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Managing knowledge and innovation

  • Published at 06:42 pm April 13th, 2014

The central aim of this article is to explain the emerging complications concerning modern day innovations and innovators. While in our everyday life we have developed a tendency to take ‘innovation’ as an everyday event, it is worth noting that as a specie we lived for thousands of years with very basic technological progress.

In a paper published in the journal of Nature in March 2011, scientists argue that habitual use of fire wasn’t part of the human (meaning early modern and Neanderthal both) suite of behaviors until ca. 300,000 to 400,000 years ago. And between then and 8000 BC, the only notable innovations were bow, domestication of animals and agriculture. Yet, in the 20th century alone, the US National Academy of Engineering, identified the following as the most important technological developments:

Electrification Automobile Airplane Water supply and Distribution Electronics Radio and Television Mechanized agriculture Computers Telephone Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Highways Spacecraft Internet Imaging Household appliances Health Technologies Petroleum and Petrochemical Technologies Laser and Fiber Optics Nuclear technologies

The question that then becomes important for us to scrutinize is: what has aided this quantum shift in our capacity to generate new knowledge that has fueled technological progress over the last century? 

To offer some insight on this issue, it is worth noting that human race is distinct from all other species in its capacity to generate, store, and diffuse knowledge. While all species depend on their evolutionary physical capabilities to generate, store and transfer knowledge, human beings over the last 2000 years have developed a complex organizational framework to manage knowledge.

This in the early days were raw painting in caves, but since the advent of Plato’s Academy – human beings at present store and transfer information through libraries, schools, universities, internet, and research labs – to ensure knowledge that has accumulated to date  receives re-examination by each successive generation and new ideas fill in the ever deepening pool of information generated by our intellect. Moreover, this development of a complex organizational framework to store, transfer and generate new knowledge is itself a hall mark innovation over the last two millennium.

Of course, this quantum shift in innovation means that each generation of innovators has to overcome and accumulate a larger stock of information than their predecessors since no innovator takes birth on the frontier of knowledge. Rather, they must initially undertake significant rigorous education to ensure they know enough to contribute. Yet with the frontier of knowledge expanding with time, this task becomes increasingly difficult. To better grasp the insight, it is worth re-emphasizing what Isaac Newton wrote famously to Robert Hooke,“… if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

This in essence implies that each generation of researchers is in debt to the earlier groups of innovators whose work provides the launch pad on which new knowledge is created.

However, there is also an indirect implication of Newton’s observation that is recently acknowledged by Benjamin F Jones – a Professor at Northwestern University in USA, which is: if one is to stand on the shoulders of giants, one must first climb up their backs, and the larger the body of knowledge, the tougher this climb becomes.

To elaborate this issue further, it is crucial that we understand the conditions associated with human capital accumulation, which is distinctly different from generating and transferring physical capital.

While one generation may rather painlessly bequeath its physical assets to the next with the help of sound property rights, the issues associated with the transfer of human capital are different. More specifically, human species at any given point in time can only absorb information at a limited rate.

They also have a finite capacity to process them to generate new ideas, and also have a scarce time on earth. Hence their educational burden increases with each successive generation of innovators.

The resultant outcome is that individuals who chose to become an innovator must increasingly specialize with narrower expertise. Furthermore, descriptive evidence from recent examination of innovations across countries show that there is an increasing tendency among scientists and social scientists to undertake collaborative research.

This ‘burden of knowledge’ which has influenced researchers to choose narrower expertise also means that they are likely to achieve their first innovation at later stage in life in comparison to innovators from earlier generations.

For example, recent evidence suggests that the average age of great inventors and Nobel Prize winners at which they produce their great innovation increased by 6 years over the 20th century.

Additionally, National Research Council in 1990 pointed out that the age at which individuals complete their doctorates rose generally across all major fields from 1967-1986, with the increase explained by longer periods in the doctoral program.

Thus, this brings us to the central complications associated with innovations and innovators in modern times.

That is, even if the cognitive capacity of human species increase over time, the rate at which knowledge is generated presently implies the ‘burden of knowledge’ will make it difficult for each successive generation to accumulate and process the existing available information.

Moreover, while the contemporary scientists have chosen to develop narrower expertise as a strategy to bypass the large volume of information that has piled up in each discipline, this strategy will surely reach its limit in time.

Consequently, it is decisive that we re-examine the manner in which knowledge and innovation is managed in the light of these emerging complications. As the identification of a complex organizational framework – in the form of libraries, schools, universities, internet, and research labs – has aided human civilization to achieve unprecedented technological progress over the last two centuries, the next generation of reforms in the science of managing knowledge and innovation needs serious attention so that we can offer tangible assistance to our future generation in processing the ever increasing volume of information.

Of course two broad objectives must motivate this reform: first, we need to engineer a better knowledge transfer mechanism that facilitates the flow of knowledge and information to successive cohorts of innovators.

This can mean that the urgency to identify new methods of teaching is acute. Second, greater synchronization is needed between cognitive ability and professional choice, so that innovative activities attract the best amongst us.

To conclude, our planet hosts a diverse set of species with a wide range of physical capabilities. Yet, mankind’s edge has been so far in its ability to offer a better understanding of nature and device inventions that allow us to have greater authority over it.

However, with changing times and ever deepening information pool, the ‘burden of knowledge’ demands we re-think the science of managing knowledge and innovation so that our cognitive capacity is not further strained while we endeavor to learn and innovate. 

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