I often have lunch with a “pile of pebbles”!

Leaders are in the business of knowledge management and the use of digital media helps and hinders that management process. The observation about the use of email to manage knowledge made by a software usability expert, Merlin Mann, resonated with me in this weeks reading.

“Email is such a funny thing. People hand you these single little messages that are no heavier than a river pebble. But it doesn’t take long until you have acquired a pile of pebbles that’s taller than you and heavier than you could ever hope to move, even if you wanted to do it over a few dozen trips. But for the person who took the time to hand you their pebble, it seems outrageous that you can’t handle that one tiny thing. “What pile? It’s just a pebble!” (as cited in Shirky, 2008, p.94-95)

I often find myself having lunch with a pile of pebbles because the volume of email that I get as an administrator everyday. On the positive side, I get to read volumes of content and then filter the specific information that meets my needs. On the negative side, much of the content is not of high quality because the senders know that I can quickly and easily ask for additional information or delete the information. As a leader who wants to connect with colleagues, I am unable to respond in a timely and effective manner to all email and this causes me great frustration. Email fits the concept described by Shirky (2008) as publish, and then filter. In this case my co-workers publish and I filter.

As a former media dietitian, it has been fascinating to watch information flow move from broadcast media to social media. In 1997, I started doing “media tours” with all of the major media markets in Indiana. The objective of the media tour was to broadcast five to seven key nutrition messages through radio, television, and newspapers. These messages were pitched to the media as timely and unique stories that would have broad audience appeal. My goal was to deliver those five to seven messages into every media outlet within a one week time period. The idea here is if people hear the messages multiple times through multiple channels (television, radio, and print) they would begin to remember the message. This form of communication was one way and I got credit for the number of times I got the message delivered. In this model of delivering nutrition messages we chose very specific messages that had been through rigorous message testing to ensure that people understood the message we wanted them to hear.

I am no longer a media dietitian, but I still manage nutrition information (knowledge) just in different ways. My role now is to facilitate groupthink the way Dixon explains inclusion of cognitively diverse perspectives. I bring researchers, educators, practitioners, and clients together around community health needs using various tools including webinars, social media, email, and face-to-face meetings to consider nutrition and health issues and strategies for improvement. This flow of information does not test messages and push them to an audience; instead this method brings various expertise and experience together and builds knowledge based on various perspectives and inputs. The web-based tools make it possible for various stakeholders to form together regardless of location or expertise.

The web has created an opportunity to publish than filter through social media and other web-based tools. It seems that knowledge management should take advantage of this opportunity to bring diverse groups together around specific issues to have unfiltered conversations in an effort to better understand each other and the issues. As a leader in a large organization with various geographic locations, the use of web-based tools can facilitate these important conversations. The use of Yammer (the tool I researched last week) seems a perfect fit to facilitate the collective knowledge in my organization. If we moved to Yammer, perhaps I could join the conversation at lunch instead of having lunch with a pile of pebbles!


Shirky, C. (2008). Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. Penguin.


8 thoughts on “I often have lunch with a “pile of pebbles”!

  1. I can think of no better example of publish, then filter than the worlds of nutrition and exercise! Not a day goes by where someone in my Facebook network doesn’t post something about the virtues of paleo or the dangers of paleo or the best exercise in the world being running followed by an article about how running is actually the worst exercise and should be avoided at all costs. The effects on me personally of such conflicting messages is to ignore all of them and just continue doing what I do – definitely not the best course of action for my health or the intent of those publishing the content. I do see many people filtering content for those that match their personal beliefs – whether it be exercise, politics or parenting – basically reinforcing and publicizing their own beliefs instead of actually reading conflicting data and enhancing their overall knowledge of a subject. With a publish, then filter and social media-reliant society, you can find anyone with beliefs like yours and hold them up as fact, regardless if they are amateurs or professionals with a deep understanding of the topic.

    I admire your goal of bringing professionals together to discuss nutrition topics and create and disperse knowledge on this topic. The challenge you have of lifting your professional message above all the noise created by amateurs certainly seems daunting to me. Good luck!

    • Your comment about conflicting messages coupled with the goal of bringing professionals together begins to suggest a strategy for filtering – purposeful building of a web network of trusted advisors. I use Facebook for family and friends, so I tend to disregard political postings from my sister-in-law…but I pay attention to work related postings I see on Twitter … due to my purposeful building of a network that now numbers nearly 900.

  2. I, too, eat lunch with a “pile of pebbles” and I completely agree with the frustration you feel when it comes to your email! The majority of my days would be spent sitting at my desk, filtering and responding to emails, if I didn’t force myself to get up and walk around my school. I check email multiple times a day on my phone, iPad, laptop, etc. but I try not to let it consume my day.

    In a way, I think email helps make lazy people even lazier. It’s a great way to defer responsibility on to someone else or try to make someone else do the legwork for you. Don’t get me wrong, I love it and there are definitely many more advantages than disadvantages. As a result of society’s tendency to publish, then filter, email has taken on a role of its own. It replaces conversations, meetings, etc. and at times can unnecessarily complicate things. I love that Web 2.0 tools have reduced some of my email volume lately! Though I haven’t used Yammer with my staff, we do use Google Drive frequently to collaborate on projects. It has really helped me to facilitate ideas and conversations with my staff as we work on establishing goals, our School Improvement Plan, etc.

  3. Hello – I enjoyed reading the analogy of pebbles both in our text (Shirky, 2008) and in your post. I have an older email account that I do not check often and it had over 5,000 new messages waiting for me. That is too many “pebbles” and I eventually created an alternative email so I could walk away from the pile.

    The internet used at my workplace is very limited because of the restrictions put in place by the company. However, the search engine for requesting information (work related) at work is reliable and I can usually find what I am looking for. When I was watching Dixon (2012) in her video, she had commented on how search engines from 1995-2000 really did not work so well. I can remember the frustrations I use to have during that time period. Even in 2005 the search engine was not that great. Thank goodness they have improved.

    One thing I noticed this week when preparing my post was the ability to have my post checked before publishing. I did not see this option the last few weeks. I have simply been following the publish-then-filter as discussed by Shirky (2008).

    Nixon (2012) and Jarche (2010) both noted that knowledge management has evolved from explicit knowledge and best practices to having conversations and collaboration. In your post you said, “I bring researchers, educators, practitioners, and clients together around community health needs using various tools including webinars, social media, email, and face-to-face meetings to consider nutrition and health issues and strategies for improvement.” My workplace, although advanced in technology, has not made a way for frontline workers to collaborate; this is a need. How often do you bring these groups together for collaboration? Do you feel the sessions are successful? Is there anything you would like to change?

    Thank you.


    Dixon, N. (2012). The three eras of knowledge management. Retrieved July 9, 2014 from http://www.nancydixonblog.com/2012/08/the-three-eras-of-knowledge-management.html

    Jarche, H. (2010). A framework for social learning in the enterprise. Retrieved July 9, 2014 from http://www.jarche.com/2010/02/a-framework-for-social-learning-in-the-enterprise/

    Shirky, C. (2008). Here comes everybody, the power of organizing without organizing. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books.

    • My role is community engagement at an institution of higher education. I bring multi-disciplinary groups together at least weekly, if not daily to do this work. Depending on the project, the groups may connect daily, weekly, or monthly. For example, I am working with one group that has a five year grant to improve the food environment and physical activity environment in a very rural community in Indiana. This group has a conference call weekly, a webinar monthly, and a face-to-face meeting quarterly. The working groups are not always successful – but they often bring all the voices to the table. It is important for community members to know what the science-based evidence is but it is also very important for the researchers to hear the challenges and opportunities that community members face related to health issues.

  4. A neat post! I may have mentioned this earlier, but in 1994, I began requiring my college seniors to establish an email account and submit homework before class so that I could review it and discuss themes that emerged in class. I recall that they screamed I was being unreasonable and that email was a fad that would never catch on.

    Ahhh … the good old days!

    I totally agree that social media offers new opportunities for niche communities to form and discuss issues in ways that never existed in the past. Part of our challenge as leaders is to model this behavior and move away from that growing pile of pebbles that weigh us down!

    (…and I practice Inbox Zero – http://www.43folders.com/43-folders-series-inbox-zero )

  5. I enjoy dining with you weekly. I look forward to the creativity used to demonstrate the message. I am also intrigded by your work experience and learning how to apply the concepts.

    Thank you for your contribution to my learning experience.

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