A while back my PhD student Sam and I were talking, and he asked me about my RSS feed. His question was something along the lines of ‘what blogs would I have to read if I wanted to be able to make the connections that you do on your blog?’ As we talked, I realised that it didn’t matter if I gave anyone else my exact RSS feed, they wouldn’t be able to replicate my blog – and the reason for this is aggregate, filter and connect.
When I first thought about aggregate, filter and connect as a framework, it was in an attempt to explain why Amazon’s business model worked better than that of other online bookstores. The first time I talked about it in public, it was to explain how open education might work. I’ve been working on making it in to a general model of how we create something unique when we’re primarily dealing with information.
As such, it can be used to explain business models, like Amazon’s, or blogs, like mine. The more I’ve talked about the model, the more other people are picking it up, which is great. Some of these recent discusssions have gotten me thinking about how aggregate, filter and connect works at a personal level. This was really Sam’s question. I’ve talked about how Charles Darwin basically used an aggregate, filter and connect strategy, Phil Long talks about it as part of personal knowledge management, Harold Jarche has discussed it as both a general model for business and for personal knowledge management (an idea that Jack Vinson picked up, and connected to the concept of enhanced serendipity from Ross Dawson), and Glenn Wiebe used the framework to discuss both Joseph Priestly’s inventions and teaching. So we’re starting to get a bit of discussion Today I’d like to illustrate the concept by discussing how I use it.
Aggregate, filter and connect is a non-linear process, with lots of feedback loops. However, it is unavoidable to talk about it in steps. While I do that, keep in mind that it is all going on at once. Here is how I use the framework to execute ideas in my main area of interest – innovation and networks:
Aggregate: I do a lot of data scanning. The RSS feed that Sam and I were discussing includes 182 blogs. I also follow 306 people on twitter, most of whom usually tweet about things relating to my areas of interest. In addition to that, I finish a book about once every 3 days, and I’ve been doing that for a looooooong time. I also talk to a lot of people, despite being an introvert (see Sacha Chua’s great presentation The Shy Connector to see how that works) – last year had over 80 meetings with people that are practicing innovation management, plus contact with my students, who are nearly all out in the workforce as well. Then there’s the stuff I’ve learned in all the jobs I’ve had. Collectively, this adds up to a fair bit of data.
Filter: This is my weakest area – I don’t outsource nearly enough complexity. I need to get better at taking notes on things I read, in searchable media, so that I don’t do all the filtering in my head. At the moment, I don’t even filter my twitter stream. Ken Gillgren argues that we should be taking in as much data as we can possibly handle, to improve our ability to see patterns and make novel connections. So I’ll say that’s what I’m doing. In addition to my head, I’m also using Evernote, my own tweets, diigo, and my blog as filtering tools. And I’ve used fairly primitive methods like writing reading notes, though that generally hasn’t worked too well for me – I actually find blogging more effective.
Connect: Harold Jarche has been doing some fantastic thinking about this topic recently, and he made this diagram to illustrate the process:
I think this is a nice diagram, which pulls together a lot of the recent discussion on the topic. The one thing that I would like to add to it is this idea: connection works in two related but distinct ways. The first is that we connect ideas to each other. This is the innovative act – as Schumpter said, “(Economic) development in our sense is then defined by the carrying out of new combinations”. This is where I put a lot of effort when I’m coming up with blog posts, with research papers, and even with ideas for consulting jobs. Making novel connections is a skill that I work hard to build.
The second way that connection works is that we connect ideas to people. This is the outbound side of Connection. I use several strategies. When I re-tweet something, I try to make a comment that links the tweet to a broader concept (sometimes a challenge with 140 characters!). I write about the idea connections that I make in my blog – as people read it, they start connecting with the ideas. I give as many public talks as I can – from last September until now I have given more than twice as many public talks as I had in the previous three years combined. In Canberra last week I had a talk with Geoff Garrett, who said “Innovations travel on two legs.” There’s something to be said for that idea – and I have a lot of discussions about my ideas face-to-face – it’s one of the most effective methods of outbound connection.
So that’s a brief summary of how I have been trying to use the Aggregate, Filter and Connect framework over the past few months. In using it, I have learned a few things that might be useful for others too:
- It really helps to think about the three tools explicitly. As I said, I’ve always been reasonably good at making novel connections. But my ability to get my ideas to spread has increased dramatically once I started thinking in this way. Particularly with regard to outbound connections. My use of twitter, and the increase in my public speaking were both ideas that I initiated to increase my connections.
- When people feel overwhelmed by information, it usually means that they aren’t filtering effectively. Like I said, this is my weakest area. But there are some really smart people working on this. In addition to the posts I’ve linked to, check out the rest of Harold Jarche’s blog for some ideas. Venessa Miemis and Ken Gillgren have done some really good thinking in this area too. This is one of the areas in which most of us probably need to improve.
- The other area that we probably need to address is this: we need to get better at connecting ideas. This is where we create value – by making novel connections. And it’s not enough to just make the connections in our head – we have to frame them in a way that others can act upon. That means creating tangible content – a blog, tweets that connect ideas, podcasting, something. My primary recommendation here is to practice making novel connections, and then express them in a way that enables your idea to spread. One good way to do this is to expand the range of areas from which you collect information, and as you read and hear things from outside your area, consciously think about how they connect back to things that you know well. This is the strength of weak ties between ideas.
- Finally, your personal knowledge management scheme isn’t complete until you are doing all three things well. Aggregating is great, but only an initial step. If you don’t filter well, you won’t be able to make sense of the information that you collect. At the same time, even if you aggregate and filter well, you only create real value when you make novel connections between ideas. Information is the fundamental building block of idea connections. Once you make these novel idea connections, you then need outbound people connections to get your ideas to spread. The three skills reinforce each other.
So there’s the answer to Sam – you can replicate my blog by copying my incoming information streams, using the same filtering tools that I do, and then making the same connections between ideas that I do. In other words, you can’t. Aggregate, Filter and Connect is one method you can use to generate unique intellectual value.
NOTE: I’d like to thank everyone I mention in this post, and many others as well for contributing ideas that I’ve been able to use as building blocks in this argument – It’s great that we’ve been able to Connect! George Siemens and Jon Husband have also written things on these topics that have influenced my thinking.
Another NOTE: Venessa has pointed out in the comments that Howard Rheingold has written one of the definitive articles on filtering: Crap Detection 101.