TOOLkit/ The Best Book

Photo Kelly Sikkema on Unspash

Photo Kelly Sikkema on Unspash


Manila, 14 November 2018 — Do you prefer a book to read, write notes, or work with? Here’s why to use a workbook for your learning journey.

Leaders are Readers

If you look around in my Manila home, you will find seven cabinets full of books. Seeing how many ebooks there are in my Kindle library would be more difficult, so I’ll give that away too: as of today the count is 473. And then I haven’t yet counted the PDF books on my Mac’s hard drive. That will be a lot also.

“Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers,” said Harry S. Truman. I agree, and I encourage you to read as much as you can. That’s not so difficult, because the opportunities to find books to read have grown more abundant than ever before in history.

That said, the abundance in books stands in sharp contrast to something that is as scarce as ever, and that is your time. Once you spend it, you can’t get time back.

So, if you are a voracious reader like me, good for you! However, what should you do to maximize your scarce time for learning about leadership and other important stuff in your life?

That’s where my question comes in. What kind of book do you prefer to use?

Using a Workbook

I remember how, years ago, I started my journey to learn about leadership with a workbook, the kind that students use. I found that it suited me fine—it gave me a huge boost and got me out of the starting blocks.

Working my way through the book and coming up with my personal answers to the challenging questions posed there, I felt like completing lap after lap on the athletics track. I was making progress and was getting more and more excited.

How each athlete meets his or her challenges and progress on the track will depend on personal motivation as well as on adopting a suitable attitude and a set of practices that most of the athletes will have in common.

You can compare that to reading a good book that other people are also reading. It’s the same book, yet I bet that you will use it in your own way that suits your unique personal journey. I do assume that you will use it—after all, if you would not, you would surely be wasting your precious, scarce time.

Your Learning Experience

Tailoring learning materials (like books, online courses and more) into experiences that help you advance on your journey is fast becoming a big task for learning and development professionals, as explained by Jerene Ang of Human Resources Online in Singapore last week.

Using learning materials well is also—and primarily, I would say—your own responsibility as a learner, regardless of if these already include questions and exercises or if you come up with these yourself.

In fact, the better you get at customizing learning materials to create a helpful experience for you, the more proficient you become in turning all kinds of information quickly into knowledge that helps you advance on your learning journey. Fundamentally, it’s about how you manage and use your knowledge.

Now, knowledge management is a big topic in itself. Basically, there are two schools of thought. You can call them Western and Eastern, or Left and Right Brain. What matters is how you use the wisdom they offer to advance in your learning journey and help yourself and people around you in creating positive change and becoming innovators.

Two Knowledge Approaches

As a scientist educated in ‘the West’ and a former monk who has taken deep dives into the wisdom traditions of ‘the East,’ I understand and like both methods. If you ask me to choose only one to share with you, I will pick the Eastern way of looking at knowledge because I think it works best, and offers a holistic perspective on creating change and innovation through collaboration.


To make a tool to get you going and keep it as simple as possible, I adapted what I learned about the holistic (Eastern) approach to knowledge management in the Knowledge@Work model below.

I’d like you to remember two names, Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi, from Japan. They are known for how they researched and discovered a method for businesses to create new knowledge and innovation. Their approach is grounded in Zen Buddhism, which came to Japan from China through an evolutionary journey that started in South Asia, and can now be found around the world.

Tacit and Explicit Knowledge

From Nonaka and Takeuchi you can learn about two important kinds of knowledge: tacit and explicit. The first kind lives in people, in you and in the people around you. Think of it as rooted in personal, subjective experiences, in how you and others around you cope with your life and work. It’s not so easily communicated—you need your right-brain abilities to do so.

Explicit knowledge, on the other hand, lives in books, manuals, procedures, in what is open and objectively observable. It helps you do tasks, know facts, and learn new information and methods. When you search the internet for how-to articles, you gain explicit knowledge, often in the form of bulleted descriptions of what to do or not to do. To communicate explicit knowledge, our left-brain abilities serve us well. Get the idea?

Now, Nonaka and Takeuchi have become famous for describing how businesses can tap into both tacit and explicit knowledge when they work on optimizing performance and engaging in innovation.

What’s important to realize from their work, using the wisdom traditions from the East, is that there is no hard boundary between tacit and explicit knowledge, that they are part of a continuum and oscillating process much like yin and yang. Essentially, knowledge, knowing, and the knower are united in a oneness that is also continuously evolving.

Sounds vague? Let’s make it practical by applying the Knowledge@Work model to using a workbook approach as your Best Book for supporting your learning journey as a leader. We can do that by moving through three phases:

1. Reflecting into Dialogue

When you read a book, you can visualize that as entering into a dialogue with the author and with yourself. As you read, you bring reflections from your Personal World into the dialogue, tapping your previous experiences.

As you reflect, you use your tacit knowledge, your very personal source of experiences from your journey up to that time. Your dialogue will be richer when you use writing to reflect, and if you share what you reflect with other people in your Social World.

Knowledge@Work Model.jpg

2. Capturing into Practice

From your dialogue reflections, you can capture and frame specific points to start practicing. Here is where you externalize your tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge that you bring into your Observed World where you and other people can use it and monitor the process and results.

The bits of explicit knowledge that you capture and systematize can be used in a practical way in your work and life situations, together with your colleagues, to boost your and your team’s performance and to experiment with new solutions and influence others to create organizational changes.

Reading a book without capturing any points to use in a practical way in your work and life seems, pointless? Especially if it’s a non-fiction book you’re reading. However, you can also get inspired from reading fiction books, for example on how to better understand relationships between people, and how to become a better influencer.

After you capture points and systematize the knowledge gained for practice, you will be more effective when you record our observations, keeping in mind the old adage that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. And write about whatever else you observe during practice. 

3. Integrating into Experience

Your learning journey continues from your practice, as you distill more lessons and insights from what you do and observe. In this phase, the key skills are to integrate what you observed into enriched experience in your Personal World.

Learning to use integrating skills allows you to move upward in a spiral of transcending and including from your earlier knowledge to an expanded level of consciousness (experience) which in turns allows higher performance (practice).

As pointed out by Nonaka and Takeuchi, such leveling up in learning typically takes place through a process of sharing knowledge in collaboration (dialogue) with others—more so than through competition. It helps to see why people-centered approaches to learning and management tend to deliver best results.

Putting it together

If you get a sense that the knowledge you learn on your journey manifests itself in different forms in a spiral process, then you are capturing the essence of what I shared.

Going back to the concept of using a workbook to maximize your learning, a combination of reflecting, sharing, practicing and integrating will give a quick turbo boost to your learning journey. If the book you choose to read already includes questions and exercises to work with, you can start right away.

If it doesn’t, you can create them yourself. Instead of just reading your book, you can create your own shape of workbook by writing about your reflections, your discussions with others, your practice and what you observe from that, and how you integrate new knowledge and insights into a new level of experience.

You can make any book you read your workbook. To use another metaphor, when you don’t see opportunity knocking on your door yet, “build a door that opportunity can knock on,” in the words of Souad El Markhous, who was awarded this week as the Netherlands Ethnic Business Woman of the Year. Creating your very own workbook can be such a door.

Workbook Writing Tips

What do I do to create my own workbooks is to use multiple tools. I use Evernote extensively, every day, as my note-taking application of choice. I also like to write in physical notebooks (often red) and then photograph the important parts of what I wrote into Evernote also, where everything becomes searchable, even handwritten notes.

I also like using Penultimate, which allows me to use my Apple pencil to write on my iPad. Those notes get transferred to Evernote automatically when I finish. I also love to write on flipcharts, which allow me to write and draw while standing up, to make diagrams and brainstorm with sticky notes. Photos of my best flipcharts will also find their way into my Evernote later on.

Finally, I use Scrivener to write my book, in which I also incorporate workbook features in the form of questions and exercises.

Summing up, why not consider that your Best Book will be the workbook you create to support your learning journey as a leader, starting with where you are now and the book you are reading?

There is no better time than now to get started on your Best Book and using the Knowledge@Work model to empower you on your leadership learning journey!

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