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Why we should be more ignorant

LiveMint logoLiveMint 02-08-2017 Biju Dominic

What will be one of the most desirable behaviours every chief executive officer (CEO) will want to inculcate in their employees?

With the knowledge base of most industries changing at a fast pace, “lifelong learning”, as the recent Economist magazine cover story calls it, is one of the most desirable corporate behaviours today. Every CEO knows that developing organizational knowledge on a regular basis and integrating this knowledge into everyday practice goes a long way in building an efficient organization.

The traditional model of organizational learning begins with school and college education. Most organizations top-up academic education with a few training programmes. To provide additional motivation, many of these training programmes are conducted in exotic holiday destinations. The fact that this model is broken does not need any further evidence.

A few organizations have taken organizational learning a bit more seriously. They have replicated the infrastructure of traditional learning systems prevalent in our school and university system, replete with large classrooms, regular professors et al. Some of the more tech-savvy ones have started offering financial incentives to employees who complete online courses.

Inculcating life-long learning is a tough task, more so if the new information is contrary to one’s existing knowledge. The human brain loves status quo. It does not want any information which is dissonant with its existing knowledge. No wonder that Max Planck, the famous physicist, when asked, “How does science progress?” replied, “With every funeral.”

How can we create organizations such as that which Ikujiro Nonaka, the famous organizational theorist, described? Organizations where “inventing new knowledge is not a specialized activity. It is a way of behaving, indeed a way of being, in which everyone is a knowledge worker.”

Is there a new way of looking at inculcating a learning behaviour among the employees? Is it possible to develop a learning culture where the employees’ brain perceives it to be more rewarding and fun?

The answer to looking at learning in an innovative way comes from Stuart Firestein, professor of neuroscience at Columbia University. Firestein taught a course called cellular and molecular neuroscience to undergraduates. The course consisted of 25 lectures and the text book recommended for the course was Principles Of Neural Science, a 1,414-page book weighing 7.7 pounds, twice the weight of the human brain. Firestein slowly started to realize at the end of this course that many of his students had developed the impression that they know pretty much everything about the human brain. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Traditional educational systems that focus on accumulation of facts do not go very far. Because with the advent of the internet, the pace of knowledge accumulation has accelerated massively. It is impossible for any human being to keep pace with all the facts that are being generated in any one field. Firestein provides an alternative route to learning in his book Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Great scientific discoveries are not the result of knowledge pursuits in a specific direction. They are the result of searching for a “black cat in a dark room, which might not be there”. Ignorance could be the most powerful stimulus for lifelong learning.

Intelligent ignorance begets many questions; questions are more relevant than answers. A good question can inspire a decade-long search for solutions. Good questions give rise to the state of curiosity, one of the most exciting states for the human brain. Curiosity, more so epistemic curiosity, creates a strong drive, a yearning for new knowledge.

Intelligent questions help create a feeling of inadequacy about one’s knowledge levels but without making one feel inferior or guilty about it. This sense of inadequacy that challenging questions create could instead fire more passion in people to search for more knowledge.

David Hilbert, one of the most influential mathematicians of all time, in a talk in 1900 put forward 23 crucial problems for mathematicians to solve in the century. The attempts to solve these problems became the focus of mathematical research throughout the 20th century. A century later, only 10 of those 23 problems have been solved to the satisfaction of the experts. What organizations need are leaders like Hilbert who can raise such intelligent questions that create an intellectual itch throughout the organization.

Organizations can create a learning culture not by bombarding the employees with reams of information but by creating a culture of ignorance within the organization and taking advantage of the power of curiosity, which in turn drives the search for new knowledge.

There are many non-conscious design interventions that one could incorporate within an organization to hasten the pace of learning. Incorporating the learning process into the contours of a ritual will help make it more effective. Raising questions, discussing the questions, and discussing and debating possible answers should be made into regular rituals much like the weekly gatherings of organized religions. Unlike school and college classrooms where segregation is done based on one’s age, the new ignorance sessions should consist of employees belonging to all levels of the organization.

So the answer to creating lifelong learning within an organization is two questions. How well has the level of ignorance gone up within the organization? How many intelligent questions are being raised within the organization?

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

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