Play toy and hobby illustrates knowledge work

My husband has found a new love: nanoblocks It started out innocently – a single package to entertain a young guest. A few single packets later, he requested the ‘free build’ multipacks for his birthday. Loving spouse that I am, I acquiesced not aware of his emerging passion. Now there are custom patterns, stacks of boxes of block pieces, a shelf full of completed objects and entering competitions.

NanoblockDogs

Breed of Dogs, custom creations by Robert Heslan

What does this have to do with knowledge work? There’s a great parallel!

Inspiration for knowledge work analogy

There are two broad groups of nanoblockers: Those who get the model packs with a pattern and follow the instructions to create an artefact; and those who come up with their own creations without following a documented pattern, producing a facsimile of something in the world or a unique creation from their imagination.

This is a great analogy for differentiating knowledge workers from people who work with knowledge. Knowledge workers are a special class of workers. They can go beyond following the documented pattern or knowledge of others and create new knowledge.

All workers may produce knowledge artefacts, i.e. a report, a presentation, a completed form, a completed process. However, knowledge workers produce artefacts with new knowledge. They actively grow and cultivate knowledge that becomes the valuable content in the artefacts.  The ‘newness’ may be insights, advice or recommendations, a method or a narrative.

The knowledge work of nanoblocks

Beyond using and crafting nanoblock creations, Husband has also got into ancillary knowledge creation activities: he’s joined a Community of Practice; he’s created new tools to assist his actions; and he’s sharing his new knowledge actively and regularly with others.

His passion spilled over first into making a Facebook page to show off his creations (check it out!): creations where he followed someone else’s pattern, and those he composed himself.  Likeminded people found him, and he found others so he joined with them in an online Community of other nanoblockers. In this community, he found himself actively involved in a robust discussion about the credit and recognition of knowledge work (aka IP). Without knowing him personally, you won’t appreciate how extraordinary that is – he’d be a hermit if he had his way!

To be able to share his knowledge creation work with the community, he found he needed a way to capture the knowledge in his head to mobilise and make it definitive for someone else to apply. First he took photographs of each stage of building an object (layer by layer).

But he found it difficult to show useful orientations for someone else to understand what to do and thus copy the build.  He wanted to present his knowledge in images not text; so people could look at images and copy them rather than read written instructions – which would have been very difficult to compose. So he investigated tools for visual creation, like CAD (computer aided design). He found a LEGO® specific one but not one for nanoblocks. And as nanoblocks have a different connection mechanism – the LEGO one just wouldn’t do. He spent the winter of 2014 painstakingly measuring and creating blocks in CAD to get a set of 33 blocks/images.  As a result he could create the set of pattern instructions in colour and multiple orientations very easily. And then he wrote about this process (including graphics) and shared that knowledge!

(For true knowledge workers, it’s not uncommon to creation new tools and methods to represent or curate the new knowledge being created. There is a double level of activity going on: doing the work, plus reflecting on and improving how to do the work.)

When he shared these pattern instructions with the community – they immediately saw the potential of using the images of individual blocks to develop a database/register of blocks.  In the database, meta-data could be captured for each block and enable a consistent reference to blocks, particularly when people were seeking special blocks to solve a particular build or design problem.

It’s an example of two Knowledge Creation phases

His approach to designing new nanoblock objects follows the Develop and Produce phase that I’ve written about in previous blog posts.

In the Develop Phase … He looked about in world for objects he wanted to copy or represent. He checked if a nanoblock pattern existed – often there wasn’t one suitable. So he chose to come up with his own design.  He would get his set of nanoblock containers out and see what shapes he had to play with. He would gather a likely volume of certain shapes he might need and start building.  Following a highly iterative process he gradually figure out the final size, colour, granularity of shape in detail with the blocks, and working components. Yep, these aren’t static objects; he’d graduated to creations with moving parts, e.g. Melbourne Southern Star Ferris wheel.  (His first pattern was an Eskimo dog – in different variations that became a family of adult and puppy dogs.)

At first knowledge creation was in his head and in the prototype the he produced so the idea could be refined, then tested/valued by others. Next he utilised photography to capture knowledge of the final version and the build stages, evolving quickly to using the CAD patterns … completing the Produce phase.

 The evolution

Now he rarely buys a ‘packet’ for a singular object unless it has a unique block or set of colours he can use to solve a design problem in his own creations. What started out as simply applying someone else’s knowledge, has turned into a knowledge production factory.

Recently the love affair went to a whole new level.  He’s written and published a story about how he got into nanoblocks. A complete stranger asked him to do this, and he agreed.  This from the man who says it’s a lot of work to put a few sentences into my birthday cards!

He’s entered some of his creations into competitions sponsored by the nanoblock toy production company. A very astute business decision by them to tap into the cognitive surplus of the nanoblock hobby world and get product ideas for low cost.

I wonder if there is such a thing as a nanoblock widow? At least I got great content to write this blog post. 😉

 

Helen Palmer is Founder of RHX Group, a boutique agency that partners with people who want to make change in how they work with information and knowledge.  She thinks critically about knowledge work, and how to ensure knowledge isnt wasted. She revels in making small changes that disrupt the way people think and what they do.