Monday, August 30, 2010

Power of Pull and liberal education

I read through most of The Power of Pull (Economist review) earlier this summer and have been thinking through the implications of the book's ideas for higher ed and libraries. The book contrasts the old way of doing business or getting where an agenda is "pushed" down from above to "pull", which the authors define as “the ability to draw out people and resources as needed to address opportunities and challenges.”

The idea is that in today's network world, innovation can happen much more quickly when people at the cutting edge of a field collaborate with others that share their same passions.

In one sense, this book is advocating that business innovation happen more like innovation in the academy: sharing knowledge is the way. On the other hand, they are very critical of education that is programmed or 'pushed' from above.

The book also emphasizes the importance of geography and the serendipitous encounters that can happen with those in close proximity. Even in this networked world, they argue that living among those with similar passions is highly beneficial. Perhaps the intellectual connections and community of the liberal arts campus can model this phenomenon. The authors argue that networked technology can enrich our connections to people in a certain place: one might maintain meaningful connections in a handful of cities and better coordinate in-person meet-ups with mobile tech.

They argue that "knowledge flows" have overtaken "knowledge stocks" in importance. Big repositories of knowledge don't give a business (or perhaps a university) a major advantage anymore. It's having access to the knowledge flowing at the cutting edge that really enables innovation. They emphasize the importance of transferring tacit knowledge between individuals at the edge of a field. Another argument for the opportunities that the liberal arts provide for close encounters with experts in a field. At a presentation the other day at the Lewis & Clark Fall Retreat on faculty/student research, a biologist said that once a student begins working at the cutting edge of knowledge, a switch is flipped and their passion for learning changes in a dramatic way.

Towards the end of the book, they talk a lot about "shaping strategies" and "shaping platforms": Shaping strategies being a way of moving an entire industry or community to a new model, and the platform being some system put in place to do so. In the library context, this made me think that a big platform like WorldCat could have a bolder shaping aspiration behind it. Project Bamboo seems like an attempt at a shaping platform.

I was excited to see that one of the book's authors, John Seely Brown, is a NITLE fellow. Thanks to Lorcan Dempsey for pointing this book out at an Orbis Cascade presentation in July (see also his blog post on the book).