Metalogue 4: How much do you know?

In this metalogue the daughter asks her father: “Daddy, how much do you know?”

Bateson calculates that since his brain weighs about two pounds (1kg), and he uses it at about a quarter efficiency, then he must have about half a pound (or 250g) of knowledge.

But is this really a good way of measuring knowledge?

He tells the story of the little boy who asked his father, “Daddy, do fathers always know more than their sons?” “Yes,” his the father replies. “Who invented the steam engine?” “James Watt.” “So why didn’t James Watt’s father invent it?”

Bateson’s daughter knows why Watt’s father didn’t invent the steam engine: “It is because other people had to discover other things, like oil [and levers, and how to manufacture steel] before the steam engine could be invented.” Bateson agrees. Knowledge is like a cloth, knitted or woven together. Each piece of information is only meaningful and useful because of the other pieces that came before it. Inventing something new, like a steam engine, extends the cloth by bringing existing pieces of knowledge together in a new way.

And unlike a cloth, the ‘fabric of knowledge’ doesn’t just exist in two dimensions, but rather in three or perhaps even four dimensions.

Thinking again about how to measure knowledge, they realise that adding facts together isn’t like adding apples or oranges. Sometimes when you add two facts together you get four facts. Imagine that we’re playing a game of Twenty Questions and you think of ‘Tomorrow’. Now I ask “Is it abstract?” and you say yes. And from your one “yes” I get a double piece of information. I know that it is abstract, and I know that it isn’t concrete. Repeat this process and after two questions I will have four facts, three questions eight facts, and so on.

So if I choose my questions carefully, then every time I ask another question I halve the number of possibilities. The mathematics mean that after twenty questions I can choose between more than a million possibilities. [Which is why Twenty Questions is such a powerful game — if you can think of the right questions.]

The daughter doesn’t like arithmetic. But she realises that if you are trying to measure knowledge, then you must have to do some kind of counting. And they have definitely made a step or two towards knowing how they might do that.

She also realises that they have made a step towards knowing what knowledge is. “That would be a funny sort of knowledge, Daddy,” she says. “I mean, knowing about knowledge. Would we measure that sort of knowing in the same way?”

Her father isn’t sure.

Then he remembers the game of Twenty Questions. In order for that game to work, the questions have to be asked in a certain order. The early questions are more general — they are questions about knowing. The later questions depend on the questions that were asked before. They are more specific, and factual.

Then the father and daughter talk about how we commonly measure knowledge, using examinations and tests. These throw questions at the students, and we assume that the students who can answer the most questions have the most knowledge. This is a bit like throwing stones at pieces of paper and assuming that the piece of paper that gets hit most often is biggest.

The trouble is that this sort of measuring leaves out the fact that there are different sorts of knowledge. [The earlier questions, the later questions, and the knowing what order to ask them in are three different types of knowledge.] So it would probably make sense to give a different sort of mark for each sort of question. How would we combine these? The idea of ‘two hours’ is very different from the idea of ‘two miles’ [or kilometres]. If you add them together you just get fog in your head. But we could combine them by multiplying or dividing. Dividing them would give us miles per hour [or kilometres per hour], which we all understand. Multiplying gives mile-hours [or kilometre-hours] which is what the meter in a taxi measures.

So, ultimately we cannot measure thoughts or knowledge.

Measuring is adding, and we cannot add thoughts like miles and hours. We can only combine them [which is what Watt did when he invented the steam engine].

And this means, in the end, that we really only have one big thought, with lots and lots of branches. [This is the ‘cloth’ of knowledge, which is constantly being woven together in new ways by people like James Watt.]

How is this useful to business?

Well firstly it builds on what we already know about innovation getting us into a bit of a muddle. It tells us that when we innovate in business we are not only breaking apart some of the things we think we already ‘know’, but are also extending the cloth of knowledge in new ways.

Second, we can realise that strategic problem-solving in business is a lot like playing a game of Twenty Questions. The early questions are ‘strategic’. The later ones are ‘tactical’, to do with implementation.

The speed and effectiveness with which we can move through the twenty questions will be determined by the quality of the deep strategic understanding we have of how business works:

  • If our strategic understanding of how business works is vague and fuzzy then we will ask the wrong questions, in the wrong order, and our business will take the wrong actions, too late.
  • If we have a clear and simple strategic understanding of business, then we will be able to drill down to ask the right tactical questions quickly, and so move quickly to implementation.
  • If we have a way of thinking about business that combines strategy and practice into a single integrated model, then that is very powerful indeed.
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