Replies to “Dealing with your cognitive load” – Part four of four

This is the last of four posts summarizing replies to the question I posed about how people cope with the vast amounts of information coming at them.  In the first part, I described some strategies people use for managing information intake. The second post looked at how people store information. The third covered separating inspiration from information.

Thanks to the generosity of you all, I was able to share all kinds of strategies that you can use to think about how you manage the information coming at you via the Internet. However, none of them have any value if you never have time to use them. So this last post is going to be about personal professional development and how vital it is to museum professionals in this newish century.

Make is part of the schedule

calendar from Flickr user Jeremy Toeman


The best way I’ve found to make time to learn is to not treat it like a nice thing to do if you’ve got time.  It’s important, so put it on your calendar. Kate Tinsworth says, “I do set aside every other Tues morning from 9-11 for my whole team to read. Read whatever—I read blogs and articles online, but the others read more traditional evaluation journals, mostly. That time being designated helps a lot.” At my museum, Christine Reich has the Research and Evaluation department hold regular monthly professional development meetings, and everybody in the department is in charge of running one meeting.

I spend the beginning of each work day scanning my social media feeds like Twitter and LinkedIn, and browsing my RSS feeds for interesting nuggets. Thanks to suggestions from Jasper Visser and Kate Haley Goldman, I’ve also gone back to actually looking more deeply at a very few sites I like that usually get me thinking.  I find that making it a regular part of my day helps me keep abreast of things and keep it from getting out of control. My undirected web surfing seems to have gone down since I started being more directed.  Thanks to Bruce Wyman for nudging me to give RSS another go.

This blog is also part of my regular professional development. Making myself step outside the the daily grind and trying to synthesize what I experience going on in my work and consulting projects has been a great way to keep my thinking fresh and to crystallize half-formed thoughts. It’s a blessing.

Get out and talk to people

from Flickr user elthenerd

You may recall that in Part One, Nancy Proctor surprised me by saying she prefers phone calls over email for anything substantive. Kate Haley Goldman remarked on how conversations stay with her longer than other kinds of communications. Kate Tinsworth seconded that idea, saying, “I find that much of what sticks for me still comes from those (human conversations) too… be it at a conference or other opportunities to actually meet up.” I was talking to Nina Simon about conferences recently, and when I expressed my reservations about AAM, she seemed surprised. “I love AAM, because everybody I want to talk to is there in one place. I can have breakfast with Elaine, lunch with Kathy…” After that, I started casting my mind around for other highly-efficient museum professionals (or dare I say it, “thought leaders.” No, I daren’t…) they all share that drive to have high-quality interactions.

It may seem like a no-brainer that voice communication, or even better, face to face communication, is the highest bandwidth medium we currently have, but it is surprising to me how often people (myself included) will opt for a lower-quality method of communication. Probably the best thing I’ve done in this regard has been to emcee a monthly meetup for techie museum folks in Greater Boston.  It’s a broad, open group. We get managers, developers, teachers, vendors, students.  It’s different every month thus far, and it’s like a little bit of conference-going on a Thursday night. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you can’t find one in your area, consider it an opportunity for you to step up and make some connections.

Save things for down times

Waiting at the station from Flickr user domesticat

Another way to make more time for yourself is to be more efficient about the time you already spend on routine tasks. I am great faffer.  Ask anybody who’s ever shared an office with me. But I’m trying to be better…

When I first started talking about this idea with Nancy Proctor, she scheduled our phone call during her walk to work. She also aggregates informational meetings with colleagues into regular 2-hour “meet-ups” instead of a zillion individual meetings. Somebody at Museums and the Web 2011 said the killer app for mobiles was that they were a way to “kill time while waiting for the bus.” I don’t know who said this, though I vaguely recall it being Seb Chan. (If you know, tell me. I hate misattributing quotes).  Kate Tinsworth downloads documents to read on her tablet when she’s not doing anything.  I’m excited to look at my schedule and see what undiscovered efficiencies are lurking out there.

Take charge of your professional development

Carpe Diem by Flickr user Darcy Moore

All of the strategies listed above have one thing in common. They don’t require anything aside from your own desire to learn.  As someone who has worked in a large institution for most of my professional career, it’s easy to succumb to the mindset of waiting for permission to do anything.  This is especially true of old-school “professional development.” There are forms to be completed, signatures to be garnered, and justifications to be gathered before any learning happens.  But in the current climate, waiting for anything seems like a recipe for getting left behind.  This is particularly true in exhibits, where new media and modalities (like mobiles) are promising to shake up the status quo. And when mobiles are old hat and everybody has augmented reality, there will be something else new.

One of my favorite parts of Rob Stein’s talk at the Tate Handheld conference last Fall was his use of the image of a bridge to symbolize how we deal with new technologies in museums. We have, in the past, tended to view new disruptive technologies as obstacles to overcome. There on the other side waits a land of peace and technological harmony. All we have to do to cross that bridge is… wait for Netscape and IE to duke it out, or wait for Java to save us, or  adopt HTML 5, or pick Android or iOS or web apps… The list never ends and Rob brilliantly  demonstrated the fallacy of the bridge metaphor. The reality is that we never reach the end. There is no place of stability where we can make a leisurely, fully-informed decision. So how do you keep abreast?

There’s a great post (actually several if you poke around) from Beth Kanter on personal professional development. You could also look at Harold Jarche’s model of networked learning for more technologically-oriented ways to think about your own learning.  I like them both, because they’re well-linked and can take you to a slew of other resources.  It’s worth being serious about.  I’m on the Advisory Board for this year’s Horizon Report, Museums Edition, and of all the technologies being considered, I don’t think a single one existed when I was in college.  And even if I’d graduated five years ago, I’d still have missed a healthy proportion of them.  So even if you’re fresh out of school, your expertise is aging pretty fast. And nowadays you have to contend with a yearly crop of freshly-minted museum studies MAs, with newer skills and lower salary requirements than you. The greatest benefit I find to taking responsibility for your own development is that it gives focus to your thinking.  I find a topic I’m interested in, and suddenly I see connections to it all over the place.  It focuses my information consumption and acts like a filter to help decide what *not* to consume.  And isn’t that a relief? Yes, it is.

Thanks for sticking it out this long. The next post will be a much shorter (I promise!) one listing the changes I’ve made to my routine based on this and a recap of what tools people use and how. It should be interesting.

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8 responses to “Replies to “Dealing with your cognitive load” – Part four of four

  1. Hey Ed, really good point about conferences and professional networking. I’ve just spent two days at a symposium, and met so many fantastic people who would have otherwise been outside my immediate networks – the value of which has been immeasurable. One thing that I think is worth mentioning is the value of approaching people you don’t know at these events. It can be scary (especially when approaching the keynote speakers), but rarely will anyone knock you back for a chat – and you can often learn a great deal more about someone’s work in the private small conversations than you can in their formal presentations.

    As an aside, your regular posting about the Boston Tech Meet Ups actually inspired a real-world outcome for me down here in Oz… tonight I’m hosting the first of what will hopefully be many informal professional networking nights for museumers from across my region. Although we have lots of museums and galleries in my local area, there is little sense of being connected with something bigger. I’m hoping with time and some semi-regular meetings I can start to change that (can one woman change something like that?!?). The informal language that you use when describing the Boston tech meet ups helped me try to find the right tone for my get-togethers too. So thanks!

  2. Thanks, Suse!
    I touched on this in an earlier post about networking at conferences, and it’s a great point. Having a question beforehand is something I like to do, so you’ve a reason for initiating a conference. “Hi, I love your work, and I wonder if I could ask you a question about ____.” is a great icebreaker.

    Good on you for taking the initiative to start a meetup! I can’t wait to hear how it goes! One thing I’ve seen with ours thus far is that you have to give them time. No culture changes overnight, even if that culture is “We don’t have a culture.” In four meetups, we’ve had four pretty distinct groups of people. This month we had a lot of museum studies folks and people just starting out in museums. Last month was a lot of oldtimers. I’m just now starting to see a bit of cross-pollination.

  3. Yeah, you are absolutely right. My mum used to say “softly softly catchy monkey” about things that take time to happen, and that’s exactly the case with this. Cultural change takes time to happen, but hopefully just getting people together will be a step. And if not, at least I might get to meet a few new people. Not sure how it will go, but there’s only one way to find out…

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