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As Simple as Possible, but Not Simpler

Perhaps, as commonly thought, it was Einstein who said, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." If so, he was probably directing his caution to physicists. But physicists are not alone in their desire to simplify. Writers on management, for example, seem motivated to find a handful of principles, rules, or forces that unite a variety of apparently different situations. Physics has repeatedly demonstrated the benefits of a sustained search for simplicity, and management, too, will undoubtedly gain from the development of better theories. But if Einstein were advising thinkers about business today, I suspect he would warn them as well against simplifying matters too quickly and too much.

Consider, for example, the use of information technology to enhance knowledge sharing in organizations. The dissemination of knowledge and the transfer of preferred ways of working have always been important in companies, but the pace of work today has placed a premium on knowing what we know—and knowing it right away. So, many companies are deploying IT as a bridge over which knowledge can flow quickly from one organizational setting to another. With the rapid advance of computing, it is easy to imagine electronic environments in which workers have at their fingertips boundless sources of accumulated knowledge to help them work more efficiently and effectively.

Early attempts to realize this vision, however, often floundered on an oversimplified idea of how technology affects work: that people will adopt new tools and use them as their designers envisioned. In this optimistic view, for example, collaborative software should engender collaboration. But painful and expensive failures have revealed the unwarranted simplicity of this conception. The interplay of technology and people is more complicated than had been hoped. Technology, despite its power and flexibility, cannot alone create knowledge-sharing communities. Businesses have learned they must also attend to a variety of social factors that bear on the ways in which people share knowledge.

Yet the desire to make matters simple remains strong. Writers on knowledge management now put organizational culture in the spotlight and cast IT in a supporting role—as an important and necessary tool—to which they devote only modest attention. Davenport, for example, says IT is "only the pipeline and storage system for knowledge exchange. It does not create knowledge and cannot guarantee or even promote knowledge generation or knowledge sharing in a corporate culture that doesn't favor those activities" [2]. Despite the validity of this observation, metaphors, such as "bridge" or "pipeline," may mislead us. If we think of technology as "just a tool," we may make matters too simple. By shaping what we know and how we know it, IT is changing us. And an important aspect of the true meaning of the technology lies in this change.

How do you know something? Who told you so? Radio, television, movies—and now the Internet—flood our homes and workplaces with a liberating, confusing, even stupefying tide of information, ideas, opinions, and beliefs. Once a prudent person would have sought advice and guidance from doctors, the government, scientists, trusted businesses (and even professors). But this information surge has pushed aside many of these former authorities and opinion leaders, allowing a host of upstarts to claim the mantle of authority in a new, electronic commons. Now for ready information and quick answers to questions, many find counsel and wisdom in the wide and eclectic collection of variously qualified experts on the Internet. Their reviews, summaries, critiques and ratings lift the weight of uncertainty. Their principles, rules, or habits promise to resolve complex problems. Our confidence in some—for example, a movie or restaurant reviewer—may come from experience. But with the press of life, we may take advice from other, less-certain sources—knowing or caring little about how they know what they are telling us.

IT has not only accelerated the pace of business; its spread outside work gives us little respite from "life in the fast lane." When we hear the whistle of an oncoming train, its pitch rises as the onrushing sound waves pile up on us. Now, at work and at home, we face another kind of Doppler effect as more waves of information surge toward us. But unlike the intensity and pitch of the whistle, which fall away as the train passes, the pitch and intensity of the information age seem only to increase—with important consequences for our ways of knowing.

One of the most apparent changes is our growing preference for multitasking—managing several different tasks at once. A performer in a vaudeville act used to balance plates on a row of slender poles. Once he set the plates spinning on the poles, his act was to run from one pole to another giving each a spin to keep that plate aloft. He was, however, close to his limit. While he was righting one plate, another, poles away, was tottering. Back and forth he went, just barely averting disaster.

The proliferation of IT makes our situation more like a vaudeville act in which new poles and plates are being added even as we speed up. To avoid disaster, we give each one of our tasks just enough "spin" to keep it going. Back and forth we go—from email to hyperlink to telephone to instant messaging—cobbling together ideas, suggestions, observations, and advice to keep our work and home life balanced while in motion. Learning at home and in the workplace has become another activity that happens "just in time."

There is enthusiasm in business for just-in-time learning. If we use IT to deliver relevant information and knowledge to the worker just at the moment of need, perhaps we will engender better and more applicable learning. People will learn what they need to know just when they need to know it. But what do they need to know? The more we engage in multitasking, the more we want things to be as simple as possible. So just-in-time learning may become "just-enough" learning, where learners settle for the least amount of knowledge that seems necessary for the task at hand. Living such a life, few of us need Einstein to tell us that too much simplification can exact a price.

In explaining (or excusing) their failures to foresee crises in their businesses, executives and directors of large corporations have emphasized the difficulty of "knowing everything." With the pace of corporate life today, even the best- intentioned must rely on knowledge that has been extracted, summarized, and reorganized. No business leader would claim "PowerPoint made me do it!" But the reduction—and occasional oversimplification—of a complex matter to a few bullet points on a PowerPoint slide epitomizes the way technology has changed how we know things. And the change seems irreversible.

Even before they join the corporate ranks, management students live their own version of the plate-spinning vaudeville act. Just-enough learning is common as they careen from one deadline to another—from class to project to exam. They often ask me for "take-away points" that distill a 90-minute class into a one-minute overview, a one-page summary, or the bullet points of a single slide. Experienced managers, returning for an executive education, often want the same.

While this change in the representation of knowledge may prove entertaining and bring some substantive benefits, it will also require new ways of understanding.

McLuhan observed that a community responds to a new technology—the alphabet, the radio or television, for example—by absorbing new habits of perception that affect the ways they work and associate with one another [3]. Experience with these older technologies suggests adaptation to IT will be lengthy and far reaching. But as we can already see computing reshaping the way we learn, we can see it beginning to change the nature of what we learn as well. Visualization, for example, has dramatically recast knowledge in science, and is beginning to affect other disciplines where texts have traditionally been central. Such developments are not confined to academic settings. At work and at home, many of us experience the growing influence of technology on the nature of knowledge. I will sketch two examples of this influence: one affecting the way we know, and the other, our certainty about what we know. Both changes relate to life's demands that we know more—and know it more quickly.

Many companies want to put just-in-time learning to work for them by bringing a message to the customer at just the right time to influence a buying decision. But if the customer, flooded with information, opinions, and ideas, and pressed for time, engages in just-enough learning, how can the company's message gain attention at the proper time? Indeed, some management writers have argued that "getting attention" is one of the greatest challenges businesses face today, not only among customers, but within the corporation as well [1]. How can we craft a message about our product or service that is brief and compelling, that will stand out in the rush of the customer's life? Such messages are the Internet equivalent of the "elevator pitch" in which an entrepreneur tries to sell an investor a business plan during a ride of a few floors. Not surprisingly, one Internet site offers a book on creating such brief, compelling messages, promising the beleaguered prospective buyer that the book can be read and its prescription put into practice in just one day.

One way, of course, that businesses and others can seek attention on the Internet is to exploit new multimedia technologies, making Web sites and messages more eye catching and appealing. Television, which owes much of the appeal of its ads to the computer, has developed ideas and techniques to get and retain attention in the face of many channels and the remote control. Companies will be the first to adapt these innovations for Internet marketing and advertising, but other organizations, institutions, and even individuals will quickly follow, enriching and heightening the cacophony of the Internet. If experience with television is a guide, knowledge could easily be sacrificed in the quest for attention.

With the continued advance of multimedia technology, it is likely that not just ads, but increasing amounts of knowledge will be encompassed in animations, visualizations, and simulations. Companies, for example, will increasingly use these technologies to connect with their own hard-pressed workers. While this change in the representation of knowledge may prove entertaining and bring some substantive benefits, it will also require new ways of understanding. Many of us have been taught how to study and evaluate texts, but few of us have comparable training in the analysis of images, such as photographs, visual displays of information, and movies. As computing changes the representation of what we know, we will need new approaches to knowing and perhaps some new ideas about what constitutes knowledge.

Our increasing dependence on an expanded, multimedia Internet may change our ideas of knowledge in other ways. Not long ago, the media presented audiences with a limited range of subjects, shaded with a modest variety of perspectives and opinions. In recent years, the proliferation of magazines, radio stations, and television channels dramatically increased the diversity of material and viewpoints to which we have access. The Internet, which is becoming a medium of media, represents the culmination of this expansion and liberation. Everyone is potentially a publisher or channel, and every publication or channel is only a mouse click away.

For some, the Internet is an electronic global village, teeming with ideas and opinions that encourage reconsideration and moderation of long-held views. The diverse voices of the Internet may even lead some people to examine their beliefs about truth. For other people, however, the Internet is a very different space. By subscribing only to congenial sources and browsing only selected Web sites, they create their electronic analogue of a walled and gated community, in which only true believers can live. For them, the technology seldom adds to their knowledge; it only increases their confidence in what they already know. Most Internet users are probably a mix of these two types: sometimes browsing widely to gather knowledge, even when it might make matters more complex or less certain, and at other times, particularly when the pressures of life increase, probing myopically for a quick, definitive answer that increases certainty or relieves anxiety.

These descriptions suggest the complicated ways in which people and technology interact. In every case, the use of the Internet has an effect on ideas of truth and certitude. But personal differences, desires, and circumstances impel the use of the tool to different ends.

The proliferation of IT will continue the spread of just-enough learning in the workplace and in the home. And it is likely that companies will respond to this new way of learning with more of the very technologies that created it. So in the future, we will be increasingly engaged with the paraphernalia of the information age—agents, multimedia, visualizations, simulations, collaborative environments, and the like. These innovations will further change the ways we work and socialize. But as IT sets knowledge free from its traditional moorings, it will change us as well. In this last change lies an important caution for those who want to use computing to facilitate knowledge sharing. When thinking about people and technology, make matters as simple as possible—but not simpler.

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1. Davenport, T.H. and Beck, J.C. The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business. Harvard Business School Press, Cambridge, MA, 2001.

2. Davenport, T.H. and Prusak, L. Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know. Harvard Business School Press, Cambridge, MA, 2001.

3. McLuhan, M. The Gutenburg Galaxy. University of Toronto Press, 1998.

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G. Anthony Gorry ( is the Friedkin Professor of Management, a professor of computer science, and the director of the Center for Technology in Teaching and Learning at Rice University in Houston, TX.

©2005 ACM  0001-0782/05/0900  $5.00

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2005 ACM, Inc.


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