Dave Snowden

Field Notebooks

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My final full day in Australia before I return home via way of Milan and it was a mix of a repeat of one of yesterday’s sessions too a different audience and a side trip to Canberra to discuss the wider issues of citizen engagement, innovation and the like in the context of a new Federal programme. That itself was a bit of a coincidence. A query about a possible use of SenseMaker® came in on the web site last week and I happened to have a half day free. My intuition said that there was something of interest here so I made myself available and things were out together quickly. As I suspected many of the issues were in common with other projects I am engaged in and the possibilities for common elements and shared practice were pretty easy to find. It was also a very good audience, one of those who work out where you are going and the implications without you having to spell everything out. So the trip was more than worthwhile, but I must to a slightly sentinel regret for the loss of the old Canberra Airport which felt more like a hut on the side of a field and is now a formulaic international airport.

Now a lot was discussed today and it’s not my intention to report on it, although I took a lot of notes. Now over the years I have used many different note taking systems, I have a pronounced stationary fetish and a tendency to buy notebooks on the basis that sooner or later I will find a use for them. I have some high quality leather bound ones from various Italian craft shops that one of these days I will find a use for. In the meantime they are material objects of desire and I really don’t want to sully them by writing in them! That aside, and despite the desire for novelty there is a constant theme to the method. I always end up with an A5 or A6 size bound notebook with good quality paper and various coloured pens. The current arrangement is an A6 Leuchtturm notebook that has replaced the Moleskin thanks to its pre-printed page numbers with an index section. It is also a half way house between plain and ruled with small faint dots in a grid pattern. I then have Lamy pens in Blue, Green and Red that have replaced the drawing pens which were brilliant but very high maintenance as the ink would dry up. The Lamy are extra fine, take cartridges and write easily. I then have a simply system of blue for recording, greed for comments/opportunities and red for action. I’ve tried to do this electronically but its not the same, either in recording or in assimilation.

Now there is some theory behind this. Keeping handwritten notes allows more attention to be paid than typing and the colour coding prevents my own views intruding on my observations – that is from an old ethnographic technique where you draw a vertical line down the centre of a Reporter’s pad and keep your records on the left and observations on the right. It is why on the new citizen engagement programmes we are heavily focused on capturing material in the field as it happens and allowing multi-media capture. Also on allowing self-interpretation rather than the more traditional transcribe and tag approach of longitudinal research.

I keep all the notebooks as well, and I’ve enjoyed reading notebooks of people from the past as they betray thinking more than the published papers that they give rise to. I go back to my old notebooks from time to time and the colour coding (which has itself varied over time) gives me instant insight. The original observation and commentary is very different from reflective summaries after the event. Retrospective coherence is all to easy when you write things up with the benefit of hindsight – something that is also a significant issue with most lessons learnt programmes and practice which is why many years ago I coined the term lessons learning as an alternative. The ability to pull together fragmented experiences and memories in real time and blend them together to come up with a unique form of action is key to human knowledge.