What is a book? Part 3: The Content

Day 111 of Self Quarantine                       Covid 19 Deaths in U.S.:  130,000

In 1986 I experienced a management development course through Outward Bound (OB)  from the Hurricane Island, ME branch.  One of the participants was Jack, a former English professor, who was in training to become an OB instructor.  He was a classic reserved New Englander and hard to engage in conversation.

When I found out Jack taught writing, I peppered Jack with questions throughout the three days on the Amberjackwockamus River.  I asked many different ways “what is the secret to becoming a good writer?”

Jack answered succinctly:

    1. Read a lot
    2. Keep a journal
    3. Have an architecture, an outline, for what you are getting ready to write
    4. Keep your butt in your chair

It took me several years to realize that #4 was the hardest.  Over time I’ve gotten better at keeping my butt in my chair.  I read a lot.  I keep a journal.  I used to be able to organize and outline any topic very quickly.

As the 7th decade of my life starts, I realize that I have a harder time organizing the terabytes of information I want to bring to bear on a subject.  The ability to focus on a specific audience with a specific goal for my content gets harder.  The media for expression get more varied and complex.

I get frustrated when I realize that no matter how well I write, I can’t actually transfer knowledge to someone else.  My writing generates information, but the reader has to transform that information to knowledge.   Elizabeth Orna in Making Knowledge Visible: Communicating Knowledge Through Information Products diagrams this never ending cycle of the transformation process.

Transforming information to knowledge

Orna shares:

Knowledge and Information

“Knowledge is the organized results of experience, which we use to guide our actions and our interactions with the outside world.  We all store our knowledge in our minds in highly structured form, which is directly accessible only to us.  When we want to communicate what we know to others who need to use it for their own purposes, we have to transform it and make it visible or audible to the outside world.

“The result of the transformation is information: knowledge which has been put into the outside world and made visible and accessible through a series of transformations.

“From the point of view of the user, information is what we seek and pay attention to in the outside world when we need to add to or enrich our knowledge in order to act upon it.  One of the commonest ways of getting information is by using information products – which are so named because they contain information and have been produced as a result of decisions by human beings, for specific users and use.  (We also get information by knowledgeable observation – a geologist looking at landscape, a doctor examining a patient, a skilled technician observing processes – which leads to applications of existing knowledge, either without the use of information products or supported by them, as in looking up relevant research literature.)

“So we can usefully think of information as the food of knowledge because we need information and communication to nourish and maintain our knowledge and keep it in good shape for what we have to do in the world.  Without the food of information, knowledge becomes enfeebled and unfit for action.

“Knowledge and information are, therefore, distinct, but interdependent, and they are the subject of transformations by human minds.”


“Information products are the end result of the series of transformations of knowledge into information; they also become the starting point of transformation in the other direction on the part of their users, who seek to transform what they require of the information contained in the product into knowledge, and to integrate it into their existing knowledge structure so as to make it fitter for whatever they need to do.

“These transformation, of information into knowledge and knowledge into information, form the basis for all human learning and communication; they allow ideas to spread across space and time, and link past and present in a network that embraces generations and cultures over millennia.  By virtue of those qualities, they are also fundamental to the working of organizations of all kinds.”

Orna, Making Knowledge Visible, p. 11 -12

Lakoff and Johnson (Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought) assert that knowledge lies only in the embodied mind.  It is the combination of mind and body that must be present for knowledge to exist.  From a review of the book:

“The opening paragraph clarifies what is being attempted:

      1. The mind is inherently embodied.
      2. Thought is mostly unconscious.
      3. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.

“The first is widely assumed in everyday discourse today.  The second is gradually sinking into public consciousness. The third point is trickier; Lakoff and Johnson had already spent a book (Metaphors we live by, 1980) trying to establish it, and most of part 3 of this text is also devoted to this cause.

“The import of these three points are revealed over the rest of the first chapter, but here’s a pithy summary (from an interview by Lakoff):

When taken together and considered in detail, these three findings from the science of the mind are inconsistent with central parts of Western philosophy, and require a thorough rethinking of the most popular current approaches, namely, Anglo-American analytic philosophy and postmodernist philosophy.”

“But more particularly, the book highlights how refuting these assumptions invalidates the framework for Transformation grammar (Chomskyan linguistics).”

The content I generate has to provide information as well as exercises or experiments or practices for the reader to make it their own knowledge.

Over the years, I developed my own process for preparing to research and develop content:

    • Through experience or reading or conversations with colleagues, I become aware of concepts and practices I want to learn
    • I wait for at least three pointers to a concept before I dive deeply into learning more
    • I test the concepts against my years of experience to see if it reinforces what I think I know or refutes what I think I know
    • I try to apply the concept in an area of my work or coaching or mentoring
      • If I can apply it, I add it to my personal knowledge base
      • If I can’t apply it, I recycle to do more research
    • As time passes, I look for patterns of connections to the new concept
    • Once I see a larger pattern, I engage colleagues to experiment with teaching the material.
      • If I can teach the concept, I am ready to write about it
      • If I can’t teach the concept, I recycle to do more research

The learning profession summarizes my process as “See one Do one Teach one” – SODOTO:

“SODOTO (See One, Do One, Teach One) is a methodology of teaching and learning skills and best practices through direct observation of a task, hands-on practical experience performing the task and teaching the task to another person.”

Many moons ago, Greg asked one of those questions that lead to a teachable moment: “So Skip, it’s clear from our working sessions that you think that knowledge and information are two different things. I’ve always thought of them as interchangeable. What is the difference?”

What a great question. It took me a long time and a lot of work by one of my mentors, Russ Ackoff, to help me see that these two concepts are very different. My simple definition of information versus knowledge is that information is structured data and knowledge is information in action. However, to put the question in a larger context, I then introduced Ackoff’s hierarchy which I’ve come to call WUKID – Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Information and Data.

The following are my practical definitions of WUKID:

    • Data – the raw stuff of the world. It could be a temperature reading like 67 degrees or the price of a book or any of the raw things that we encounter each day.
    • Information – provides structure for data. A weather report puts the temperature (data) in context. The outside air temperature in Seattle, WA on July 10, 2007 was 67 degrees at 2 PM and the sun is shining. Each of the components of the previous sentence is data put together to form a glob of information.
    • Knowledge – is actionable information. Given the above weather information string I would know that it is going to be a nice day but cool for that time of year so I would carry a light sweater or jacket if I were to go outside.
    • Understanding – is seeing patterns in knowledge and information. If the above weather string were combined with 20-30 days of similar strings of information and I had lived in Seattle for 10 or more years, I would be able to see a pattern of it being a cool summer. Understanding has a longer time component than information and knowledge. Understanding incorporates double loop learning as described in Schon’s The Reflective Practitioner.
  • Double Loop Learning

    • Wisdom – is going beyond the levels of understanding to see larger scale systems and be able to predict behaviors and outcomes in the longer term future (5-15 years) based on seeing the patterns that arise through understanding. When lots of data over many years was refined into information, knowledge and understanding patterns, scientists were able to see long term weather patterns like el nino and la nina. Based on these patterns weather forecasters can predict longer term trends in Seattle and act accordingly.

If I am going to spend time authoring content, I want to do everything I can to help the reader move from information to wisdom in the chosen domain.  To do that the content of what I author needs to fit the domain model of the reader.

Understanding the knowledge domain that content must fit

In Designing Connected Content: Plan and Model Digital Products for Today and Tomorrow, Atherton and Hane establish the importance of a domain knowledge model in order to design the content and the media for delivering the content to their audience.

“Domain research lays the groundwork for content structure. Your content implicitly or explicitly supports the concepts and relationships inherent in a topic. These are the foundations that drive your structural design.”

Hane, Carrie; Atherton, Mike. Designing Connected Content. Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.

The authors illustrate their concepts with a domain model of an industry conference:

Domain Model Example

As I look through my ~100 hours of user research interview transcripts for Know Now, the megabytes of web pages on the topics of products and early stage startups I’ve collected in Evernote, the 100s of pages of notes I’ve written in Microsoft Word about the Know Now topic, I realize I don’t have a domain model.  As a long time information technology practitioner, a domain model makes sense.  Time to make a model for Know Now.

As I start to do the model, I realize that “content” is another one of those words that doesn’t parse like “customer.”

The “form” of the book has multiple types of content:

    • The text that I author
    • The diagrams that I create
    • The Python code for the compute cells in the Jupyter notebooks
    • The open source data available for the compute cells
    • The user generated data entered into the compute cells
    • The URL links to content I want to dynamically reference in the eBook
    • The references from books and web pages that I want to include for the context of what I author

Yet, this content is just one side of the content that starts flowing once the Know Now eBook has a paying audience of readers.  The Kindle reader software provides examples of the range of user generated data that is available to the author:

    • What does a given reader highlight?
    • What are the popular highlights for a group of readers?
    • How much of the content does the reader consume?
    • How much time do they spend reading?
    • What “margin notes” do they create?
      • How do those topics relate to what the author wrote?
    • How many links does the reader click through to learn more?
    • How much does the reader use the dictionary option to understand the vocabulary or concepts?
    • What content does the reader highlight and share with their social network?
    • Does the reader recommend the book to others?  What do they say in their recommendations?

In “A Product is a Conversation,” I shared the importance of designing a software product so that it can be in a continuous conversation with the users.  Now eBooks and Know Now can act like a software product and establish a conversation with each user.  The paper form of a book does not contemplate this conversation.  A paper book author would write for a mass audience.

Authoring in this new world of Jupyter notebooks with narrative, computing and data implies that the content needs to adjust to the needs of the user in the instant that they are “reading” the book.  This feature of this new medium raises the question of whether the book’s content is the same for each reader.  I am reminded of the philosophical question:

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus

Is Know Now even going to be the “same” for me each time I come back to “read” it?  My needs are likely to change.

Need Read Simulate Apply

As I review all these frameworks for thinking about the content of my book, my head hurts.

It is time to resume writing about Knowing Now.

I will organize and structure later.

The “What is a book?” series of posts:

This entry was posted in Amazon Kindle, Content with Context, ebook, Learning, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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