The modern work environment seems to favour the specialist over the generalist. The collective knowledge of society today is so vast that it naturally lends itself to people developing very deep, but often very narrow knowledge. We are experts in our fields, but our fields are often so demanding that little peripheral knowledge seeps through.
Does this matter? Yes and no. Lets start with no first. Of course having deep knowledge is valuable. It allows us to do the jobs asked of us very well. It allows us to improve upon the things we do within this field, as our knowledge of it is hard earned and therefore valuable.
The problem comes however with our lack of peripheral knowledge. As sci-fi author William Gibson famously said, the future already exists, it’s just unevenly distributed. In other words, there are many applicable innovations for our own work lying outside of our field of vision. Reebok for instance used technology from intravenous bags in their latest shoes. IDEO used shampoo design ideas in their latest water bottle.
The problem is that for many of us, we’re simply too busy and too focused on the job at hand to notice what seems to be irrelevant information.
How to plug into peripheral thinking
So if most employees are too busy to think outside of their boxes, how can you draw upon peripheral knowledge? Social tools can help.
Firstly they can make it easier to collect and curate ideas from disparate fields. This will allow you to bring in technologies and practices from peripheral domains into core domains, with employees acting as curators to modify (or not) the artifacts being collated.
An important part of this curation process is the input we can all bring from the various different perspectives we can offer a situation. Whilst much of our professional lives are narrowly defined, most of us have wide experiences, either from past jobs or from our personal lives that can bring fresh perspective to any situation. If you extend your knowledge community to include customers and other stakeholders then things really begin to motor.
Social tools play a crucial role in this process, because individually our ability to think peripherally is limited, but when we combine our efforts collectively then it paints a much broader picture. By allowing each individual to add a little bit of peripheral thinking, it also ensures that they aren’t unduly distracted from their core domain of expertise.
It represents a shift away from mining a lot of knowledge from realtively few people, to plucking a little knowledge from a lot of people. When it comes to innovating however, the prospects of insightful thinking are significant.
How big is your corporate brains trust?