Little Islands

Little Islands

Trawling the seas of knowledge

Note: This is one of those rare posts (for me) where I have few to no suggestions as to how to proceed.

Islands of Ignorance

In my travels, I have seen many organisations from the inside, and many more from the outside. 

In almost all cases, these organisations strike me as like little islands of ignorance in a huge sea of knowledge. As a mariner myself, I’m well aware of the bounty of these seas. So, maybe better placed than most to see the shortfalls in our organisations’ uptake of this bounty.

Seas of Knowledge

It’s never been easier to keep up with developments (sic) in praxis – in whatever fields of human endeavour interest us. And that’s probably even more true for the fields of collaborative knowledge work, software development and product development than for any other.

And yet, almost every organisation I see operates on principles – from the executive management suite to the workers at the coal face – utterly disconnected from the seas of knowledge surrounding them. Principles grown stale and musty with the dust of ages past.

Some organisations, having an inkling of their disconnection, make token efforts to bring outside knowledge in – with brown bag sessions, encouraging folks to attend meet-ups and conferences, hiring consultants from time to time, and so on. But like fishermen on the shore with fishing poles and spears hooking the occasional fish, this ain’t so effective. Few indeed are the organisations that build trawlers and send them out with nets, sonar, radar and the like to harvest the plenty of the seas.

Why is This?

What makes organisations so inept at finding and using the huge repositories of knowledge out there – in books, on the internet, in people’s heads, and so on?

Beats me. 

I have some suspicions that the education system is partly to blame. I’ve seen many graduates who, upon doing the workforce, act as if their learning days are behind them. 

And short-termism, the bane of UK industry in particular, contributes. With the implicit idea that learning, being more valuable in the longer term, has little or no value in meeting next week’s delivery schedules, or this month’s financial targets.

I guess, too, that like navigating our planet’s vast oceans, the seas of knowledge are so vast now that special navigation equipment is necessary to tackle the challenge. And whilst a fish is a fish, a idea or item of know-how is a much more slippery thing. How to sort the wheat from the chaff? Maybe systematic experimentation can help (see e.g. Toyota Kata, or Popcorn Flow from Claudio Perrone)


So. There you have it. No elegant ideas for addressing the situation. Just an appeal to you, dear readers, to share your experiences, perspectives, and maybe a hint or tip or two for the rest of us.

– Bob

Further Reading

The Fifth Discipline ~ Peter M. Senge
Peter Senge and the Learning Organization ~ Infed article
On Dialogue ~ David Bohm

  1. I think you are right in highlighting short-termism (especially in the UK) as a key cause of the malaise you describe. There is also an issue over specialism; whilst many have (rightly) mocked the attitude of “we don’t need any more experts” that we’ve heard so much of, especially in political discourse, over the past couple of years, there is one sense where this may be true.

    The Civil Service used to rely on “generalists” to draw together different strands at high levels – people (usually men) with good degrees, usually in the Classics, from one of two universities. These people would act as gatekeepers between the experts and the decision-makers; sometimes synthesizing, sometimes filtering. But in the 1980s, these people fell out of favour, because they tended to dilute partisan views and prevented politicians getting the simple solutions they wanted. (This isn’t to say that they did not present politicians with simple solutions; but they presented them with simple solutions that didn’t fit neatly into political categories, and could indeed sometimes be difficult to square with existing agendas.)

    Instead, politicians began to rely on their own advisors or their own favoured experts, people who knew what answers their sponsors or patrons wanted, and provided them with the justification for those answers.

    If you want to see how this used to work, you have only to look at the BBC sitcom “Yes, Minister”, which dated from that time, and was written by a Government insider.

    Back in the 1970s, when I was being trained as a librarian, we were told that the coming “information revolution” would require specialists like us to help other professionals to navigate the vast, uncharted seas of knowledge that even then could be seen on the horizon. Instead, along came the Internet, democratising knowledge but relying on people knowing what it was they needed to know. It’s telling that now, ‘librarian’ is almost a dead occupation outside academia, and the idea that different sources of information have to be taken together and weighed one against the other to arrive at a balanced judgement is almost unknown to a generation used to getting The One True Answer from a single website.

    The best hope for reversing this trend, I think, is diversity. I’ve been telling as many people as will listen that diversity isn’t just a good idea; for an industry that is devising products that could potentially be used by anyone, anywhere in the world through the medium of the Internet, diversity is essential to bring to bear on any question the maximum possible number of different viewpoints, experiences and understandings. In the same way, a range of diverse opinions and experiences may be the thing that will address your concerns about the islands of ignorance.

  2. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for your contribution. I concur with all your observations and interpretations. “Agendas trump knowledge / evidence”. It was ever thus.

    Personally, I always look to have at least one Cybrarian on every (circa 5 person) team, and more across the organisation more broadly. Cf.

    • I don’t know how, but I’ve never seen the word ‘cybrarian’ before, though it’s blindingly obvious as to what it means and how you would use it! Merriam-Webster says it dates from 1991, but doesn’t say who first coined the word, and none of the other online definitions provide citations for its origin; I’d be interested to know who first used it and in what context.

      In a previous, pre-Internet job, my immediate manager described me, approvingly, as “a ferret”, and I’ve since used that when asked about “desirable qualities for testers”.

  3. Andrew said:

    Hi Bob,
    There are a few factors at work.
    1. They’re humans. Humans evolved to be very good at using patterns from the past that helped them to thrive and survive, but learned and applied in the context of seasonal or generational change. More rapid change – surprises – are first assessed by the older, better evolved bit of our neurology as threats, and in our society, that is typically a social threat. We’ve created a world that changes very rapidly. Social threat is anything that might have us either get rejected by our group and then be at risk of being eaten by bears, or having to be the one that lead the charge against the bear. There are no bears in most businesses, but our amygdala doesn’t care. Rational thought is a recent evolutionary phenomenon, and so it not as well evolved, and so is expensive in calories. So we don’t like doing it.
    2. Since the Enlightenment, there’s been a common belief that if you do engage rational thought, anything can be worked out. This is a mistake, and complexity research (see Cynefin for the best example) demonstrates that we’re thus lousy at a whole realm of emergence. So the pattern matching brain fails at emergence. Failure is experienced as social threat, and so avoided at all costs. Hence a whole bunch of crappy behavior and non-behavior.
    3. The West adopted the Prussian Education System to ensure the creation of a workforce that is obedient, not disruptive, and with layers of skill. Creativity, especially in the US, was downplayed. It worked brilliantly for the Industrial Revolution, but created a culture of misery at work. However it created a society that’s poorly prepared for knowledge economy. It’s also created the notorious “fixed mindset” of highly qualified individuals who believe that once qualified (the “best”) there is no need to get “better”.
    4. In the US in particular, the cult of the rugged individualist created the myth of “bias to action”, and a disdain for “theory”. This, in combination with the “fixed mindset”, mean no-one has a habit (pattern from the past) of continuing study or learning.
    I’m exaggerating and generalizing to make a point. But I’ve experienced exactly the same phenomenon you are, and putting this argument together over the last few years has made sense of it for me.

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