Bill Taylor’s post on the Harvard Business Review’s Blog Network really got me thinking this week. The question he poses is whether you are learning as fast as the world changes, and Taylor leaves readers with three takeaways, centered around the idea of diversity in learning:
- The best leaders (and learners) have the widest field of vision. Avoid stale sources of information, and take a cue from Steve Jobs: diverse interests inspire innovation.
- The best source of new ideas in your field can be old ideas from unrelated fields. R&D could be interpreted as “rip-off and duplicate” as easily as the more traditional research and development.
- Successful learners work hard not to be loners. Being a great leader takes enough ambition to address tough problems, and enough humility to be willing to learn from everyone you encounter.
How is it possible with the explosion of the internet that we could be getting less diverse views and information?
Statements on the impact of the internet have become trite and cliche from overuse, but it’s practically impossible to overstate the impact that the internet has had on learning. Nielsen finds that in June 2010, the average American spent over 55 hours on the internet – a 3.2% increase from the month before. With 2 billion videos watched everyday on YouTube, 152 million blogs out there, and 294 billion e-mail messages sent every day, that increase shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
What is surprising is the way people tend to isolate themselves on the internet. We’re all guilty of it to a certain degree – we read blog posts by people with whom we share interests and views, gets news from sources whose bias suits ours, and read our friends’ posts on Google Plus while skimming those whose authors we are unfamiliar with.
Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar and currently the Administrator of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote Republic.com and its follow-up, Republic.com 2.0 to address this very issue. Sunstein argues that the internet may indeed weaken democracy, counter to the general perspective on freedom of information, because it allows citizens to isolate themselves within groups that share their own views and experiences, and thus cut themselves off from any information that might challenge their beliefs.
This phenomenon is known as cyberbalkanization, a term coined in a 1996 paper in Science magazine by Marshall Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson. Van Alstyne and Brynjolfsson’s concern was that the ability to form global collaborations on the basis of scientific specialty could potentially diminish valuable local interdisciplinary contact.
This cyberbalkanization applies to everyday learning just as much as political viewpoints and the culture of science. As Taylor points out so eloquently, there is much to be learned from other industries and the people around us. From his post:
These days, the most powerful insights often come from the most unexpected places – the hidden genius locked inside your company, the collective genius of customers, suppliers, and other smart people who would be eager to teach you what they know if you simply asked for their insights.
Van Alstyne and Brynjolfsson came to the conclusion that cyberbalkanization is not inevitable, and depends on how we choose to use information technology. We may use the internet to select diverse contacts as easily as specialized contacts. The difference between integration and fragmentation hinges on one’s preferences, and with explicit consideration of what we value as we shape our learning networks we can create diverse, global networks with a fine sense of community.
Try some new steps to diversify your sources of information and places of learning.
- Add a new twitter feed and pay attention to it. (May I humbly suggest @Microassist or @learningcouncil?)
- For a week, get your news from a foreign media outlet. Ask someone for insight who you wouldn’t have considered before.
- Reach out to one of the other 1.97 billion internet users worldwide and see what you can learn from them that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
Or, as Bill Taylor put it, “to learn faster, look and live more broadly.”