Knowledge vs. Information – Who’s winning?

April 20, 2016

Knowledge vs. InformationIf I were to single out one invention from the last 20 years that has truly transformed the world I would single out the “internet”. Not too long ago there was no such thing as the ‘World Wide Web’. Can you fathom how profoundly the internet has changed the world? How our social, economic and political life completely depend on it! Imagine living in a small town without the internet! What if your sphere of influence was restricted to just the people with whom you had some kind of physical proximity. Picture working on a project and your research was limited to your local library (assuming there is one). How did one learn in such an environment? Slowly and deliberately I’m sure. How accelerated this learning has become today. Or has it?

It seems very quickly we have crossed over from a state of information scarcity to a state of information overload. When this happens our brain disengages and avoids further processing. Today there is no topic in the world that one can think of and not find an abundance of information about it. In his latest book Smarter, Faster, Better Charles Duhigg references a study to gauge response to 401(k) enrollment based on the number of plans offered. With two plans offered 75% of the employees enrolled but when they had sixty plans to choose from participation dropped to 53%. Marketers would be familiar with a study on choices of jam flavors and the impact they had on purchase. When offered just 6 flavors vs. 24 flavors the sales were 10 times higher. The same can be said about learning today. In the competitive world that we live in today learning continuously is something no professional can do without. We all have curated innumerable RSS feeds, subscribed to many more content sources to stay in the know. Most of us make a conscious effort to regularly glance through them and absorb as much as we can. But how much of it is really getting processed. How is this overabundance of information blinding us from unearthing a real insight, from actionable knowledge that helps us with our day-to-day life? Not much I’m guessing unless you are creating some kind of “disfluency.”

How do you create disfluency?  The idea is to actively engage with information. To change it, to think about it, to make arduous notes about it! Case in point  – South Avondale Elementary School in Cincinnati – a school in a poor neighborhood with a history of violence, drugs and unemployment all around. But like an oasis in the desert one thing the school wasn’t short of was resources. The city of Cincinnati had invested millions of dollars in the school,  three times more than the affluent communities in the city. They had the best teachers, well-trained counselors, reading specialists and a staff all committed to change and making a difference! They even had the most elaborate student performance tracking system in place. A dashboard for each student available to the teachers detailing their attendance, test scores, homework and classroom participation so the teacher would exactly know how each of them was doing at any given point in time. Despite all of this nothing improved.

But then, just one thing was changed while keeping everything else constant and the transformation occurred. Students began to perform above average to a level that the school eventually became one of the best schools not just in Cincinnati but the state of Ohio! What was that one thing? Disfluency. How? They always had access to all the information they needed but this time the teachers actively engaged with it by creating a war room in which they took all the data and re-interpreted it by hand, created extensive notes on each student to truly understand what they needed and continued to build on this knowledge throughout the term to customize their teaching approach for each student. The same data that was always available through the dashboard was now internalized. From information, it became knowledge which gave them the insight to transform their students behavior and ultimately influence their performance to a remarkably new level!

What does this mean for us? If we are to really build on the all the information we receive daily we have to engage with it. We have to create disfluency. Instead of glancing through endless feeds, skimming through countless email newsletters, checking out every blog we possible can we need to engage deeply with whatever that is most important and relevant to us. It would be harder for sure, it would take much longer, but whatever we will learn would be more sticky and would eventually translate into knowledge that is actionable and would make a real difference, rather than just disappear into an endless abyss of information that the internet has now become!

Feature image has been sourced from the @gapingvoid

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