Friday thought: do books matter?

Over the past month, I’ve listened to Baroness Susan Greenfield three times. First, reading an article in The Sunday Times. Second, in the audience at one of her talks. Third, hearing an interview on the radio. The same topic came up at all three events (not surprising, since she has a new book to promote) – the effect new technology is having on learning. Or, rather, the disastrous effect new technology is having on learning.

And I have to say, I disagree with her argument and pessimism. Now she is a professor, at Oxford no less. And I am a mere mortal without so much as Bachelors degree to my name. But her belief seems to be that books are absolutely essential to educational development and learning. If you don’t read books, you’ll never progress beyond the mentality of a young child. It’s a wonder how we ever invented books in the first place…

Central to the argument is that children are now flitting between multiple different information mediums, nibbling lots of content but never chewing it properly before swallowing. And those pesky computer games are distorting our perception of reality. (I’d argue that, if anything, it has the opposite effect – making reality so depressingly clear that people prefer to live in the virtual.)

I agree that lots of nibbling is no substitute for a good book, if you want to dive into the theory and history of a subject. Just as books and computer games are no substitute for real-world experience. But I’m not sure the future being painted is quite as apocalyptic as the baroness believes. Computer simulations introduce all sorts of possibilities and new ways of learning. Imagine if we were living in the time when writing was just invented. The theory then would have probably been along the lines: “Writing words down will destroy the art of story-telling. It will ruin our ability to bond and form emotional connections with one another, to learn first-hand from our elders, transforming our identity of who and what we are.”

Agree, disagree? Here’s a link to one of her interviews – iD: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century by Susan Greenfield (The Sunday Times, May 08)

A Vision of Students Today

The title is that of a YouTube video shown during a session at the Microsoft SharePoint conference last week. It caused some amusement in the audience (you’ll understand why if you watch it). Perhaps the best quote:

¨When I graduate I will probably get a job that doesn’t exist today¨

I don’t agree with all the sentiments within the video but it does a great job of demonstrating just how out of sync our education processes are with the changes going on in the world, both in business and society. The writing is, literally, on the wall.

Technorati tags: Education and Technology

Learning about versus Learning to be

Interesting article on CNET – A new crop of kids: Generation We – talking about how the latest generations are growing up adept and comfortable with technology from a very early age. Some snippets:

Gabriel, an intensely curious kid who’s about to turn 8, has been fascinated by everything from skateboarding and basketball to statistics about world extremes…. He likes to look up information about the subjects on Wikipedia with his mom and then turn to YouTube for short video clips… If he hears a likeable song in a YouTube video, he might visit Apple’s iTunes store to download the music, too.

“Driving home we’ll see a bird,” Kim said, “and then go to Wikipedia (at home) and look it up. Then once we’re online, he’ll say, ‘How about we go to YouTube?'”

Naturally, the world of business and media is fascinated with understanding how to market and sell to this new generation.

I’m interested in a different angle – how will their ability to learn be influenced and affected by these newer Internet technologies, and what will the effect be on their future?

It’s easy to assume that having the Internet is going to make our children a lot smarter a lot sooner… resources that were previously only accessible to the priviledged few are now available to all, instantly. But is that all we need?

In the book “The Social Life of Information” by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, the authors make a very interesting comment:

The web has made learning about easier than ever. But learning to be requires the ability engage in the practice in question

…and that could be the new challenge. There will be no shortage of people able to demonstrate how much they know about all sorts of subjects. But how many people will actually be able to practice what they ‘know’. At the moment, there are still no shortcuts to becoming skilled in practice – determination, patience and effort continue to be essential ingredients.

If we become used to having instant answers to questions, will it affect our stamina for the deeper level of learning required to move from knowing about something to actually being something?

An effect from moving away from agriculture and manual labour has been that, put simply, most people aren’t as fit as they would have been 200 years ago.

Will the effect of not requiring effort to learn about subjects send our brains in the same direction as our stomachs? I hope not.

Failure is not OK

Michael Johnson was one of the keynote sessions at the Microsoft SharePoint conference held last week. Mr Johnson made a speech that showed interesting parallels between what he did to become a successful runner and how organisations could become more successful.

1. Winning is personal

The speech opened with this comment and I think it is an element often forgotten within organisations. Every individual has their own goals, even when part of team (a team will struggle to succeed if it contains individuals who aren’t really bothered) and every individual chooses how successful they want to be (or not) within their own realm. When individuals are given ‘objectives’ from above, how involved do they feel in the organisation’s success? It’s an important element that will determine how successful the organisation becomes. I remember seeing wise words once (can’t remember where): “treat your employees like they are your number one customer”.

1. Focus on goals

Big ones supported by smaller goals that keep you moving in the right direction because you are unlikely to achieve your ultimate goal over night. Those goals need to be achievable and realistic. Once you achieve a goal, don’t sit back happy and rest on your laurels, you move on to the next goal. Michael went from wanting to be fastest in school to fastest in college to fastest in… right through to the ultimate goal – fastest in the world.

2. Committing to the plan

Everyone will tell you that you have to commit to your goals but, far more importantly, you have to commit to the plan – the work required to achieve that goal – and that is much harder to do. Every day you don’t give 100% to the plan is an opportunity lost that may prevent you from achieving your goals. And you can’t give up, you can’t take short cuts. Michael Johnson’s career lasted from 1990 to 2000 and it took him 9 years to break a world record.

3. Never stop learning

You have to be 100% honest in evaluating progress against the plan, you need to identify weaknesses so that you can fix them. You have to keep learning because there will always be new challenges that affect the plan. Learning enables you to adjust your strategy, to change the plan if required. Michael described how he was injured shortly before the Sydney Olympics in 2000, meaning he would miss his tune up races. So he had to adjust the strategy – he had to be able to win without the tune up races. And he did.

4. Failure is not OK

When asked about accepting failure, Michael’s response was: “I’m never happy about it. You’ve got to be able to cope with failure and not winning, but you never accept it is OK.” I loved this one. I’m not a fan of the ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ brigade who seem to think that competition is a bad idea in schools because it demoralises those who don’t win. Losing is an opportunity to learn (see point 3) but only once you have mastered the art of turning a loss to your advantage. Being able to cope with losing is good, accepting that losing is OK is not.

Closing thought:

It was a great talk and begs the question…

How successful is your organisation? What would happen if it came up against an organisation that consisted entirely of Michael Johnson clones. One hundred percent focused on being the best, totally committed to the plan, ruthlessly honest about weaknesses in order to fix them as quickly as possible, continually learning and adjusting the strategy to guarantee success. How long would it take that organisation to win your customers? (All of them – paying and/or salaried)

Be a loser

Last night I held an Olympic gold medal in my hands. Not mine, alas, it was one (Sydney, 2000) of five won by Sir Steven Redgrave. I was attending an event where he was the guest speaker and the medal was passed around the audience. It was a great speech and brought about the usual discussion and comparisons between business and sporting success.

There is one tip I wish would come up more often at these events: It’s good to lose.

Successful sports men and women are fiercely competitive – winning is the name of the game after all. But even if you are the champion of champions, the reality is that, over the course of your career, you will lose more often than you win. Like it or not (not, mostly) you have to become a good loser. A good loser sees every loss as a learning opportunity – it exposes a weakness that can be fixed or eliminated. Being a good loser does not mean that you have to like losing – quite the opposite is preferable – but it does remove the fear. If you fear losing (as most bad losers do) you will never take the risks needed to develop your strengths and get to the top of your game.

Whenever I see an organization, team or project that is risk-averse, it is usually because the people involved fear failure. I have seen examples where more money has been spent on risk analysis than was needed to just go ahead, install a piece of technology and see what happens. This is particularly true for knowledge and collaboration systems, and is why the most successful implementations tend to start small and spread organically. Planning a massive centralized knowledge system will be expensive and the value difficult to predict, making it high-risk in the eyes of the investors. Whilst the central team is still arguing over a standard taxonomy plan, business units can get simple collaborative tools up and running with minimal cost and effort.

Being risk-averse prevents success. It is taking risks, and sometimes losing, that generates a fresh brew of knowledge. And having a system (up and running, not on the whiteboard) to capture those insights will help turn them into successful actions.

I have only experienced one company that really behaves like a sports person and understands the benefits of losing – Microsoft. Love or hate the company, once a path has been chosen Microsoft is relentless at doing whatever it takes to be successful, and is not afraid to fail publicly en route.

Reading versus Doing

I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand
– old Chinese proverb

When explaining why it is so difficult to successfully record knowledge in a database (the primary goal of too many knowledge management systems), I use the example of tying shoelaces.

Imagine that an alien just walked through the door, never having seen shoelaces before. In order to avoid being zapped by the military, it is crucial that the alien put on a pair of shoes with laces (humour me here). Would you:

a) Show the alien how to tie shoelaces

b) Hand the alien the ‘How to tie shoelaces’ manual

How easy would it be to write a detailed, alien-proof, set of instructions on the art of tying shoelaces? Compared to just passing the knowledge on direct by showing the alien how to do it.

Successful knowledge support systems concentrate on getting people working together, sharing knowledge and expertise. The end result will be more knowledge acquired and shared by more people than could ever be recorded in a database. The following quote says it all:

“Knowledge in a database is like food in a freezer. Nothing ever came out in better shape than it went in.”
– Frances Cairncross, The Company of the Future

Trying to cover all potential caveats when attempting to record knowledge is incredible difficult. Invariably either the context gets lost or the knowledge becomes too simplified to be of any real value.

Now, who would have thought, it turns out there is a web site dedicated to the art of tying shoelaces, as mentioned on David Weinberger’s blog. 🙂

…so, next time you happen to need to teach a pair of newbies how to tie their shoelaces, point one to the web site and teach the other one yourself – see who masters the art first…