Knowledge is Never Passed On, just Recombined and Repurposed in Intentional Contexts

From the blog of Valdis Krebs – TNT The Network Thinkers

A Network

A Network

Information does not want to be free.

It wants to be re-combined!

Above is the best recombination “machine” we have — the network.

I have thought about the value of network derived knowledge because of its’ proximity to the action it inspires and I have thought of the fact that it’s not just replicated and transferred, but that in someway it is relearned anew on each occasion – the reason the transfer metaphor is so problematic.  But, Valdis point out that network derived knowledge is usually  in someway also a recombination and that means it is truly “something new under the sun”.  Networks are so good at helping people learn because they are creating new knowledge for very specific purposes.  Just like our DNA is almost exactly alike, but we are each unique in so many ways – So too our knowledge, especially when it is created jointly, is also unique.  It reminds me of M.M. Bakhtin’s conception of language

Due to stratifying forces resulting from the dialogical contextual use of language; . . . language has been completely taken over, shot through with intentions and accents.  . . . Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life . . .

Similarly knowledge too is “shot through with intentions” and Contexts and it too has a socially charged and recombined dialogical life.

Network Learning: an Initial Summary

A new Model of Learning: from the Classroom to the Network

Learning has always been multifaceted, but where the old concrete model of learning activity was exemplified by the classroom, a new concrete model of learning activity will be exemplified by a network. It’s not a change in what learning is, but more of a change in the why, where, how, and when learning happens.

Why New Ideas for Learning are Needed.

  1. The pace of market change and creative destruction is increasingly requiring innovation and adaptive responses just for business survival.  John Hagel points beyond product and process innovation ot the need for institutional innovation is we are to counter the movement of innovation to Asia.  The complex understanding and responses needed requires greater access not just to to innovative ideas, but also the social spaces that contain both knowledge flows and the diverse capabilities needed to actualize those ideas.  Businesses need to move beyond the traditional boundaries of the firm.
  2. Human development, once thought to be relative unchanging after age 25, now highlight the ability for all kinds of growth in mental complexity and ability throughout one’s active adult life.  In response, new theories of performance are now available to support development and increase performance throughout one’s career.

In order to achieve complex adaptive change in activity, we must further our own development, improve the tools we have available, and make sure we are applying them and attending to the correct object or focus. This entails

  • Human development – The ability to grow to meet new challenges
  • Tool development – psychological and technical tools matched to our complex adaptive challenges
  • all with concrete opportunities for application and feedback

The next section explain some background behind this categorization.

Where will Learning Occur

Traditionally the classroom was led by an expert who was guided by a set curriculum and a transfer metaphor of learning.  In contrast, the network contains a diverse array of individuals interacting with learning as an emergent phenomenon.  This is not to say that experts, classrooms and the transfer metaphor will disappear, and learning, as a psychological and behavioral phenomenon, will not change.  It’s just that the most valuable and ongoing form of learning will emerge through network participation and will emphasize it’s natural connection with relationships and activity instead of focusing exclusively on knowledge content.  It will bypass the problem of learning transfer through learning in situ, in a just in time manner.  Instead of teachers, we will depend on a variety of people who’s role will be more like a guide, facilitator or collaborator.

Network learning has a built in efficacy benefit in that it’s so closely tied to activity and action in which the learning subject is engaged.  In a recent Charlie Rose episode Daniel Wolpert mentioned that the only purpose for a brain is to enable complex adaptive behavior through the motor systems and that the motor cortex and muscle system is the end-path for all of our sensory systems.  To think of content and knowledge as separated from activity is to ignore the way the brain is inherently organized.  Just in time network learning is tied closely to enabling action, which is more in line with the natural organization of brain systems.  If for no other reason, this type of learning is productive because it replaces the huge amount of knowledge that is committed to memory just in case it might be needed in the future with targeted knowledge that leads directly to action.

While learning is just in-time, building robust and diverse networks is the preparation we need. When you need resources is not the time for network building.  The network building that taps us into vibrant engaging relationships and social spaces should be an ongoing activity.  The support needed for this are learning institutions, but not like institutions of the past.  Not the institutions that horde experts, but ones that foster these vibrant and engaging social spaces and excel at building business relevant social networks.  This does not succeed by some network magic. Networks need to be filled with passionate and talented people.  You need to be hooked in with the smartest people on the block, just as they need to be hooked in with talented and passionate you.

What will be the focus of Network Learning

I believe that learning as a psychological and social phenomena is not substantially changing, only the focus of learning will be on the activities and challenges we face.  I will rely on an older model of Vygotsky and Leonte’v to explain a model of the architecture of human activity.  Vygotsky gave three poles that combined to drive human activity: a subject, a mediator (tool) and an object, all leading to an outcome.   This table gives examples for a carpenter and a loan officer.

8-29-10 post table

Therefore the focus of learning is on:
  • the development of the subject’s identity and capabilities (achieving one’s developmental potential)
  • the development of tools (especially mental tools like frameworks, theories, concepts, etc. . .)
  • making sure we are focused on the right objects with the right tools
  • People who can guide us and give us nudges in the right direction, in a timely fashion while on a self quest to complete this mission.

What Ideas are Emerging to Meet these Needs

  1. The idea of “pull” (Hagel Brown & Davison, 2010) encourage us to get involved in relevant networks and tap into the knowledge flows existing there.
  2. Richard Florida points out the importance of vibrant and engaging social spaces as a key driver of innovation related to business growth.
  3. Developing psychological based performance supports systems such as interventions to develop individual psychological capital (Luthans, 2008) or developing the psychological means for personal and organizational change (Kegan, 2010).
  4. Opportunities for collaborative practice -based research (eg. localized unconferences) to maximize development and learning within or around one’s specialities.
  5. Opportunities for creating and maintaining mentoring as well as other diverse types of relationships within one’s local environment.
  6. Networks that are institutionalized to allow you to pursue and developmental goals and identities while conducting business.  I say institutionalized to mean that the infrastructure may need to be created and supported.  Like Hagel’s “Pull”, we rely on serendipity for opportunity, but we plan to make serendipity more likely to happen.

This is not the end of my “theorizing” but a good summation from which to begin a more active research process.

More posts on Network Learning (in reverse chronological order):

A Research Compilation on Inter-firm Networks

The Shape of the Future of Learning: Seeding New Institutions

From Push to Pull: It Will Change What Education Means

Architecture for Learning: The Importance of the Built Environment

Why are Networks the Learning Platform of the Future

A Lifelong High Level Learning Platform: Some Initial Thoughts

Professional Networks as Learning Platforms: A Idea for Lifelong Learning

A Research Compilation on Inter-firm Networks

Why are learning networks necessary?  Because innovation is importent.  The competitive advantage gained through knowledge or processes is transitory; it just doesn’t last very long in today’s complex dynamic business environment.  Innovation and organization learning are needed to sustain competitive advantage and innovation grows out of collaborative processes, which can be enhanced by participation in network based learning platforms.

Our knowledge of learning networks is limited, but growing.  Ozman has helped by compiling research on inter-firm networks.

Ozman, M (2009).  Inter-firm Networks and innovation: a Survey of Literature.

What do Firm Gain from Networks

Firms benefit from network when they are able to fill structural hole (gaps in their knowledge) or response to complex problems by increasing their social capital.  Increases in complexity tends to increase the importance of tacit knowledge, something that networks with members who have complimentary capabilities can be good at passing on, especialy in face to face situations.  Filling structural holes is also a common problem when businesses are expanding into new lines of business or are in start-up mode and do not have all the knowledge needed.)

Trust, a Necessary component

The most important trait in networks seems to be trust among participants, followed by complementarities between participants (which I feel also implies diversity).

There are many questions that are not addresses like:

  • Development – how do you start and grow networks
  • Efficiency – how do you make networks into effective learning platforms
  • Support – What types of institution supports are needed for best functioning

However, this is a start; a knowledge base from which to begin.

The Shape of the Future of Learning: Seeding New Institutions

Richard Florida in a New Republic article; The Roadmap to a High-Speed Recovery, has put forth an interesting and believable proposition: investing in new economic infrastructure is the key to powering a quicker and lasting recovery, by putting the fundamentals of our economy on a sounder footing with today’s economic drivers.  Umair Haque calls it a recapitalizing process when he says:

The real problem’s . . . in the institutional structure of the economy . . . America’s real capital gap, a widening fissure in social, organizational, and creative capital.

Florida mentions changing the current assembly line like organization of our education system (characterized by standardized mass production).  What would a new take on educational infrastructure and institutions look like?  I believe they will look much different then they do today, they will be designed to serve a much different population and they would occupy a much different role in society.  In this post I will suggest some of the contours of this change and why it is needed.

1 From Rote Memorization to Building Accomplishments

Too much of education involved memorizing test answers when economic success depends on innovation, initiative, and creative intelligence.  There’s little need for rote memorization.  Most memorized knowledge is quickly forgotten unless it is frequently reinforced through everyday processes and even then it is seldom helpful when your focused on innovtion.  Building real world accomplishments gets to a deeper and more authentic type of learning.

2 From Knowledge to Skills and Capabilities

Knowledge is great, and needed at times, but more than anything else, we need the capability to make things happen.  Creating things is more dependent on developing skills and capabilities than it is on knowing the right thing.  Help people to know things in the process of doing things.

3 From Mass Standardization to Mass Customized Creativity

Current methods of accountability have made education become more standardized – striving to make all people learn the same things, but what people keep saying we need is the creativity that requires diversity; everyone combining and bringing their individual strengths to the table.  I’m not against accountability, but it seems to have become the primary goal, and it is not the goal we need.

4 From A Curriculum to a Network

Standards based curriculums have become larger and more detailed, but the knowledge they embody never seems to be the right stuff at the right time.  Networks are even larger and more complex, but they’er also more fluid; able to be formed into the right configuration at the time it is needed.  Curriculums attempt to determine what knowledge will be needed in all contexts and to transfer that knowledge to individuals, a process that is alway problematic at best.  Networks create knowledge that is designed in and for specific contexts.

5 From Just Incase Knowledge to Just In-time Knowledge

Classroom knowledge seldom transfers to practice because students seem to have a hard time recognizing how to apply knowledge without real-world practice.  It’s also becoming hard to predict what knowledge will be useful beyond the basics because the “half-life” of knowledge keeps getting shorter and shorter.  Instead of giving people what they need to know, we need to give them the skills for finding the knowledge they need and for figuring out how to make use of it.

6 From Disciplinary Indoctrination to a Diversity of T Shaped Individuals

What does an educated person look like.  The knowledge in disciplines has become deeper and disciplinary members have become more specialized till it is no longer possible for any one individual even to know their entire discipline.  We still need individual with deep knowledge, now more than ever.  But we also need everyone to have a breath of skills and knowledge to allow interdisciplinary collaboration, the basis of most complex problem-solving situations.  These are the famed T shaped individuals; individuals with deep knowledge, but also with the fluid capacity to work across all kinds of disciplinary and other boundaries.

7 From the Classroom to the Social Lab

As pointed out by Sumeet Moghe, it is often observed that very little important learning can be traced back to classrooms.  Learning occurs in collaborative project rooms.  Knowledge is meant for doing things and it is through doing things that we gain what we need  in terms of knowledge and capabilities.  Instead of simulations in the classroom, move to real projects in a supportive experimental social laboratory of learning.

8 From the Training of Youth to True Lifelong Learning

Schools were set up for the socialization and maturation of the youth and schools can be great things.  But for the most important learning, and this includes everyone, it will happen after graduation.  Schools are great for maturation and skill building, but institutions dedicated to helping people learn are also needed by active and engaged adults in their everyday life, and these institutions will likely look and behave much differently than our traditional ideas of schooling.

9 From a Sequenced Curriculum to Learning Wherever People Are

All people’s ability to learn is very great.  We cheat that ability when we insist on following a rote sequence to a standardized curriculum.  People will need to adapt what they know to the immediate context anyway; assist them in gaining the skills and knowledge in any context they currently find themselves.  The capabilities they gain will be deeper, more robust and it will be gained more efficiently.  Wherever it seems logically permissible, have no prerequisites.  Colleges and universities still have a large role to play in educating society, but infrastructure and learning support should always be available.

A Cognitive Aesthetic for Everyday Design

Interesting article in the recent issue of the e-journal  Cognition & Culture titled The Logic of Disorder: A Dynamic View of Cognitive Aesthetics by S. Schartman, who states (from the abstract):

In observing various patterns of organization I have come to a . . . conclusion that there is a neg­entropic drive towards order . . . (and) an entropic drive (germinating from human phenomenology) towards chaos . . . along an order/disorder axis.  As these drives follow along this continuum in opposite directions a tension, or force dynamic relationship is created  . . . that results in aesthetic appeal or dynamism and is a discrete character of the cognitive underpinnings of the aesthetic experience.

Schartman provides examples of how the effects of this “force dynamic relationship” can be seen at work in numerous artistic works, but I think that this is a good model of, shall I call it, an aesthetic impulse that has much wider analytic application to everyday life and many everyday activities.  (I think Schartman might agree with this interpretation, but she only specifically addresses artistic, not everyday works.) That this model provides a useful analysis is especially true in light of what has been called the experience economy, the wide application of design thinking, and the idea of pull platforms.  I think this model of aesthetics can be a useful mode of analysis when superimposed on other interpretations of what is happening in the world.  (Note; I’m not thinking of order /  disorder as good / bad, but rather as the raw material / experience (phenomena) out of which an aesthetic mode can be used as a way to create one’s life.)

Example 1, Hagel Brown & Davison’s concept of “Pull”.

Previous management methods primarily strove to help organizations improve performance by increasing order and predictability.  The problem, as Hagel et al point out; this method’s progress seems to have peeked in that further performance improvements have been conforming to a decreasing returns curve.  Hagel et al point out that things are swinging away from the idea that increased order = performance improvement.  We’re heading towards the idea that performance is now being driven by open networks where progress is ruled by serendipity.  He is not advocating for chaos, but his method of “pull” could be described as a method for creating the conditions where an aesthetic experience can occur, an experience that better uses the order / chaos tension to generates innovation and progress.

Example 2 – The proliferation of design thinking in many disciplines.

I’ve spoken before of the application of design principles to many different situations not usually thought of as amendable to a design aesthetic.  I gave examples for why I thought  this was occurring including the following:

  • The design of our world is not just for decoration, the design of the world (like Peirce’s semeiotics) reflects who we are and who we are reflects the design of the world.
  • Tools (artifacts, concepts, theories, etc. . .) are needed to act on the world.  Science is not just about experiments.  It’s also about developing innovative, new cognitive artifices that bring new understanding about the world, help us to act in new ways and can become aesthetic instruments for conducting and creating our lives.

Example 3 – The Experience Economy

For much of human history, securing sufficient food was a major problem that was solved by the agricultural revolution.  Securing shelter and clothing was a problem solved by the industrial revolution.  These material concerns are being commoditized and what constitutes their quality is determined by the experiences they help us create in our lives.  Therefore, the quality of our life can be seen by the quality of our experience, especially in the aesthetics of our everyday experience.  The struggle between order and chaos can be viewed as the backdrop for the creative development as the artist of our own lives.

The Need to Include Learning in Engineering Analyses

Interesting post from David Jones, documented here for future reference.  The basic gist is that the task of developing support for performance and capability improvement in many contexts resembles a wicked problem in a complex adaptive system.  Therefore, it is not adequately addressed by traditional analytic engineering approaches and should include the incorporation of learning throughout implementation.

. . . you need to include more of the growing/gardening approach into your engineering method.  Rather than seeking to gather and analyze all knowledge separated from practice and prior to implementation. Implementation needs to be designed to pay close attention to knowledge that is generated during implementation and the ability to act upon that knowledge.

Richard Florida needs John Hagel

Richard Florida needs John Hagel.  Florida and Hagel have been referencing each other recently (here and here) and that’s a good thing; at least I think it is for Richard’s ideas.  Florida’s work has been very popular, but has also received a fair amount of criticism.  The best founded of the critiques (in my opinion) refer to the generality of his data.  It is correlational and very general, you might say it paints a picture with too broad of a brush.

The issue is that we know two things:

  1. We know a bit about how individuals can be creative and
  2. We know how creativity and innovations correlate with clusters of people, but

We don’t know other things like:

  1. We don’t really know much about the network ecologies and interactions that drive this increased creativity and
  2. We don’t have specific experiments to demonstrate and validate any kind of intervention and
  3. We don’t know if there is a critical mass for clusters to spur innovations.

Enter John Hagel who’s concept of “pull” begins to specify some of the ways and mechanism that may be behind the effects described by Florida. I think the next step is to describe in detail how individual environments work to spur innovation.  Many of the interventions inspired by Florida have semed a little like shooting in the dark.  What is needed is a little more specificity in how things work.  Maybe not to a prescriptive level, but just so we understand what can be successful and in what ways.  There have been a number of projects inspired by Richard, and I believe that his ideas are valid, we just need more causal analysis and measures of success to drive things forward; and in the proper direction.

From Push to Pull: It Will Change What Education Means

Ever since I first read about the concept of post-fordism in the early 90s, I have felt that there was a new educational world taking shape; one that would have a profound effect on society.  Hagel, Brown & Davison’s The Power of Pull (2010) provides the best explanation I found yet that gives voice to and makes sense of this feeling.

The idea of pull logically grows out of the author’s conception of how the world is changing, which they call the “Big Shift”; change that is coming in three waves.

First Wave – Access –

  1. The growth of the digital infrastructure and open trade policies provide access to instant information, communication and allows economic activity and the means of production to easily flow anywhere around Thomas Friedman’s flat world.
  2. Why it is changing things – The opposite of pull is push; predicting where information and resources will be needed and pushing it out to those locations.  This is becoming a problem because:
    1. the world is changing faster than organizations are able to predict and
    2. people who have mastered the methods of pull, and are supported by the 1st wave, are able to allocate resources more effectively and efficiently.
  3. What does it mean – Organizations that continue to push in critical areas will find it increasingly difficult to compete with organizations that can reorganize around pull.

Second Wave – Attract –

  1. How do you make use of 1st wave capabilities?  Just because you can access the worlds information does not mean you can tell what’s important and how to use it.  People are the resource that helps us to interpret and make use of 1st wave capabilities, but it is a resource that can’t be predicted.  What is needed are robust networks of people in which knowledge is flowing freely enabling the ad-hock connections that make information useful.  The knowledge you need is out there, but you need a network to help you find it an form it into a useful form.
  2. Why it is changing things – More than knowledge, you need access to the knowledge flows that are at the heart of networks of people committed to solving the same problems that you are.
  3. What does it mean – The knowledge stocks you possess are depreciating rapidly and are already less valuable that the ability to tap into knowledge flows.

Third Wave – Achieve –

The wave is not yet clearly formed because it is just beginning.  Hagel et al have predicted that, as more and more organizations harness the power of pull, it will have a transformative effect on general society.

How Will Pull Change Education

The idea of “Pull” (Hagel, Brown & Davison, 2010) will change the way we orient ourselves to just about every aspect of education and learning.  Here is a list of some:

  • Leadership – Most discussions of leadership focus on how to develop individual leaders who then lead (push out change toward) other people.  Simple models of leadership risk over simplifying what is a complex, collaborative and integrative process.
  • Curriculum – Most curriculum pushes knowledge out, but what is needed is the ability to join in with robust learning networks that can attract the most valuable knowledge flows toward us.  Skills are needed, background knowledge is needed, but collaborative networking is the real source of value.
  • Educational Institutions – These bodies previously nailed down the core knowledge that professionals needed, but Hagle et al argue that today’s important knowledge flows on the edge where people are wrestling in creative spaces “with how to match unmet needs with unexploited capabilities and uncertainty” (p. 53).  Institutions need to become “platforms to amplify (the quality and diversity of) networks of social and professional relationships” (Hagel et al, p.107) and to encourage people to identify and pursue their passions. (parenthesis added).  We need institutions that can serve as creation spaces to “scaffold scalable colaboration, learning and performance improvement” (Hagel et al p. 139).
  • Being an educated person. That used to mean knowing a lot of stuff, but to pull something different is needed:
    • A disposition for exploring the new, the unexpected, and the patience and listening skills to perceive what is going on at a deeper level.
    • finding ways for people to find us and for us to find relevant others,
    • relationship skills for deepening our networks,
    • a comfort level for living on the creative edge.

If anyone reads this and thinks of more, or disagrees, please comment and thanks!