Creating universal cognitive access – The last 12 inches problem

It is a widely known fact that more information does not lead to better understanding and more ‘informed’ action. We now face the new challenge of making sense of all the knowledge available to us at the press of a button.


The central challenge facing most knowledge-based institutional systems – education, health, knowledge-driven industries, communications, etc., is the paradigm shift in man’s relationship to knowledge and its use.

For nearly 500 years now, there has been an increasing distribution of knowledge: first in the form of information embodied in newspapers, books, magazines; second, films & television, and finally, internet & mobile-based communications. This 500 year march has been marked by an increasingly intense drive to reduce communication costs, increase reach and lower the cost to user of entertainment and information.

In the past 20 years, with the rapid growth of the internet, the quantum and range of information available to users has gone up dramatically – leading to a new situation unseen in man’s relationship with information before – too much ‘access’ to knowledge.

It is at this juncture, that man faces a new challenge, which he has not encountered meaningfully in his history. The challenge of making sense of it all: the challenge of meaningful utilization of knowledge for productive use – the challenge of assimilating information not at a societal level alone, but also at an individual level.


This challenge – the challenge of assimilation – can be called ‘the last 12 inches problem’: the distance between the personal computer screen and the user’s head.

This is the ‘cognitive distance’ between information and understanding which needs to be crossed after crossing the ‘geographical distance’ between creator of knowledge and user of knowledge.


This is a new problem.

Man has never faced the problem of use – whether food, clothing, shelter or even primary education. Availability has implied use of these resources.

For example, if food is made available, then it follows that people have the ‘capacity to consume’ it. If clothing is made available, it is taken for granted that people will be able to ‘use’ them.

In fact, these are all physical access goods, wherein, the problem of ‘capacity to use’ is never brought up as an issue in distribution.

At a superficial level, information is perceived as no different from these physical access goods. If there is more information distributed more widely, then it apparently follows that it will be used effectively by receivers of that information.

But study after study, notable among them being the work of Paul Strassman (a leading analyst of the cost-effectiveness of IT Systems) and Richard Saul Wurman (who coined the term Information Anxiety and defined it as the black hole between data and knowledge) have shown this is not necessarily true. More information does not lead to better understanding and more ‘informed’ action.

For example, in the context of communicating information to customers Strassman emphasizes that, “The guiding principle of the approach to designing information work should not be inward-looking but customer-oriented”.*

Wurman asserts that information anxiety is produced by the “over-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand. It happens when information does not tell us what we want or need to know”.**


Physical access to information, like access to roads, is a necessary ‘physical’ infrastructure that must be laid as a foundation for man’s progress.

But the real challenge before mankind will be in creating universal access to understanding – ‘cognitive access’ – i.e., enabling the common man to fruitfully and meaningfully use information in a manner that will result in tangible improvements in the way he works and the way he lives.

Creating cognitive access is not an easy terrain to cross.

Assimilating information depends upon the users’ ability to understand, the context for the information, and the link between the new information and the existing knowledge base already in the head.

Creating cognitive access is clearly an ‘individual-centric’, ‘difficult to measure’, ‘complex’ concept. It is related to creating the optimal conditions for users to understand and assimilate knowledge easily.

Correspondingly, creating ‘universal’ cognitive access, i.e. creating optimal conditions for the easy and effective use of available knowledge by all those who receive it is the key challenge intrinsic to the goal of creating universal access to knowledge.


If we are to be content with allowing each individual to gain cognitive access based only on his or her individual capability, then we are opening the doorway to a problem that has already ravaged this country once, and has the capacity to destroy it again: the ‘understanding divide’ – which creates a ‘knowledge-rich’ ruling class that controls access to the very source of all progress!

Only this time it will not be physical access to information, but access to the benefits of that information.

As more and more information is made available as a result of fiber-optic highways and the widespread availability of communication infrastructure, we will see the contours of the ‘understanding divide’ become clearer.

Those who understand will benefit immensely from the investments we are making in information and its availability. Those who don’t will be left further behind than they were before!


(Originally written in 2004)


* Paul A. Straussman [1985], “The Transformation of work in the Electronic Age” [pg.27, 170, 184], Free Press.

** Richard Saul Wurman [1989], “Information Anxiety”, Doubleday [1st edition].

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)

Knowledge society – from ‘access’ to ‘assimilation’

How has society’s relationship with knowledge evolved and transformed over time? What is the nature of the new emerging relationship in the 21st century?


The term “knowledge society” is an amorphous idea, meaning many things.

  1. A society where information and ideas are available in quantities and ease of access never seen before in the history of mankind.
  2. A society where the ‘mode of production’ is based on knowledge i.e., mankind’s modes of production have evolved from agricultural to manufacturing/ industry and now to knowledge.
  3. A society where Man’s relationship with knowledge is undergoing a change – from viewing knowledge as a resource for learning about the world, to viewing knowledge as an instrument for engaging with the world differently and finally as an end in itself.

In this paper, we focus on the third dimension of the knowledge society – Man’s evolving or transforming relationship with knowledge – as the foundation for the knowledge society we will see emerging in the 21st Century.


 The knowledge society has, thus far, been characterized by six key trends.

  1. The growth in communication technologies such as internet, mobile, and satellite television. These technologies have enabled information to be transmitted cheaply and effectively to all parts of the planet.
  2. The growth in ‘enabling tools and models’ that allow individuals to exploit these possibilities in several ways. These take on the form of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, search mechanisms like Google – a space of continuous rapid innovation especially in the first decade of the 21st Century.
  3. The consequent explosion in knowledge co-creation in society, i.e., millions of users are creating content (comprising their own ideas, thoughts, and opinions), with instant distribution capacity – through their membership of social networking sites, blogs, and putting up their own content for the world to see. This knowledge co-creation is allowing the emergence of multiple new thought streams – lending legitimacy and a new global peer community, to political, social, and personal concerns of all kinds.
  4. The development of knowledge-based workplaces which has meant
    (i) availability and use of better information for improved decision making
    (ii) the need for almost everybody to become a knowledge worker of one kind or the other, (iii) the development of efficiency tools for management of enterprises, (iv) the development of knowledge enabled services such as customer support helplines both within and outside the organization.
  5. The transformation of value in traditional devices, by introducing automation, communication and ‘intelligence’ into these devices. This has resulted in enhanced responsiveness, connectivity and ‘value to user’ of these devices.
  6. The emergence of IT-enabled educational models such as (i) the availability of world-class content from top universities, (ii) the availability of content at low cost due to the use of digital formats, (iii) the possibility of new rich educational content, etc.

All these point to three fundamental shifts for society:

1. The knowledge-ization of work reveals itself at three levels:

2. The growth in ‘knowledge participation’ in society reveals itself as:

3. The evolution in educational models in society is revealing itself at three levels:

The Journey of the Knowledge Society thus far – 


What we have described thus far is the “access revolution” – access to information and knowledge that gradually transforms: how people work, take decisions, and interact with each other, and so on. These shifts are themselves breathtaking in their scope and impact.

But there is a second, deeper, and more profound aspect of the knowledge revolution that is slowly unfolding in the world. This aspect refers not to the availability and use of information and ideas, but instead refers to how people are assimilating these ideas and thereby transforming their vision of life, their notions of purpose, meaning, fulfillment, and contribution.

These two areas of evolution of the knowledge society will be better understood when we consider the following model, which Swami Ranganathananda proposed about 40 years back:

In the light of this model, we can classify knowledge into types – functional knowledge and being-level knowledge.

Knowledge when connected to the function dimension of the personality is perceived and interpreted in the context of an external or objective reality. It takes on the form of data, information, and analysis, and may be called functional knowledge.

Knowledge when connected with the being dimension of the personality takes on the form of individual vision, meaning, purpose, fulfillment. It can be called being-level knowledge.

These two types of knowledge – function-level knowledge and being-level knowledge have, in previous centuries, been distinct and unconnected. The West has been relentlessly focused on the access, comprehension, and use of functional knowledge, while the East has been largely focused on the inner transformation and development of being-level knowledge.

This is about to change.



As the knowledge society unfolds, we are beginning to see a new vision of knowledge – built around a harmonious integration between functional knowledge and being-level knowledge.

This harmonious integration is a product of assimilation of ideas. Indeed, Swami Vivekananda set the frame for this synthesis when he said that:

Education is not the amount of information that is put into your brain and runs riot there, undigested all your life. We must have life-building, man-making, character-making, assimilation of ideas. If you have assimilated five ideas and made them your life and character, you have more education than any man who has got by heart a whole library. If education is identical with information, the libraries are the greatest sages in the world, and encyclopedias are the Rishis.

It is this vision that has silently begun to unfold in society.

The first manifestation of this vision is a growing recognition that access to knowledge must be accompanied by three critical and concomitant changes:

(i)  A shift in the way individuals think and learn

(ii) An appreciation of the purposes and goals to which this knowledge is applied

(iii) A shift in the Man’s engagement with work

A shift in the way people think and learn

For long it has been assumed that the only way to deal with information and knowledge is by collecting, collating, analyzing and deriving insights from knowledge. This has led to an empirical/ experimental view of knowledge deriving from the days of Francis Bacon and other Enlightenment Thinkers.

Organizations and individuals have now begun to recognize that unlimited access to knowledge does not necessarily help them think better, or find solutions to the challenges they face, or even more important, find meaning or purpose in whatever they do.

Thus, in the past few years, altogether new ways of thinking and working with knowledge have begun to emerge. These methods, currently classified as design thinking, solution thinking, etc., do not begin with functional knowledge (i.e., data & information), but instead with being-level knowledge – i.e., what purpose do I seek to accomplish in my life or what contribution I seek to make. The function-level knowledge that helps me organize, synthesize, and “construct” answers or approaches that serve my being-level requirements follow.

This shift in primacy from function-level knowledge to being-level knowledge is resulting in altogether new ways of dealing with available knowledge in the world.

A shift in “quality” of the purposes to which knowledge is applied

As individuals and organizations begin to take empirical and “function-level” knowledge for granted, and shift their focus to “being-level” knowledge, a second related shift has begun to take place.

Individuals and organizations have begun questioning the quality of purposes they seek. For example, Is the purpose of a corporation merely to maximize profits for shareholders or is it also to make a positive impact on the society and communities in which it operates? At an individual level, the question could be – What is the true purpose of my career – is it to achieve a high position in a corporation or is it to make a significant contribution to the world in and through my career?

This self-questioning and self-review of “quality of purpose” has led to ideas and movements such as conscious capitalism, higher ambition, shared value, good business, etc. all of which are leading to the development of citizen corporations or enlightened citizens who are concerned about expanding themselves beyond narrow self-interest to enlightened self-interest.

A shift in the way we do work

The search or seeking of a higher purpose for work has led also to a simultaneous need for a means to realize this desire.

Knowledge work is unique in this regard. Most forms of physical and industrial work, seek in society to create a division between the worker and the object of work. Knowledge work is unique in that it demands engagement from the knowledge worker. Put differently, a knowledge worker, in order to write a report or develop a solution to a problem must necessarily become engaged and involved in the work – and cannot (like auto factory workers) be largely disconnected or alienated from the work at hand. This “engagement” between the knowledge workers and knowledge work has a second deeper dimension – i.e. it is reflexive in nature. The quality and type of knowledge work impacts the thought process, emotions, and “state” of the knowledge worker and vice versa.

Furthermore the deeper the knowledge work, the more it develops the faculty of concentration (which Swami Vivekananda held as central to all forms of learning) and more it awakens the individual’s reflexive capacities.

Thus, knowledge work – well done – can deeply integrate learning & doing at the functional level and at the same time, can create the conditions for deeper orders of engagement both with oneself and the work at hand.

Redefining knowledge in society

These three aspects set the stage for a fourth, and perhaps more fundamental change that is in its embryonic stages in society – the shift in the meaning of knowledge itself in society.

A few decades ago, knowledge or knowing was associated with memory and knowledge of facts.

As facts and information have become commoditized in society, knowledge or knowing become more associated with the faculty of handling knowledge effectively (collecting, collating, organizing, analyzing, critical assessment, etc.)

But in recent years, it is being recognized that the functional capacity to handle knowledge does not in any way help us answer the being-level questions of purpose, meaning, fulfillment, etc. that are reshaping the way people think.

Thus, quality of the individual’s being seems to have a direct relationship to the quality of purpose of that individual, and his/ her willingness to leverage knowledge in the service of that purpose. In that, knowledge or knowing is slowly being recognized as related to “being and becoming” of an individual and not mastery of facts or even the knowledge processing faculty of the individuals.

All these ideas were, of course, well-known in the Eastern spiritual traditions , but are now entering the mainstream through the assimilation of knowledge and the development of the knowledge society.


These four trends together may be seen as the deeper “spiral of assimilation” that has begun to unfold in society – a spiral that will grow in strength and intensity, leading to a knowledge society that not only works with knowledge outside, but also with knowledge within.

This is the future direction in which knowledge society is likely to unfold.


(Originally written for the book ‘Swami Vivekananda’s Vision of Future Society’ under the title ‘Knowledge society – directions for the future’, published by the Institute of Culture, Kolkata, February 2014)

Exploring a new area of practice for knowledge practitioners

How do we build the bridges that help society as a whole, cross over from ‘abstract knowledge’ to ‘realized knowledge’?

How do we build the bridges that help society as a whole, cross over from ‘abstract knowledge’ to ‘realized knowledge’?


(An exploratory discussion with the team at Illumine, Mumbai in October 2009)