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Important skills in the digital age

January 22nd, 2010
By: adrian

You might have caught this a few days ago, in a blog post at the NYT:

“David Dalrymple, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,thinks human memory will no longer be the key repository of knowledge, and focus will supersede erudition. Quote:

Before the Internet, most professional occupations required a large body of knowledge, accumulated over years or even decades of experience. But now, anyone with good critical thinking skills and the ability to focus on the important information can retrieve it on demand from the Internet, rather than her own memory. On the other hand, those with wandering minds, who might once have been able to focus by isolating themselves with their work, now often cannot work without the Internet, which simultaneously furnishes a panoply of unrelated information — whether about their friends’ doings, celebrity news, limericks, or millions of other sources of distraction. The bottom line is that how well an employee can focus might now be more important than how knowledgeable he is. Knowledge was once an internal property of a person, and focus on the task at hand could be imposed externally, but with the Internet, knowledge can be supplied externally, but focus must be forced internally.”

Originally I bookmarked this because I thought it was pretty insightful, but then later as I was trying to explain it to my wife, I realised it sounded like absolute bollocks coming out of my mouth. I don’t disagree that focus is an important skill, but to raise the ability focus and filter above other skills such as the ability to make non-linear connections or put things together in new ways feels a bit short-sighted to me.

Filtering and focusing are things that machines will inevitably be better at than humans so aren’t the important skills in the digital age things that make us more human, not more like machines? What do you think?

  • http://www.ivanenunez.com Ivan E Nunez

    I could agree with the Mr. Dalrymple if I consider “focus” as the ability to synthesize seemingly unrelated information. So, to your point, an important skill in the digital age that is uniquely human is the ability to interpret and re-create. Actually, this skill (lets call it creativity) has always been important (albeit sometimes undervalued) in business. After all, it is not what you know that matters, but what you do with it.

  • Anonymous

    let’s not forget the ablity to spot the money and meaningmaking opportunity for our clients, especialy in this digital age ;).

    If that needs focus so be it, if it needs serendipity, so be it.

    there is no rule book (principles at best), only results, ha!

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  • http://www.ivanenunez.com Ivan E Nunez

    I could agree with the Mr. Dalrymple if I consider “focus” as the ability to synthesize seemingly unrelated information. So, to your point, an important skill in the digital age that is uniquely human is the ability to interpret and re-create. Actually, this skill (lets call it creativity) has always been important (albeit sometimes undervalued) in business. After all, it is not what you know that matters, but what you do with it.

    • http://zeusjones.millcitytheory.com/blog adrianho

      I agree too but he's clearly not talking about that, he's simply talking about the ability to remain free from distraction. I think there are probably a lot of human inventions or discoveries that resulted from our ability to be distracted so that makes his statement even more ludicrous. Also in his world, who will create the content if all we're learning is how to sift through it?

  • nikoherzeg

    let's not forget the ablity to spot the money and meaningmaking opportunity for our clients, especialy in this digital age ;).

    If that needs focus so be it, if it needs serendipity, so be it.

    there is no rule book (principles at best), only results, ha!

    • http://zeusjones.millcitytheory.com/blog adrianho

      How about the ability to take a single stance on a subject :D

      …or perhaps the ability to hold both sides of an argument in your head at the same.

      • nikoherzeg

        or the skill to recognize bigger talent than yours, to hire them and not get in the way, be the fall guy for all the trappings of success so that they don't suffer..

        [shout out to Steve Jobs]

        You can tell it is friday over here, so amma just leave and let the thread go back to serious :)

  • Mnels

    You’ve hit on something that I have thought a lot about, Adrian. I think this is a really important topic. I see this in my own kids and younger people at work. They display a certain boredom with what I would call “foundational learning”, or maybe it’s better just calling it doing your homework. With information now available on demand, the reasoning is that “knowledge” can also be aquired on demand as well. Why waste time?

    Does information = knowledge? When I have a problem to solve, I know I draw from an internal library of not just facts, but sometimes intense internal deliberations.

    Focus may be important for productivity, but I think we are shortchanging our own brains’ ability to add value (and creativity) to a what’s otherwise a bunch of noise.

  • Anonymous

    First I should note I am David’s mother, so I could be (cough) biased, but I think David has an interesting point, and that his point wasn’t that filtering and focus are the most important skills a person can have, but merely that they could play a larger role in how a person succeeds (at least in a career) than how much knowledge the person can store long-term. David wrote (in part):

    “anyone with good critical thinking skills and the ability to focus on the important information can retrieve it on demand from the Internet, rather than her own memory”

    I think he didn’t stress the critical thinking skills enough as many seem to be skimming right over that, but make no mistake, I know David rather well, and he values critical thinking skills.

    And nikoherzeg, David has long been looking for talented people and hoped to hire them someday or work with them in other ways. He has often noted to me that so and so is on his list as one of the people he hopes to someday work with in his own company. He did his first company organization chart at I think age 5, and I think it keeps getting harder to “make the chart” (for example, I was on that first one and probably am no longer on even the long list!).

    And I don’t believe David is saying there is no use for having knowledge stored in the brain anymore. His father and I did take him to trivia night at a local restaurant a few months ago when he was in town for a visit…I think he knows there are times when you aren’t allowed to use Google and knowing stuff off the top of the head comes in handy. Anyone who happens to be in a plane crash and end up stranded on an island with no Internet or cell phone coverage (no bars, restaurant variety or otherwise!) will also be aided by having a lot of basic survival skills in the gray matter.

  • Mnels

    You've hit on something that I have thought a lot about, Adrian. I think this is a really important topic. I see this in my own kids and younger people at work. They display a certain boredom with what I would call “foundational learning”, or maybe it's better just calling it doing your homework. With information now available on demand, the reasoning is that “knowledge” can also be aquired on demand as well. Why waste time?

    Does information = knowledge? When I have a problem to solve, I know I draw from an internal library of not just facts, but sometimes intense internal deliberations.

    Focus may be important for productivity, but I think we are shortchanging our own brains' ability to add value (and creativity) to a what's otherwise a bunch of noise.

  • athenadalrymple

    First I should note I am David's mother, so I could be (cough) biased, but I think David has an interesting point, and that his point wasn't that filtering and focus are the most important skills a person can have, but merely that they could play a larger role in how a person succeeds (at least in a career) than how much knowledge the person can store long-term. David wrote (in part):

    “anyone with good critical thinking skills and the ability to focus on the important information can retrieve it on demand from the Internet, rather than her own memory”

    I think he didn't stress the critical thinking skills enough as many seem to be skimming right over that, but make no mistake, I know David rather well, and he values critical thinking skills.

    And nikoherzeg, David has long been looking for talented people and hoped to hire them someday or work with them in other ways. He has often noted to me that so and so is on his list as one of the people he hopes to someday work with in his own company. He did his first company organization chart at I think age 5, and I think it keeps getting harder to “make the chart” (for example, I was on that first one and probably am no longer on even the long list!).

    And I don't believe David is saying there is no use for having knowledge stored in the brain anymore. His father and I did take him to trivia night at a local restaurant a few months ago when he was in town for a visit…I think he knows there are times when you aren't allowed to use Google and knowing stuff off the top of the head comes in handy. Anyone who happens to be in a plane crash and end up stranded on an island with no Internet or cell phone coverage (no bars, restaurant variety or otherwise!) will also be aided by having a lot of basic survival skills in the gray matter.

    • http://zeusjones.millcitytheory.com/blog adrianho

      Hello Mrs Dalrymple (if it is you because forgive me but this is exactly the sort of thing I would do to really embarrass one of my friends on their blog…),

      I am sure that David isn't saying that filtering and focusing are the only skills required but he does say they are the most important. I'd disagree because I think we will eventually have software that filters and focuses for us. In fact there are probably thousands of people working on this problem right now.

      Also while I agree there will always be too much information should we value skills that have to do with consuming information over skills that have to do with creating it? That's all I wanted to say. Sorry I offended you or your son and thanks f0r stopping by.

      • athenadalrymple

        Adrian, wow, I didn't even realize when I responded before that you might be the Adrian we shared a taxi with back in 2001…your last name was slightly different/longer then if this is the same Adrian, and what a crazy small world it is if this is the same Adrian! I thought the original post was by someone with the last name Jones (how did this site get its name?)! Dozens if not hundreds of people have picked up David's essay and used it on their blogs and I only tried to clarify on three of them, and what are the odds that one would have been someone I've actually met in the flesh?! :O

        Anyway, I think David was meaning to say (and I'll ask him about it when I next speak with him, which should be in a few days) that the ability to filter and focus is now more important for those who use the Internet than how much knowledge you can store in your brain rather than that critical thinking skills (we he also noted in his essay, but too much in passing to be much noticed) and creativity and such aren't even more important still. I think he goofed in how he worded his opening, though it might have been a lucky goof as it seems to have made for a far more provocative essay. But as I wrote to one of the other two bloggers on this topic, I am sure David knows focus *alone* won't get anyone anywhere just as when he uses (or buys) a camera, it's not just the ability of the camera's focus that matters to him, but how it stores data and uses in later to be shared.

        Google is already filtering and focusing for us somewhat, so yes, there is already software doing those things. But if the end users can't focus enough to get off Facebook and/or AOL chatting, for example, to even use Google, that software won't be as useful in helping work to be done.

        And if you are the Adrian who met us way back when, do you really think David (or either of his parents, or any of his grandparents for that matter, even though you never met any of them) would value focus over creativity? David's family has a number of patented inventors, published authors (with everything from something as bizarre at Greek poetry to something as dry as cancer research in “Science”), etc. in it and I think our whole family values creativity pretty heavily, never fear. :)

        Finally, I saw your twitter post when I clicked on your name and you shouldn't be at all embarrassed by anything in this thread. There was nothing offensive in it to me….merely things I felt were not seeing things from the angle David sees them, but understandably so given his essay having the (cough) focus that it did! And David probably hasn't even seen your post yet as he's in the middle of a nine-day business and pleasure trip in Spain with his girlfriend, so it's not like he has said anything to me about your post. He likely won't ever see many posts mentioning his essay, but I'll point yours out to him given that I'm thinking you might have met and it's coincidental that I picked your post to comment on given all the others out there I could have picked and how few I bothered to respond to. David's a rather easy going person and I seriously doubt he'll be offended by anything you've posted, so seriously, don't be embarrassed!

        Was nice touching base with you, especially if you are the same Adrian I am guessing you are! Had I any clue of that earlier, I would have started with “You might remember our having shared a taxi back in 2001….” rather than pointing out that I am David's mother so could have a biased view.

      • athenadalrymple

        Okay, so not such a small world after all! I just looked up the Adrian I remembered and he has a twitter account different from yours (http://twitter.com/Adrianhon) and so it's not like you are the guy I met in CA at TED in 2001…you just have a really similar name! And I think a somewhat similar writing style and thinking style, to make it all the stranger (and perhaps stranger still, the other Adrian is someone else I wrote about something he had posted online back in 2001, about homeschooling, but I wrote him directly back then and not “out in the open”).

        • http://zeusjones.millcitytheory.com/blog adrianho

          By the looks of things David is clearly very accomplished and obviously a practitioner of creative thinking too: http://verybestinyouth.nestleusa.com/winners/Bi

          I am not surprised you are so proud of him and he's lucky to have a mother like you!

          All the best Athena
          Adrian

          • athenadalrymple

            That's sweet of you, Adrian. All the best to you, too!

  • Anonymous

    adrian — it seems to me that the ability to focus is important but not focus for focus’ sake — the ability to focus is only valuable if you know what to focus on and what to do with the information once you’re focused on it — this requires insight and inductive reasoning — things that can’t (easily?) be replicated by machines.

  • deniseleeyohn

    adrian — it seems to me that the ability to focus is important but not focus for focus' sake — the ability to focus is only valuable if you know what to focus on and what to do with the information once you're focused on it — this requires insight and inductive reasoning — things that can't (easily?) be replicated by machines.

  • Anonymous

    The point of the quote appears to echo the thesis of Peter Morville’s Ambient Findability book. I always considered knowledge to result from experience, therefore my own point of view is that your discomfort with the quote is well placed. One must know the right questions to ask in order to pose the most relevant search phrases for machines to process. That knowledge comes from the experience required for learning to occur. Machines don’t do that very well since machines don’t experience anything.

  • larryirons

    The point of the quote appears to echo the thesis of Peter Morville's Ambient Findability book. I always considered knowledge to result from experience, therefore my own point of view is that your discomfort with the quote is well placed. One must know the right questions to ask in order to pose the most relevant search phrases for machines to process. That knowledge comes from the experience required for learning to occur. Machines don't do that very well since machines don't experience anything.

    • http://zeusjones.millcitytheory.com/blog adrianho

      Yes that's a great point. Also with experience come context and perspective, two things that are required for knowledge to become useful. Without these anything you look up are just facts, divorced from any real understanding.

  • http://twitter.com/dchilla daniel chilla

    The internet, as i have studied young adults, becomes more and more of a reposatory for knowledge that is tangible like: facts, formal procedures, formulas and so on. In contrast to this we have tacit knowledge or knowledge situated in the person. Which is knowledge about processes that we might or might not be aware of. (aware of as in being able to put words to our knowledge)

    Therefore knowledge about processes (solving problems, “getting things done”, tacit or not) will be the main asset for students, and the workforce in generall, in the competition for employment.

    Today the educational system and the business world measures the tangible knowledge but does often not know how to measure and evaluate tacit or knowledge about processes.

    Therefore two of the biggest challenges in the future will be 1 – to aquire the problem solving skills (ie learn how to learn) and 2 – measuring tacit knowledge or the skill to solve problems.

    You can read more about this in my essay on my webb page, http://www.chillafilm.se/hemsida/index2.html . Unfortunatly only the abstract is in English.

  • http://twitter.com/dchilla daniel chilla

    The internet, as i have studied young adults, becomes more and more of a reposatory for knowledge that is tangible like: facts, formal procedures, formulas and so on. In contrast to this we have tacit knowledge or knowledge situated in the person. Which is knowledge about processes that we might or might not be aware of. (aware of as in being able to put words to our knowledge)

    Therefore knowledge about processes (solving problems, “getting things done”, tacit or not) will be the main asset for students, and the workforce in generall, in the competition for employment.

    Today the educational system and the business world measures the tangible knowledge but does often not know how to measure and evaluate tacit or knowledge about processes.

    Therefore two of the biggest challenges in the future will be 1 – to aquire the problem solving skills (ie learn how to learn) and 2 – measuring tacit knowledge or the skill to solve problems.

    You can read more about this in my essay on my webb page, http://www.chillafilm.se/hemsida/index2.html . Unfortunatly only the abstract is in English.

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  • http://zeusjones.com/blog adrianho

    I agree too but he’s clearly not talking about that, he’s simply talking about the ability to remain free from distraction. I think there are probably a lot of human inventions or discoveries that resulted from our ability to be distracted so that makes his statement even more ludicrous. Also in his world, who will create the content if all we’re learning is how to sift through it?

  • http://zeusjones.com/blog adrianho

    How about the ability to take a single stance on a subject :D

    …or perhaps the ability to hold both sides of an argument in your head at the same.

  • Anonymous

    or the skill to recognize bigger talent than yours, to hire them and not get in the way, be the fall guy for all the trappings of success so that they don’t suffer..

    [shout out to Steve Jobs]

    You can tell it is friday over here, so amma just leave and let the thread go back to serious :)

  • http://zeusjones.com/blog adrianho

    Hello Mrs Dalrymple (if it is you because forgive me but this is exactly the sort of thing I would do to really embarrass one of my friends on their blog…),

    I am sure that David isn’t saying that filtering and focusing are the only skills required but he does say they are the most important. I’d disagree because I think we will eventually have software that filters and focuses for us. In fact there are probably thousands of people working on this problem right now.

    Also while I agree there will always be too much information should we value skills that have to do with consuming information over skills that have to do with creating it? That’s all I wanted to say. Sorry I offended you or your son and thanks f0r stopping by.

  • Anonymous

    Adrian, wow, I didn’t even realize when I responded before that you might be the Adrian we shared a taxi with back in 2001…your last name was slightly different/longer then if this is the same Adrian, and what a crazy small world it is if this is the same Adrian! I thought the original post was by someone with the last name Jones (how did this site get its name?)! Dozens if not hundreds of people have picked up David’s essay and used it on their blogs and I only tried to clarify on three of them, and what are the odds that one would have been someone I’ve actually met in the flesh?! :O

    Anyway, I think David was meaning to say (and I’ll ask him about it when I next speak with him, which should be in a few days) that the ability to filter and focus is now more important for those who use the Internet than how much knowledge you can store in your brain rather than that critical thinking skills (we he also noted in his essay, but too much in passing to be much noticed) and creativity and such aren’t even more important still. I think he goofed in how he worded his opening, though it might have been a lucky goof as it seems to have made for a far more provocative essay. But as I wrote to one of the other two bloggers on this topic, I am sure David knows focus *alone* won’t get anyone anywhere just as when he uses (or buys) a camera, it’s not just the ability of the camera’s focus that matters to him, but how it stores data and uses in later to be shared.

    Google is already filtering and focusing for us somewhat, so yes, there is already software doing those things. But if the end users can’t focus enough to get off Facebook and/or AOL chatting, for example, to even use Google, that software won’t be as useful in helping work to be done.

    And if you are the Adrian who met us way back when, do you really think David (or either of his parents, or any of his grandparents for that matter, even though you never met any of them) would value focus over creativity? David’s family has a number of patented inventors, published authors (with everything from something as bizarre at Greek poetry to something as dry as cancer research in “Science”), etc. in it and I think our whole family values creativity pretty heavily, never fear. :)

    Finally, I saw your twitter post when I clicked on your name and you shouldn’t be at all embarrassed by anything in this thread. There was nothing offensive in it to me….merely things I felt were not seeing things from the angle David sees them, but understandably so given his essay having the (cough) focus that it did! And David probably hasn’t even seen your post yet as he’s in the middle of a nine-day business and pleasure trip in Spain with his girlfriend, so it’s not like he has said anything to me about your post. He likely won’t ever see many posts mentioning his essay, but I’ll point yours out to him given that I’m thinking you might have met and it’s coincidental that I picked your post to comment on given all the others out there I could have picked and how few I bothered to respond to. David’s a rather easy going person and I seriously doubt he’ll be offended by anything you’ve posted, so seriously, don’t be embarrassed!

    Was nice touching base with you, especially if you are the same Adrian I am guessing you are! Had I any clue of that earlier, I would have started with “You might remember our having shared a taxi back in 2001….” rather than pointing out that I am David’s mother so could have a biased view.

  • Anonymous

    Okay, so not such a small world after all! I just looked up the Adrian I remembered and he has a twitter account different from yours (http://twitter.com/Adrianhon) and so it’s not like you are the guy I met in CA at TED in 2001…you just have a really similar name! And I think a somewhat similar writing style and thinking style, to make it all the stranger (and perhaps stranger still, the other Adrian is someone else I wrote about something he had posted online back in 2001, about homeschooling, but I wrote him directly back then and not “out in the open”).

  • http://zeusjones.com/blog adrianho

    By the looks of things David is clearly very accomplished and obviously a practitioner of creative thinking too: http://verybestinyouth.nestleusa.com/winners/Bio-Detail.aspx?Winner=282d9ffa-a859-4a08-8452-8f60c1c5666a

    I am not surprised you are so proud of him and he’s lucky to have a mother like you!

    All the best Athena
    Adrian

  • Anonymous

    That’s sweet of you, Adrian. All the best to you, too!

  • http://zeusjones.com/blog adrianho

    Yes that’s a great point. Also with experience come context and perspective, two things that are required for knowledge to become useful. Without these anything you look up are just facts, divorced from any real understanding.