Knowledge Externalization: BA Friend or Foe?

This post originally appeared January 7, 2010 on

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.