What we do not know
Our networks are great places for serendipitous connections. But they are not safe places to have deeper conversations or to expose our points of view, I noted last year in coffee, communities, and condescension. The difference between an open social network (e.g. Twitter) and a private online community (e.g. Mattermost) is that the latter is often based on mutual trust. While community members may disagree, they respect each other. They are not shaming people in public, as happens frequently on Twitter with its loose social ties.
To make sense of our complex world and its often-veiled media sources, we need both open social networks and more closed communities of practice/interest. Sensemaking is an ongoing process and highly dependent on our human connections. Only collectively can we confront the post-truth machines of the network era.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is the tendency of people who know less about a topic to think that they know more. This cognitive bias comes from people’s “inability to recognize their lack of ability”. The counter to this bias is metacognition — the ability to think about our own thinking processes — and is humanity’s secret weapon that too few of us use. Another counter is to connect to other people with diverging experiences and interests. The more diverse our social networks, the more diverse our thinking can be.
Diverse human connections
Sharing complex knowledge requires trusted professional relationships. People have to trust each other before sharing and only then can they work effectively on difficult problems.
“strong interpersonal relationships that allowed discussion, questions, and feedback were an essential aspect of the transfer of complex knowledge” —Hinds & Pfeffer (2003)
Being engaged with a diverse network of people who share their knowledge makes for more effective workers. Much of our performance at work is an emergent property of the sum of our human connections.
“We learned that individual expertise did not distinguish people as high performers. What distinguished high performers were larger and more diversified personal networks.” —Rob Cross & Andrew Parker (2004)
It is not the size of our networks that matters, but the diversity of opinions and expertise that we can draw upon, in order to prevent group-think. In times of crisis, when information is critical, having a diversity of opinions can ensure that drastic measures are not taken for the wrong reasons, or that viable options are not ignored.
“We need input from people with a diversity of viewpoints to help generate innovative new ideas. If our circle of connections grow too small, or if everyone in it starts thinking the same way, we’ll stop generating new ideas.” —Tim Kastelle (2010)
We all need to balance strong and weak ties to ensure that we are effective as professionals and engaged citizens. Doing so is an art that can be mastered over time, with practice.
“Experts have long argued about the optimal structure of a person’s professional network. Some say that a dense, cohesive network brings more social capital, while others argue that a sparse, radial network, one that provides opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurial activity, equates to greater social capital. [Paul] Erdős’ network shows both patterns — a densely connected core along with loosely coupled radial branches reaching out from the core. The people in the core/center of your network probably know the same things you do, while the people along your network’s periphery probably know different things and different people than you know.” —Valdis Krebs (2015)
Here is some advice from David Dunning (via Jessica Stillman).
1. Lean on other people.
The most essential lesson of Dunning’s work isn’t that other people are bad at judging their own competence; it’s that we’re all terrible at our assessing our skills. The Dunning-Kruger effect “is a phenomenon that visits all of us sooner or later. Some of us are a little more flamboyant about it. Some of us aren’t. But not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition,” Dunning explains.
We’re all susceptible to stupidity and overconfidence. One way to start correcting for that is to lean more on other minds. Groups are less likely to be dumb than individuals.
“A lot of the issues or problems we get into, we get into because we’re doing it all by ourselves. We’re relying on ourselves. We’re making decisions as our own island,” Dunning says. “If we consult, chat, schmooze with other people, often we learn things or get different perspectives that can be quite helpful.”
Human systems thrive on variety and diversity and the Internet has created many more possible connection patterns. Human knowledge is socially created. Sensemaking in a networked world is the new social contract. We do not need heroes to save us, we all have to become better learners who seek, make sense of, and share our knowledge to help make our networks stronger.
The bad news is that we cannot do it alone.
The good news is that we do not have to do it alone.