How much do we need to know?

We used to be defined by what we knew. But today, knowing too much can be a liability.

Google, for example, is putting its trust in (potentially uncredentialled) “capable generalists” rather than “experts”.[ref]Laszlo Bock, Google’s Vice-President of People Operations, at The Economist’s Ideas Economy: Innovation Forum on March 28th 2013 in Berkeley, California.[/ref] Expertise still matters for narrowly focused highly-technical roles but Google has found that in most instances a capable generalist will arrive at the same solution as an expert, while in some cases they will come up with a new solution that is superior to those proposed by the experts.

Expertise, and being an expert, implies having the hard-won knowledge and skills that make you a reliable judge of what is best or wisest to do. It’s an inherently backwards-looking concept, ascribing value to individuals based on their ability to accumulate experience and then generalise from it, taking generic solutions that have worked in the past and applying them to specific problems encountered today.

This is an approach that worked well in the past when knowledge and skills were expensive and difficult to acquire, and the problems we tackled later in our career were similar to those encountered at the start. Society has spent centuries reorganising work and dividing it into ever more narrowly defined specialisations to enable individuals to focus on, and develop expertise in, specific jobs.

Take the case of the Brunels in the 1800s: Marc, who built the first tunnel under the Thames,[ref]Marc Brunel was, in the early 1800s, the engineer responsible for the first tunnel to be dug under a substantial river.[/ref] and his son, Isambard, creator of the Great Britain.[ref]Isambard Brunel built the SS Great Britain, in the late 1800s, the longest ship in the world at her time and the first iron steamer with a screw propeller.[/ref] Both Marc and Isambard roamed across architecture, and civil and mechanical engineering, designing everything from buildings and manufacturing processes through railways to steam engines and ships, covering most of the technologies we associate with the industrial revolution.

Overtime all these technologies became increasing complicated and entailed, requiring you to acquire more and more knowledge and skills before you could be productive and contribute your own ideas and findings. The ground covered by the two Brunels has been divided into a range of highly specialised disciplines, each with their own narrowly defined education and credentialing process.

Digital technology, however, is changing our relationship with knowledge and, consequently, with expertise. The pithy version of this is “it’s not what you know, it’s what you can google”. By allowing us to easily capture and transmit knowledge, and by providing new means of communicating with our peers, the growth of digital technology is tipping the balance of power from narrowly defined expertise to more broadly defined capability. Knowledge is available on demand via online resources and social media while skills are being captured in software packages, shifting what used to be stocks to flows.[ref]The shift from stocks to flows @ PEG[/ref] The generalist is no longer at a disadvantage to the specialist, as most (if not all) specialist knowledge and skills are available on-demand.

I heard a nice example of this a while ago when I was listening to Film Buff’s Forecast[ref]Film Buff’s Forecast @ RRR[/ref]. The show was interviewing a director who also lectured at a local university. The director opined that the current graduating class had a lot more sophisticated understand of film, and were more sophisticated in their approach to their work, than he and his class were back in the early seventies. In his view this wasn’t because they current class were inherently smarter. It was because the majority of their time at university was invested in exploring the possibilities provided by film as a medium, and developing an understanding of what they might do within the medium. This is in contrast to the director’s class back in the early seventies, when the majority of a student’s time was spent finding, accessing, and internalising knowledge stocks.

The example the director gave was of a student being directed to some technique that Alfred Hitchcock used.[ref]Unfortunately I don’t remember which technique was mentioned.[/ref] Back in the seventies this would have implied many afternoons spent in the stacks at the library looking for film criticism that discussed the technique, so that the student could develop an understanding of it and know in which films the best (and worst) examples could be seen, followed by a search of the rep theatres to find screenings of key films.

That same understanding can be obtained via an afternoon on the couch browsing the internet with the following day spent streaming films from Netflix.

Today we invest our time exploring the problem we’re trying to solve, and the context we’re solving it in, rather pouring most of our effort into finding the information we need.

We’re also increasingly finding ourselves asked to solve new problems, create new products and services, and, in some cases, even rethink how entire industries and sectors of the economy work. This is what we commonly refer to as digital disruption, even though that term fails to capture the full extent of the social change that is bearing down on us.

Take the construction industry for example. Technology has been used to streamline or automate many tasks making today’s construction industry a different beast to the construction industry of our grandparents, but it is still an industry that adheres to a fundamental craft-based paradigm, with skilled trades people working onsite to create bespoke buildings.

A range of technological and social changes are about to transform the construction industry from a craft-based paradigm to a flexible-manufacturing paradigm, skipping over the traditional industrial paradigm in the process.

My favourite example of this is Unitised Building[ref][/ref] who have developed a new construction process (as opposed to a technology) that enables them to construct a mid-rise building in a fraction of the time and with a fraction of the money, of a traditional approach. This building system is completely digitised, with the building design in 3D modelling tools before the design is broken down and sent to numerically controlled machines for part fabrication and assembly on the shop floor. Assembled modules are trucked to the construction site where one is lifted into place every eight minutes after which the various connectors snapped together and gaps plastered over. A process that took months now takes weeks and the cost is shafted in the process.

One9 Apartments
One9 Apartments under construction by Unitised Building

The shift from craft to flexible manufacturing has a dramatic impact on the skills required from the workforce, moving from deep expertise in building to general design, digital modelling and construction skills. The focus has shifted from needing people who can work within the established building system (people with deep expertise who can generalise experience and then apply these general solutions to specific problems) to people who can work to develop and improve a new building system (people with broader skills who can find new problems to be solves, and solutions to these new problems).

A similar trend can been seen across all sectors. We’re moving from working in the system that is a business, to working on the system. The consequence of this is that its becoming more important to have the general capabilities and breadth of experience that enable us to develop and improve the system in novel directions, than it is to have deep, highly entailed experience in working within the current system. There will always be a need for narrowly focused expertise in highly technical areas, but in the majority of cases the generalist now has an advantage over the specialist.

This raises an interesting conundrum. While you might not need to know as much as you did in the past, it’s not clear just how much you do need to know now. This is a particular problem for educators and firms as they want to arm the individuals under their care with the knowledge and skills required to be successful in the workplace. Teaching too little means that the individual will not be effective at what they do. Teaching too much implies that we are wasting the individual’s time (and money, in many cases).

Focusing on understanding how much to teach might be asking the wrong question though. In many cases the only person who can judge how much knowledge is enough will be the individual, as “how much is enough” will be determined by the problem that they are trying to solve and the context that they are trying to solve it in.

We need to break down the problem a bit more if we’re to understand what question we should be asking.

First, we do know that you need enough knowledge to be dangerous; to be conversant in the domain, to be able to understand and describe the problem, and to be able to interact and discuss what you are doing with the others who you are collaborating or working with. That film director mentioned above needs to be able to understand the criticism that they are reading, knowing the key concepts, technical terms and idioms that form the language of film. Similarly for our flexible-manufacturing building system, where you would need to understand the basic language of building, digital design, and flexible manufacturing if you expect to be productive and contribute.

Second, we need to equip the individual with the tools they need to manage their own knowledge and their access to knowledge. If the only person who can determine how much knowledge is enough is the individual, then we need to empower them by providing them with the tools they need to manage knowledge for themselves.

This can be further broken down into the following.

You need to understand limits of your current knowledge (or, put another way, you need to know when to go looking for new knowledge). This may be as simple of coming across new terms and concepts that you don’t understand, through to having the sensitivity to realise that your lack of progress in a task is due to the knowledge (the ideas and skills) that you’re applying being insufficient, and you need to find a new approach that is based on different knowledge.

You need to be aware of what additional knowledge you might draw on, so that you can you can reach out and pull it in as needed. This is a process of eliminating the unknown unknowns: reading blogs, going to conferences, participating in communities of practice, and even having conversations at the water cooled, so that your aware of the other ideas out there in the community, and other other individuals who are working in related areas. You can only draw on new knowledge if you’re aware that it exists, which means you must invest some time in scanning the environment around you for new ideas and fellow travellers.

You also need the habits of mind – the attitudes and behaviours – that lead you to reach out when you realise that you’re knowledge isn’t up to the task as had, explore the various ideas that you’re aware of (or use this awareness to discover new ideas), and then pull in and learn the knowledge required.

Finally, you need to be working in a context where all this is possible. To many work environments are setup in a way that prevents individuals from either investing time in exploring what is going on around them (and eliminating unknown unknowns), taking time out from the day-to-day to learn what they need to learn on-demand, or from taking what they’ve learnt and doing something different (deviating from the defined, approved and rewarded process).

So question we asked at the start of this post – How much do you need to know? – is clearly the wrong question to be asking.

Rather than focus trying to know (or teach) everything that might be relevant (the old competence model) we need to move up a level, focusing on metacognition. This means providing people with the tools needed to manage knowledge their own: fostering the sensitivity required to know when knowledge and skills have run out, creating time and space so that they can invest in their own knowledge management, and encouraging the habits of mind that mean that they have the ability and attitude to do something about it.

Image: Isambard Kingdom Brunel preparing the launch of ‘The Great Eastern by Robert Howlett