

When I need to look up specific rules to cite them in a document or presentation, I know where to go find them, either within the minds of my stakeholders or within the policy and procedure documents. After looking up the same information a couple times, I no longer need to look it up as the memorization has taken care of itself through long exposure.

This leaves me time to think creatively about the problems my stakeholders face. Yes, I need that detailed knowledge to verify that the creative solutions I've come up with will meet their needs in the way I believe it will. I open up those detailed documents or facilitate a review session in order to confirm my insights. I use those external knowledge source to their fullest until I have absorbed the information I need, without taking up valuable time to memorize the information in its entirety.

So what about you? Do you externalize your knowledge or do you memorize first? Despite what I've written here, I don't think you are wrong if you memorize first, but it is a strategy that has its drawbacks. I'm sure you can find some drawbacks in my methods as well. Point them out down in the comments.


  1. Anonymous11:56 am

    While I am not a BA per se, I do a lot of BA-type work in my current job (it's complicated, don't ask), and I used to perform BA responsibilities in a prior career.

    My approach in terms of externalization and immersion is much like yours, and has been for years.

    One of the reasons I share your approach is unrelated to memorization issues (though I share your aversion to memorization). I externalize and immerse - and capture and document what I learn - so that the project is less likely to grind to a sudden halt if business resources (including myself) suddenly become unavailable for a while.

    Early in my career, I had the unpleasant experience of having a coworker experience a medical crisis that was sudden, and that removed the coworker from the project for months (he recovered fully, thank $DEITY$). Our project could not proceed, and had to be shelved until he returned.

    I never wanted to be in that position again. From that point on, I started my BA activities by immersing myself as thoroughly as possible, as early as possible, documenting and capturing as much as I could.

    A few years later, I worked on a project where a key business resource died suddenly and unexpectedly. While we all grieved the loss of a really decent human being, and the project certainly took an understandable hit, his death had less of a functional impact than it would have had otherwise, precisely because I (and another BA teammate who shared my philosophy) took the early externalization/immersion/documentation approach. The approach didn't bullet-proof us - and saying otherwise would be ridiculous - but the approach mitigated what could have been a failure-level disaster. The project was ultimately implemented successfully, albeit a few weeks late.

    Another time, I was on a project, and developed a sudden and serious illness that had me bedridden for three weeks. My coworkers were able to refer to my notes and could continue with parts of the project, so while the project was impacted, the impact was not as severe as it would have been otherwise. Our deadline was not very flexible, so while we lost a week, we still came in on time. If we had lost three weeks, we would have been in serious trouble.

    The approach of externalization and immersion, especially when accompanied with documentation, doesn't just make me more effective as a BA. The approach helps mitigate the effects of certain types of project crises.

  2. Ted,

    Another aspect to what you are doing is being empathetic.

    Empathy is really highly valued by people because you demonstrate you care, but as you say in the post, you also learn to see the world through their eyes and that gives you an intellectual edge as well.

    @Anonymous - all good points. But there is another spect to writing things down as well. Take this blog for example.

    From our point of view it's a method for Ted and I to explore our ideas and put them into more structure and prepare our knowledge for reuse in other contexts.

    It's also a way to test ideas we are unsure of with our peers. (Thanks everyone for the comments.)

    And lastly-this and other blogs are generally elevating the knowledge of our community of practice. So we are all winning in different ways.

    Ted - am I on track here?

  3. I agree wholeheartedly, and have from a very young age. In fact, in 7th grade, I remember very clearly a teacher asking me casually if I was going to study for an upcoming test. My response was "No. If I haven't learned it by now, I don't deserve to pass." Admittedly, it was a bit of a smart-alecky answer from an obnoxious kid. But I still believe in the philosophy to this day. If I haven't internalized the information I need, including the knowledge of where to find the details that don't need instant recall -- then I am not going to successfully meet the needs of my constituents in any solutions I propose.

  4. I completely agree, external systems and processes exist to allow our minds enough space to think. It's like GTD, if you have trusted systems and processes, you know what info is where and how to find it, it free's your mind to deal with the more complex task of working with that information without being bogged down by the uncertainty that the information you're working with isn't 100% correct. I often find when I have remembered a fact or piece of information in relation to something I am working on, I will always double check the information anyway. I once obtained 100% in one component of a physics exam yet 39% in another component in the same exam, all because I didn't memorize a base equation correctly. I was skilled enough to answer the question, the only issue was without being able to reference information and replying on memory it completely broke what could have been perfect logic.

  5. Andy - The GTD analogy is perfect. Thanks.