Dr Viktor Dorfler

Ask Viktor

Thank you for your questions and comments this week. There were not many, but they are definitely interesting ones. Please keep them coming in this week’s ‘Ask Viktor’ step. The trend from the last week seems to be continuing, in terms of you asking questions that get into some realms of the coming weeks’ material. However, there is also a great deal of relevance to what I have been working on most recently, so I will share a few further things with you about these.

Jesse Russel was asking, with reference to the diverse concepts covered within ‘knowledge’: “In relation to the future, which topic do you see as the most important and urgent one and will have the vested impact on businesses as they are today?”

The answer here is tricky. It is not one concept, and it is not necessarily even a combination of concepts from this week. You will see below a few other things explored also with reference for the future, but if you want to find a single issue, I think it would be the relationship between AI (artificial intelligence) and human knowledge, particularly intuition. Of course, you are already well into week 3, and there you are studying the second major force shaping the world of modern business and organisations: technology. The topic that I mentioned is in the intersection of knowledge and technology, with a great deal of implications to the other two areas as well. I believe that this topic is so significant, that recently I have been doing a roadshow with the topic ‘Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and the Human Intuition’. I have delivered this talk in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Muscat, and this Monday (5th February) in New York. Furthermore, I am doing a TEDx talk on the topic on 17th February. In these talks I am addressing the question whether AI will ever match the masterful leadership of an outstanding CEO, deeply moving writing of a great poet, or nurturing care of a hospital nurse. Based on interviews with some of the world’s top scientists, including 17 Nobel Laureates, as well as with 18 of the world’s best chefs, I take the stand on inimitability of exceptional human performance. I contrast the way computers process data with the way human experts think, explore the difference between learning algorithms of AI and human learning and argue that while Big Data Analysis can get us more data and faster, it is not, and will never be, an adequate substitute for human thinking. The most exceptional achievements of the future will result from the intuitive knowledge of smart people who are supported by smart technology, rather than just by smart technology alone.

Beata Mauthe-Lalowicz is asking the age-old generalist versus specialist question in a new light, meaningfully placing it in the context of Shallows: “World is changing very rapidly and we are told to be more flexible as we will have to change our career path maybe even completely, so from that looks like shallowness could be very good idea. From the other side there is a vast amount of knowledge in every field of work necessary to perform in decent way and we have only 24 hours daily so we need to choose wisely what to do. So what is more important in Your opinion? Specialisation or shallowness?” Anna Kobyliatskaya was asking a similar question.

First of all, I would like to emphasise again: Shallow ≠ Ignorant. This is very important. There is shorter attention span to be sure, but it does not necessarily mean less knowledge. The trickier question is whether it is possible to achieve the highest knowledge levels as a Shallow, as it is not only about the amount of knowledge, but also about much higher level of complexity, and we don’t know whether this high level of complexity can be achieved in the ways of the Shallow. Knowing a little about lots of things is in line with most of the jobs today, and particularly with virtually all managerial work. As participant from a previous course said, “’Shallow knowledge’ has a real function, just like deeper knowledge.” I agree. I also believe that a balance may be possible. I have not seen a Shallow achieving the highest knowledge level, but I have seen people who were deep thinkers, who achieved the highest level of knowledge, and then became Shallows in many other things. So we could say they know a lot about a few things and a little about many other things. They are not as wide as a typical Shallow would be, but they have some sort of balance. The difficulty in a Shallow achieving the highest knowledge level is that they did not develop the capacity for deep thinking. But I do believe that if a Shallow finds something (s)he is deeply interested in, they may pursue it and develop their deep thinking in that area. But don’t forget: we need very few New Alchemists, and lots of Shallows.

It is an interesting question what the role of the technology is in this. Some say it is not only the internet, but the television as well. Well, yes and no. If we mean having 300 channels and switching channel every minute or so, it is definitely Shallow. As there is more advertising in the US, there I can easily follow two channels, if I can find two where the adverts do not coincide. However, if you are watching the great movies, not doing anything but immersing yourself in the movie (no Facebook, no texting, not even a bit of Googling), it leads to deep thinking. Regarding the internet, it also works multiple ways. Of course, often it is distracting attention and it is so easy to click on something else… However, our attention spans are already really short. Live we can pay attention much longer than using technology. I delivered a 1-hour talk a year or so ago, and I was able to keep my audience on their toes for the whole hour. The talk was also recorded, and nobody can watch it for an hour, including those who immensely enjoyed it live – and not even me… However, I have a very interesting example of how the technology can actually help with deepening your thinking: the example is this MOOC. I only realised this today, as I was reading through your comments. The comments are short, and perfectly fitting with the Shallows’ attention span. However, they are all about the same topic. And I noticed that there are people reading through all contributions for a topic, then continuing to the next topic, and they must spend hours at once engaging in it – they seamlessly slipped from shallow into deep thinking, which I could also see from the deeper and deeper comments they were providing. So technology both helps and hinders us in thinking, it is up to us how we use it. I personally love to get super-fast access to the few things I want to deeply engage in and then also to quickly access, use, and forget what I have to engage in but am not interested.

So what should you do if you want to see whether you can be Deep? Choose any topic that you are interested in, take the best book on that topic (try a recommendation of a knowledgeable person you trust), put everything away and try reading for hours… If you do this, please post about your experience in this step. I will come back to this page when the course ends, and will check if there are any messages waiting for me.

Joseph Ekuase was asking about knowledge sharing, below I provide a somewhat more generic answer, including the answer to this question.

First of all, to really understand knowledge sharing, perhaps it is worth reading a paper called Thinking together that I wrote with my former PhD student Igor Pyrko and my colleague Colin Eden. It is a little hard to read as it is an academic paper, but this paper was also the basis of what I was talking about in the knowledge sharing video. In this paper we introduce the concept of ‘thinking together’ as the highest form of knowledge sharing, which is a true meeting of minds, in which the thinking of the participants becomes so deep that it is impossible to distinguish who thought of what. We argue that this thinking together is the essence of communities of practice (CoPs) that are the embodiment of knowledge sharing. In fact, we go so far that thinking together is the essence of CoPs. In a subsequent paper that we are currently working on we use thinking together to define the concept of CoPs. Now this second paper is in which we actually answer the question posed by those who asked or liked the above.

We argue that CoPs (and thus thinking together and knowledge sharing more generally) are worth even if you lose control over knowledge. This is in the essence of the CoP concept as thus of the knowledge sharing process. CoPs are trans-organisational. This means that they not only may cross the organisational boundaries but they must cross them. The underlying reason is the sticky and leaky nature of knowledge; i.e. it sticks to the practice and leaks through the organisational boundaries. This also means that that sometimes knowledge leaks out but it also leaks into the organisation. Of course, this leads to a dilemma for the managers: support CoPs and loose some knowledge or control knowledge and loose what can flow in? The dilemma is actually more complex. If we don’t support knowledge sharing, we don’t only loose knowledge that would flow inwards but also knowledge that is created in the knowledge sharing process. There is a famous example of Xerox, who invented the personal computers, and their engineers told about this to IBM engineers who made it first. So the sad end, for those who are for knowledge control, is that we should prevent knowledge leaks – and by implication CoPs. I disagree. I think that they are missing the big picture: Xerox is an exceptionally successful company. I always argue for giving up the control, accept that some knowledge will leak out, and benefit from intensive thinking together and knowledge creation. As I like attaching new names to things that I find important, I call this Learning Organisation 2.0. I think this is the future.

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding Modern Business and Organisations

University of Strathclyde