The Power of Synthesis and the Problem with Experts
How much do we need specialized experts for the information economy?
If history is any guide, probably not much. It makes little sense for capable people to spend an entire career doing the same job when they would probably be much more effective if they gained experience in more than one area.
The irony of many great discoveries is that they really weren’t discoveries at all, at least not in the sense that Columbus discovered America. In actuality, they came from people who took well established concepts and applied them to new domains.
Darwin and Natural Selection
Contrary to popular belief, the idea of evolution didn’t originate with Darwin, but was around for decades before he came along. His accomplishment was to come up with a workable scheme by which it likely occurred.
His eureka moment came not through studying biology, but by reading the paper of an economist, Thomas Malthus, which showed that populations grow faster than the resources to sustain them. It was then that Darwin realized that only those best adapted to their environment would survive and pass on their traits to offspring.
Darwin, it must be said, had unusual exposure to the enormous divesity of life on earth for a man living in his time (through his voyage on the Beagle). However, his big insight came not from immersing himself in his field, but when he crossed domains.
It was the connections that he uncovered more than the facts themselves that made his work so important.
Benoit Mandelbrot and Chaos
When Benoit Mandelbrot finished his doctorate, he took a job at IBM Laboratories where he found himself working on the problem of noise in communication lines.
To his great astonishment, the noise followed a similar mathematical rule that Vilfredo Pareto found with income distributions a half century before. Later, he by chance came across data from financial markets that once again followed the same pattern.
Barabasi then went further by borrowing from physics. He applied the same Bose-Einstein equation used to describe gases at very low temperatures to devise a new fitness model of networks which, as I explained in an earlier post, can help us understand Justin Bieber’s meteoric rise.
From static on a phone line to a 16 year-old pop star, the same principle applies. You just need to know it’s there and figure out how to use it to solve new problems.
Watson, Crick and the Discovery of DNA
In the early 1950’s, the most coveted scientific prize was the discovery of the structure of DNA. The greatest scientists of the day, including the already legendary Linus Pauling, raced to decipher one of nature’s best kept secrets.
What they did have was something no one else did; the information needed to get the job done. The two were possibly the only people on earth with the biological expertise, x-ray defraction data and chemical model building approach needed to discover DNA’s structure.
All of the other people working on the problem, many perhaps more talented than Watson and Crick, were working feverishly on one aspect of the problem. Watson and Crick, truth be told, spent most of their time talking about others’ research rather than doing their own.
As with many big problems, the answer to the fundamental genetic question was a matter of putting all the information together rather than uncovering new facts.
Larry Page, Sergei Brin and Google
When Larry Page and Sergei Brin were graduate students at Stanford, search was not a hot area. There were some search engines, such as AltaVista, but they were mostly considered a way to aggregate audience- certainly not a standalone business. E-Commerce was where the action was and where most of the investment went.
Page and Brin’s big idea came not from web sites or investment bankers, but from academia. A scientific paper’s importance is determined by how many other scientists cite it in their own work. The same concept could work for web sites, they thought, and built Google around the same idea.
Of course they were right and their fairly simple algorithm blossomed into one of the world’s most profitable businesses. Today, links, the web equivalent of academic cites, rule the web.
(And feel free to link here anytime you want).
The Problem with Specialized Experts
Unfortunately, as the world becomes more complex, the business world is increasingly specialized. It is in vogue to talk about breaking down silos between departments, but it will always be just talk as long as functions remain separate.
The real problem lies not between people, but within people. In marketing, we have people who specialize in planning, digital media, social media, TV buying, print buying, experiential marketing, etc. Very few people are prepared to intergrate because so few have done more than one thing.
As technology changes, the problem is becoming more acute. Those who have toiled for decades using traditional marketing channels are amazingly daft when it comes to new media, while digital specialists suffer from ignorance of decades of accumulated wisdom (and are often even more daft).
How long do the basic principles of each specialty really take to learn? Certainly not a whole career. Why is it that people are expected to continue in their function long after they’ve mastered it? Wouldn’t they be better off applying their skills to different domains?
The question is especially pertinent in light of growing evidence that people often get worse with experience, at least in some aspects. On the other hand, there are very good examples of people who used old skills to make contributions in new fields (i.e logician Kurt Gödel to physics, physicist Richard Feynman to biology and computers, etc.).
The Quiet Revolution
As John Steen recently pointed out in Tim Kastelle’s excellent innovation blog, there is growing evidence that innovation doesn’t correlate well with R&D investment. Moreover, while many in the business world continue to pursue specialized research, a serious change is underfoot. Best practices at many top institutions are increasingly interdisciplinary.
Some of the world’s most exciting research is happening now at the Sante Fe Institute, which was set up specifically for work across domains. These days, most software is developed using the Agile method, which emphasizes cross-functional teams. GE’s Crotonville training center incorporates group training.
Increasingly, the ability to synthesize concepts across disciplines is much more valuable than domain knowledge, which is becoming commodity. As information becomes more accessible, the trend is sure to continue.
The irony is that, in the information age, empirical data is being devalued. What really matters is the ability to put the pieces together.