Personal Aggregate, Filter & Connect Strategies

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.

Third NOTE: Follow-up post: Filtering With Your Network
Final NOTE: Here is a practical example of how the process works.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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32 thoughts on “Personal Aggregate, Filter & Connect Strategies

  1. Yes, Connecting includes ideas to ideas, people to people (which @elsua & @valdiskrebs do very well) and ideas to people. I haven’t figured out how to show that on a graphic yet without it getting too complicated.

  2. hi tim,

    great post! these are the same ideas i’ve been having for the metathinking framework….i need to start buiding that out…

    don’t forget Crap Detection (as howard rheingold puts it) as part of the filtering process:

    i think as more of the information that we consume & exchange happens online, we NEED to develop better media literacy skills. for me, there are so many tools to choose from that i just get incapacitated. i use delicious and twine to save stuff online, but some of my best ideas & connections still happen when i’m doodling on paper.

    oh, another good article about ‘Aggregating’ (or what futurists call Environmental Scanning) is here:

    ok, i think you’ve inspired me to write up a post on this…. thanks! :)

    - @venessamiemis

  3. Valdis is great at that – I hadn’t run across Luis before, thanks for the pointer! I was going to say that I couldn’t figure out a way to add that to the graphic without making it too complex, but figured that I had already stuffed enough words into one post to start with…

    Like I’ve said in other forums, thanks a bunch for the conversation on this topic – your posts have really helped me to sharpen my thinking on this!

  4. Thanks for reminding me of Howard’s Crap Detection post Venessa – that is an essential tool!

    Paper is archaic but still effective. A lot of my best connections come from walking around in forests, an even more ancient method…

  5. Boy, these conversations are great, and thanks for the references.
    Now I’m realizing that there’s yet another dimension or perspective beyond filtering, aggregating, connecting. There is a scaled perception of the whole.
    Filters are in a sense transitory crutches–we swap them in and out just like photographic or audio filters. And we need to continually remind ourselves that filters leave things out. Duh! That’s the point right, but it’s the stuff that gets left out that comes back to bite you when you forget that a filter has been applied, and that you’ve been making vital decisions based on the information you focused on by virtue of selecting–often and most dangerously unconsciously–that specific filter.
    I love the novels of Umberto Eco in this regard. The Sherlock Holmes-type hero of The Name of the Rose is mindboggling in his ability to perceive patterns behind the crimes taking place in the monastery, and his arguments are marvelously sound and coherent–and by the end of the book–totally wrong. Information not available or filtered out betrays him at every turn, and he leaves the tale a humbled man.
    You can see the river without drinking the whole river, you can take in the view from the mountaintop without walking every step of the surrounding vista. So it’s not so much about taking in as much information as you can hold, but being open to an ever-emerging perception of the whole, within which any specific parts begin to make sense. I understand this is how infants perceive the world–one, vastly marvelous singularity from which specific objects, like mom and dad, emerge in greater distinction against the background of the whole. Research shows that Asians when viewing a photograph see the background–the context–and then the subject.
    As Tufte persistently points out in graphic representations, more data is not just more stuff, it’s higher resolution. You don’t get visually overwhelmed by the massively higher data flow of HDTV, you experience more lifelike clarity.
    So don’t even try to drink the river, step back or ride it!
    And always keep in mind, when applying a crap filter, there really may be a horse in there somewhere.

  6. Nice one. I’ve always thought this as well, but I don’t know that I articulated it this way. Whenever I read something, the thoughts it inspires are totally related to the state of my mind. Am I tired? Wide awake? Have I read something similar – something I think is similar. Another day, I might make some other connections.

  7. Very interesting points Ken, as usual. The Name of the Rose example illustrates your point beautifully. I’ll need to think about what it means in practice…

  8. Thanks for dropping by Jack. I think you’re exactly correct about the influence of state of mind on how you make connections. It is definitely part of the equation.

  9. Glad to see my prodding ended up being productive Tim. Nice post!

    I am not sure if it would capture what you and @Harold are thinking…but I can see two potential ways of trying to better symbolize the inter-actor/triangle connecting process, both rather simple.

    1) Use a dotted lines (etc) with arrows to connect one or two of the triangles. This makes it look like a classic network image.
    2) Partially layer one or two triangles over each other, producing a cluster (more like a Venn diagram approach). This has the advantage of producing lovely little action/idea clusters.

    If you used both of these in tandem you could end up producing something in the spirit of a small-world network. Which obviously makes for a nice story.

  10. Thanks Sam! I think that would work pretty well, actually. The network idea is actually going to be in my follow-up post tonight…

    Next time I see you I’ll fill you in, but this was a much better post for you to end up in than the earlier one that I had to edit you out of!

  11. Great Post. Have you looked at Dave Snowden’s complexity theory and Cynefin framework? Highly related. It argues that in the complex domain, sense-making rather than analyzing or best practices is the basis for making decisions. Sense-making techniques are often narrative based – capturing the essence of conversations, seeing patterns emerge.

    Conversations are what happens when you connect people with people. Ideas are born from conversations (ideas seldomly originate from lone genius – see also Charles Leadbeater’s great book We-Think). People connect to people and ideas are born – ideas then connect to people to amplify and grow as you state.

    So – the connecting between people takes place on all three levels of your A-F-C model.

    I wanted to write this yesterday, but you were ahead of me and amplified on this point in your new post. Good add-on!

  12. Thanks for the comment Berend! A couple of people have pointed me to Snowden’s work. I’ve heard of it quite a bit, and read a few summaries, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it directly yet. I guess I’ll have to!

    I think you’re exactly right about ideas coming from connections, and connecting working at all three levels. It’s a tough concept to get at when writing about something like this linearly, as I did here. But I think your point is well taken. The Leadbeater reference is good – he really illustrates the point well in that.

  13. That’s an excellent question Marc. I’m not sure I have a good answer. So far I’ve been relying mostly on my own brain (the brain you link to looks pretty useful too). As soon as I find better tools, I’ll be sure to share them here!