Knowledge for enablement – the birth of a practice

How can the information explosion lead to improved human capacities? How can people be enabled to respond to increasing change with the knowledge now available? How can we secure the evolution of human systems in the age of knowledge?


1.0Over the past 500 years the availability and quantity of knowledge produced in human society has increased dramatically.  This prompted Carlos Fuentes, the Nobel Prize winning South American author to comment that “the greatest challenge facing modern civilization is the structuring of available knowledge”

2.0The rate of change of creation of knowledge has also increased dramatically. Wharton professor Bruce Merrifield reports that 90% of the world’s codified information has been produced since 1960. This is staggering.

3.0Simultaneously, the scientific and technical possibilities that allow this knowledge to be commercially exploited have gone up exponentially – though very clearly lagging the growth in availability and the increase in the rate of change in creation of knowledge.

4.0This “Transformation of Possibilities” for Knowledge can be perceived in two distinct areas:

–     One, the growth of computing has meant the application of knowledge in different areas ranging from an ordinary schoolchild’s project work, (which due to the Internet has become a sophisticated knowledge seeking activity), to the ratio of information-workers to workers in the services, industrial, and agricultural sectors (from less than 15% of total work force to more than 60% of total workforce).

–     Two, the growth of communications technology has meant that the use of ‘ transient knowledge’ in society has increased dramatically – in terms of e-mails which are stored on machines, SMS messages which are sent, stored, and/or deleted on mobile phones, data “crunched” in corporations being stored either in data form or as analytical reports. This use of transient knowledge has meant new possibilities for the sharing of thoughts, the cultivation of relationships, the management of work, etc. which were hitherto carried out in the form of oral/personal interactions and communications.

5.0This, in short, describes a world exploding in the quantities of knowledge being produced, being codified, being shared, and also being used. A world in which “knowledge” in its infinite variants and forms has extended the notion of human communication and human possibilities.

6.0The contours of this new world, has taken the best part of 50 years in the making, from the advent of solid state computers for commercial use in 1960 to the present day when the terms “computer programming”, “knowledge management”, and “information overload” appear as part of the intellectual toolkit of a young engineer or technologist; and words like “computer”, “cyber café”, and “SMS” are part of the use-vocabulary of most urban and semi-urban youth with access to education.

7.0The central question, after this half century of growth is “Have these new words and vocabularies really meant a change in the way we work and the way we live?”

The answers are not easy to find. At the obvious level of human access and use of communications and knowledge there are no doubts about the answer.

The questions become more specific when we ask:

  • “Has this evolution meant an increase in human learning?”
  • “Has this growth in knowledge meant a transformation in practice?”
  • “Has this growth meant a fundamental shift in society’s evolutionary dynamic that involves learning to doing and to learning again?

It is while answering these questions that the contours of the new challenges facing us become clear.

Has access to knowledge meant an increase in human learning?

8.0Mankind’s ability to create rich symbolic representations of the world has increased, but this improved ability to “map out process flows” and interactions” for the purpose of programming has not filtered back into the way we write and think in our schools and colleges.

9.0Mankind’s ability to “configure commands” on computers has not meant a corresponding increase in his capacity to “configure new solutions” to the challenges faced in society. The responses to challenges faced by leaders have continued to remain embedded in the habits and imperatives from across the ages.

10.0Mankind’s ability to represent knowledge through “interfaces” and “taxonomies” has not yielded a new logic for communicating to people in ways that enable them to understand freshly and act in ways they would not have imagined before.

11.0In other words, the advancements in “thinking technologies” such as abstractions of concepts, configurations of solutions, and “representations of knowledge”, which have yielded vast new machines and networks, have remained the promise of a few people.

12.0The western world, with its enormous production and marketing capabilities, has mass produced knowledge, but has not mass produced the “thinking methods” that made such progress possible.

13.0Thinking, and therefore the quality of our cultural, emotional, and day to day problem-solving thought remains encrusted in a previous age, without reference to the quantity of new raw material available at its command.

14.0Consequently, society’s capacity to assimilate new ideas, manipulate them for his own benefit, and progress – not as a knowledge worker, but as a human being, remains where it was before the “information technology revolution”.

Has this growth in knowledge meant a transformation in practice?

15.0A study by Paul Strassman showed that the speed of simple arithmetic has improved by 65% using a programmable calculator. Similarly the average time needed to deliver a budget proposal in the offices studied by Strassman was found to come down by 36% (from an average of 34 days to an average of 22 days). This improvement primarily was due to the efficiency improvements in drafting on a computer, typing, editing and distribution of the reports and drafts.

16.0However, there were no tangible improvements found in the study, in the effectiveness of knowledge work done. The quality of “presentation” had improved but the quality of thought applied were found by the experts to be the same, or perhaps worse (due to the new emphasis on speed and the complacency deriving from better “look and feel” of the reports).

17.0This “crisis of effectiveness” is shrouded by the fact that the cost of computing and access to data has been falling dramatically over these years.  It is now widely recognized that the real cost of doing is the cost of people and not the cost of computing infrastructure.

18.0Nowhere is this “crisis of effectiveness” more apparent as in mankind’s ability to do the “right things” instead of “more things”.  Information and its availability has only meant that we work and rework more data. (A KPMG survey found that an average Fortune 1000 company spends an average of $12,500 per annum per employee on reworking information already worked on by others. An IDC study estimates losses in Fortune 500 companies due to information rework to be more than $31.5 billion a year).

19.0The “crisis of effectiveness” is most felt by those who are the new “professionals of knowledge” – software engineers, content creators, database producers, credit analysts, sales people selling on the basis of superior access to knowledge and so on. These professionals are proficient in the use of new knowledge tools but often ineffective in their capacity to use these tools, most tellingly in the context of their own work.

20.0In short, proficient use of the tools of knowledge and unlimited access to knowledge itself does not automatically lead to an improvement in the effectiveness of work done by individuals or in the quality of their contribution to the worlds they live in.

Has this growth meant a fundamental shift in society’s evolutionary dynamic?

21.0The central challenge of the knowledge age appears, however, to go far beyond the lack of democratization of new methods of thought and the poor effectiveness of knowledge-based work, in spite of, or because of the efficiencies in knowledge access.

22.0This challenge may be described as follows: how to put into place the ‘link’ the ‘transformation function’, between learning and doing, and between doing and learning. i.e. our ability to assimilate knowledge such that we work better; and our ability to work such that we evolve and grow as human beings. We appear to have all the ingredients of a great meal but seem to have lost the recipe book for cooking and eating the meal.

23.0This dynamic between learning and doing is not something we want simply because there is knowledge and we could use it better.  It is something we need, because if men and institutions do not adapt in the present age, they face the prospect of severe economic and personal costs.

24.0The very forces – computing, communication, codification of knowledge, etc. which created the vast funds of raw material for human thinking and doing, have also created an environment which demands much more from human beings (complex variety in the availability of goods, new demands on the capabilities needed to act effectively, the complex environment in terms of changing boundaries of markets, customers, production lines, boundaries of firm etc.)

25.0In simple terms, we have the inputs for new thought and action; we also has the environment which demands such thought and action, but we don’t yet know how to think differently and act differently so that the cycle of change is completed.  He is in short, facing the enablement challenge.

The Challenge of Enablement

26.0The challenge of enablement through knowledge – how to use available knowledge in order to respond effectively to the challenges facing man, is not a trivial challenge.

  1. The forms of knowledge available to man are new and many. We have gone beyond the comfortable world of books and newspapers to numerous forms of online and offline communications including chat-rooms, discussion boards, “blogs” and other forms of websites.
  2. The challenges man faces have also multiplied over the past century – not just food, health, housing, transport – but also new challenges to communities from the environment, challenges to organization from globalization & competitive market places, etc.
  3. The complexity of scientific and technological thought has meant that the domains of practice where challenges such as these were to have been met effectively have also begun to undergo, one after another, crises of identity.  A single domain like physics or even mechanical engineering or biology cannot take the entire responsibility for the solution to problems whether in a narrow technical sphere or in a larger knowledge sphere.
  4. Most important, the individuals who ultimately have to engage with these challenges will need to have the sense of ownership for the collective, the sense of responsibility to their communities, and the “capacity to respond” not just at an intellectual level but also at the level of “living responses” to the challenges they face.

In short, the challenge of the knowledge age is not a problem of too much information or too many challenges, it is a human problem.  How can people be enabled such that they can respond successfully to the new age?


(Originally written in 2003)

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