Written by
Paul Kirkham

Published
06 Oct 2016

Identifying real answers

06 Oct 2016 • by Paul Kirkham

Much of what we do in business revolves around a search for answers – preferably ones made available as swiftly as possible. You know the classic quote: “Don’t bring me problems – bring me solutions!”

Often the desire for quick fixes can seem relentless. KPIs and other metrics frequently compound the pressure. Yet it’s usually wise to avoid the lure of rapid conclusions and tick-the-box-and-move on responses, because the truth is that they tend to be the result of appropriated knowledge rather than applied intelligence.

To understand why this is so we first need to grasp the nature of progress. This will help show us why, even though we’ve never had so much wisdom to plunder, it’s dangerous to believe the answers to all our problems will simply tumble into our laps – or, indeed, out of our laptops.

Isolation and innovation

There was a time when it was believed all knowledge came from the “ancients”. It wasn’t until the Age of Exploration that there finally emerged a realisation that knowledge could be found elsewhere or even created – and therefore that progress could be continuous.

Francis Bacon, the Western philosopher credited with establishing the inductive method of scientific inquiry, was among the first to recognise this shift, which marked the beginning of modern times. In Bacon’s opinion the greatest inventions were the magnetic compass, printing and gunpowder.

Interestingly, each of these came from the East. To this day scholars are still debating why it was the West that ultimately took all three, developed and refined them and used them to dominate the rest of the world.

What the West was unaware of then and still barely appreciates now is that a legendary Chinese mariner, Zheng He, led seven massive expeditions to Arabia and East Africa a century before his more renowned European counterparts helped define the era. A possible explanation for the end of his voyages is that he couldn’t find anything of sufficient value to justify the effort.

Perhaps the first Western innovation that really piqued China’s interest was the telescope, which was introduced by Jesuit missionaries in the early 17th century. The military and astronomical applications were obvious, so why hadn’t China – which had a keen interest in both – come up with the idea first?

One theory is that the technology that provided the high-quality optical glass from which lenses were made simply wasn’t present. A major force behind the glass industry in Europe was the market for high-status drinking vessels, which in China was catered for by the porcelain industry. There was nothing to be seen through the bottom of a tea bowl.

Along similar lines, it’s highly likely the West failed to invent gunpowder because of a lack of bamboo. Pao chuk – or “bursting bamboo” – was the earliest form of firecracker and appears to have been the progenitor of all pyrotechnics.

What these tales show is that some inventions are highly contingent. There’s a strong element of chance as to where, when and even if they occur. If China’s precocity in explosives was in part a geographical accident then it was another accident that its precocity in porcelain precluded developing optical glass.

Dont let connectedness breed complacency

Nowadays it’s all too tempting to dismiss such considerations as irrelevant. Past “ages” have always varied from continent to continent and even from country to country, but the Information Age has at its heart a technology – the internet – that enjoys almost universal coverage.

Consequently, we all share what we might call the same epistemic base. In other words, we all have access to the vast array of existing knowledge from which new knowledge can be built. The ability to sift through eons’ worth of secrets and treasures is unprecedented. The publication of new material and discoveries is ceaseless and geographically all-enveloping. With the so-called “death of distance” all but complete, traditional constraints on cooperation and collaboration have been shattered.

Yet that doesn’t mean we no longer have to think, for the Information Age suffers from two significant drawbacks. The first is its sheer scale; the second, which is directly related to the first, is how to find the decent stuff amid such a mind-boggling superabundance of information.

The worldwide web may well represent the collective mind of humanity, but it’s the mind of an idiot savant. It might be ordered, but it isn’t necessarily understood. If we make no attempt to curate it, if we can’t be bothered to process it, all that information is fundamentally useless.

History shows that the most radical innovations, the most effective answers, aren’t to be found easily. They involve combining elements of widely disparate technologies and contexts. To employ a library metaphor, these aren’t to be discovered on the same shelf or even in the same room. To use a search-engine metaphor, they might not be at the top of the first page: they could be two, three, four or more clicks away.

That’s why it’s vital to think broadly and loosely and why it pays to be open-minded without being vacuous. Having a wealth of information is a long way removed from actually knowing what it all means, and we would do well to remember as much amid the ever-accelerating rush to turn data into decisions.