Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Knowledge in Business

Browsing on websites about ‘Knowledge’ I came across a site that had this statement prominently displayed:

Ultimately, knowledge in business only has value if it results in action.

At first this looks a bit like a ‘mom and apple pie’ kind of statement. But when I though about it, I realized that the statement is just wrong. This suggests that if a company is going to invest in knowledge, then the company ought to reasonably expect the knowledge will result in action. By implication, the company would not invest in knowledge, if that knowledge did not have an obvious potential to result in action. Hence the engineering department would pay for engineering classes, but not learning to signing for the deaf (assuming no obvious link to action.) Someone who does not understand the role knowledge plays in innovation must have made this statement.

Synthesis, the combining of existing knowledge to form new knowledge, is the primary source of innovation for most companies today. Very often the solution to a problem comes in the form of a metaphor from some distant knowledge. E.g. the ping-pong ‘burp’ gun leading to the ‘sinking’ pipeline solution (described in another blog, [Example: Synthesis and the Obvious Solution] below). We are not able to predict what knowledge will provide a pattern, which drives our brains toward a particular solution. Hence, broad knowledge, with lots of ‘waste’ is better than narrow knowledge which does not give our brains the distant metaphors we use to solve problems.
The second reason that obtaining knowledge in an alien field is valuable, is what happens to our brains as we age. The metaphor of a rubber band works well here. If you do not take care of a rubber band it loses it elasticity and, after a time, it will snap. However, if you take care of a rubber band, you can maintain its elasticity. The human brain is the same way. Our ability to see things differently, to find new patterns from our knowledge depends upon the elasticity of our brains. Neurologist, like those at UC Berkeley have shown that if we keep challenging our brain to learn new things, things that are very different from what we already know, then we can maintain our brain’s elasticity. Otherwise, it loses its elasticity and our ability to see things differently ossifies. That is, if you speak Spanish, don’t choose Portuguese to challenge your brain, it is too similar to Spanish. Instead, learn to sign for the deaf, or read Braille, or learn to sculpt or study Chinese literature. Choose something very different from anything you’ve been exposed to before.
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