10 Seven Pillars: Identify

No one person knows everything there is to know about your wicked problem. There is simply too much information about these complex problems and much of the information addresses the problem from different perspectives or disciplines. All of us lack knowledge in countless areas, but this isn’t a bad thing. Once we step back and acknowledge that we don’t know something, it opens up the possibility that we can find out all sorts of interesting things, and that’s when the searching begins.

One of the first things you need to do when beginning any information-based project is to identify your personal need for information. This may seem obvious, but it is something many of us take for granted. We may mistakenly assume that we already know enough to proceed. Such an assumption can lead us to waste valuable time working with incomplete or outdated information.

When you realize that you have an information need it may be because you thought you knew more than you actually do, or it may be that there is simply new information you were not aware of. One of the most important things you can do when starting to research a topic is to scan the existing information landscape to find out what is already out there. We’ll get into more specific strategies for accessing different types of information later in the book, particularly in the Gather chapter, but for now it pays to think more broadly about the information environment in which you are operating.

For instance, any topic you need information about is constantly evolving as new information is added to what is known about the topic. Trained experts, informed amateurs, and opinionated laypeople are publishing in traditional and emerging formats; there is always something new to find out. The scale of information available varies according to topic, but in general it’s safe to say that there is more information accessible now than ever before.

Due to the extensive amount of information available, part of becoming more information literate is developing habits of mind and of practice that enable you to continually seek new information and to adapt your understanding of topics according to what you find. Because of the widely varying quality of new information, evaluation is also a key element of information literacy, and will be addressed in the Evaluate chapter of this book.

Finally, while you are busy searching for information on your current understanding of your wicked problem, be sure to keep your mind open for new avenues or angles of research that you haven’t yet considered. Often the information you found for your initial need will turn out to be the pathway to a rich vein of information that can serve as raw material for many subsequent projects.

All of us lack knowledge in countless areas, but this isn’t a bad thing. Once we step back and acknowledge that we don’t know something, it opens up the possibility that we can find out all sorts of interesting things, and that’s when the searching begins.

Taking your lack of knowledge and turning it into a search topic starts with being able to state what your lack of knowledge is. Part of this is to state what you already know. It’s rare that you’ll start a search from absolute zero. Most of the time you’ve at least heard something about the topic, even if it is just a brief reference in a lecture or reading. Taking stock of what you already know can help you to identify any erroneous assumptions you might be making based on incomplete or biased information. If you think you know something, make sure you find at least a couple of reliable sources to confirm that knowledge before taking it for granted. Use the following exercise to see if there is anything that needs to be supported with background research before proceeding.

Exercise: Taking Stock of What you Already Know

As discussed above, part of identifying your own information need is giving yourself credit for what you already know about your topic. Construct a chart using the following format to list whatever you already know about the topic.

Name your topic at the top.

In the first column, list what you know about your topic.

In the second column, briefly explain how you know this (heard it from the professor, read it in the textbook, saw it on a blog, etc.).

In the last column, rate your confidence in that knowledge. Are you 100% sure of this bit of knowledge, or did you just hear it somewhere and assume it was right?

When you’ve looked at everything you think you know about the topic and why, step back and look at the chart as a whole. How much do you know about the topic, and how confident are you about it? You may be surprised at how little or how much you already know, but either way you will be aware of your own background on the topic. This self-awareness is key to becoming more information literate.

This exercise gives you a simple way to gauge your starting point, and may help you identify specific gaps in your knowledge of your wicked problem that you will need to fill as you proceed with developing your project(s). It can also be useful to revisit the chart as you work on your project to see how far you’ve progressed, as well as to double check that you haven’t forgotten an area of weakness.

Table with three columns. The cells below the headers are empty, indicating the chart should be filled out. The headings are as follows: (1) What do you know? (2) How do you know it? (3) How confident are you in this knowledge?

 

Once you’ve clearly stated what you do know, it should be easier to state what you don’t know. Keep in mind that you are not attempting to state everything you don’t know. You are only stating what you don’t know in terms of your current information need. This is where you define the limits of what you are searching for. These limits enable you to meet both size requirements and time deadlines for a project. If you state them clearly, they can help to keep you on track as you proceed with your work. You can learn more about this in the Scope chapter of this book.

One useful way to keep your research on track is with a “KWHL” chart. This type of chart enables you to state both what you know and what you want to know, as well as providing space where you can track your planning, searching and evaluation progress. For now, just fill out the first column, but start thinking about the gaps in your knowledge and how they might inform your project development.

Table with four columns. The cells below the headers are empty, indicating the chart should be filled out. The headings are as follows: (1) What do you already know about your topic? (2) What do you want to know about your topic. (3) How will you find information on your topic. (4) What have you Learned about your topic?

 

 

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Tackling Wicked Problems by Cathie LeBlanc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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