the world needs knowledge catalysts

“We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That’s a clear prescription for disaster.” —Carl Sagan

When people are presented with a problem the first urge is to resolve it. If the computer does not work, they want it fixed. Then they can move on to what they were trying to do in the first place. But quite often the source of the problem did not go away. People also need to understand how the problem was created. This requires time and effort to learn. But when the problem is gone, there is little incentive to learn about the implications and complexities that created the problem.

Many people live in this digital network society with computers at our fingertips but little idea of how they work. This is why Facebook and Google are so popular. Not only are they free but they require no understanding of how they work. Indeed, they hide how they work from even the most inquiring minds, while mapping the relationships and behaviours of +2 billion people. These platforms are just too convenient.

“We haven’t really got appropriate historical analogies for the tech giants,” explains Dr Powles. Their powers, she continues, extend “far beyond” the likes of the East India Company and monopolies of old, such as Standard Oil … “What is most striking is the sense of resignation, the impotence of regulation, the lack of options, the public apathy,” says Dr Powles. “What an extraordinary situation for an entity that has power over information – there is no greater power really.” —BBC 2017-05-26

Most people are happy with their technology until it doesn’t work for them. Then they quit, complain, or try to solve the problem. The latter takes time. It’s what few of us do. It hurts to understand that with each level of understanding we actually understand less. If we learn a bit we may become little exemplars of the Dunning-Kruger effect. If we continue to learn we can get more frustrated and perhaps cynical. It’s the curse of our digital age and the surveillance economy.

It’s easy to say that people have to take responsibility for their learning, but not everyone had the luxury of learning how to program. But computers and networks control our lives today. While all individuals have a responsibility to learn, those who know more have a greater responsibility to share. This is part of the Personal Knowledge Mastery Seek > Sense > Share model. If you are an expert, you are not helping your human network get any smarter if you are not sharing. Experts have to become knowledge catalysts. The PKM workshop helps connectors and experts become knowledge catalysts.

Being a knowledge catalyst means taking the time to add value to your knowledge. One way is to simplify what you know. Make your work human understandable. Speak in non-geek terms. If experts do not do this they will become surrounded by less informed people over time. Our global human networks will get dumber. These networks of people might even vote for bombastic populists or support policies that will make all of us poorer or less free to pursue our goals.

The way out of this mess is to make our social networks, and our society, smarter. Leadership today is helping our networks make better decisions.

4 Responses to “the world needs knowledge catalysts”

  1. Nick Heap

    Thank you very much, Harold. You have helped me understand what I do! I am a “catalyst”. My website has 300 + articles and tools about aspects of organisational and personal development. They are all free and all written in non-technical language and distill many years of experience and learning. I will add a link to this post on my “links” page. Best wishes, Nick

  2. Virpi Oinonen

    This is so crucial. I’ve been reading Oliver Sacks’s books recently (the famous neurologist of the Awakenings fame) and feel really thankful that he took the effort to explain neurological conditions through case stories.

    There is also an important role for the non-expert simplifier that can take ideas and concepts and turn them into even simpler communication pieces. It’s the entry level communication that provides the basic building blocks for understanding more complex ideas. My choice of medium (cartoons) is a conscious choice in this kind of environment. It’s a medium that forces you to simplify, think about the core ideas in as succinctly as you can. It’s also a medium that has almost no prestige. But that is it’s strength… it’s not threatening. It’s a shame that I don’t see more people doing it!

  3. Daniel F. Bassill

    Thanks Harold. As Nick said in his comment, “You have helped me understand what I do!” . Actually, I have understood this for a long time as I’ve been collecting and sharing information, via the Tutor/Mentor Connection, since the early 1990s.

    Here’s a quote that I’ve had on the strategy page of my web site since early 2000s.

    “When nonprofit and community leaders share ideas, insights and information in ways that promote social impact…knowledge-sharing can improve organizational effectiveness. When we share what works and what doesn’t… it results in accelerated learning, less reinventing the wheel, better service, and measurable results.”
    2003 quote by Mr. Tim Wilmot. Chief Knowledge and Evaluation Officer, Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation

    The challenge for me, and probably many others, is educating others to appreciate and value this work, and to attract consistent revenue to maintain the information library, add to it, share it so others know it’s there, and to help people find and use the information in the library…and to pay myself a modest salary so I can pay my bills and raise my own family.

    I’ve been building my library on-line since 1998…and was building it off-line since 1990. Thus, for almost 20 years I’ve had to patch together a mix of supporters to keep it available. Lots of challenges.


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