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  • Ross Jackson

Knowing as a Barrier to Learning



Benefits are derived from being knowledgeable. Because of knowing certain things, one might receive financial compensation and social respect, as well as personal gratification and fulfillment. Much of one’s early life is spent in various forms of learning activities designed to help one acquire knowledge. Language, reading, and mathematics are foundational areas as they contribute to the ability to learn in subsequent fields. In grade school, these might be social studies, science, and government, in college, economics, analytics, and philosophy. Through a series of exposure, feedback, and inclinations, one eventually focuses upon an area of specialization. Within that specialization, one focuses attention on a depth of learning and establishes knowledge, culminating in expertise. Much efficiency is gained in the process. In fact, the division of labor, which is made possible through specialization, facilitates the production of consumer goods inexpensively and in an astounding variety. Whereas there are many benefits associated with knowledge, there is a darker side that warrants examination.


Knowledge can become a barrier to learning. There are a variety of ways in which this can occur. I will examine here only two. On one extreme, there is generally deference afforded to expertise. After one has specialized in a selected area, if one doesn’t know something in another field, one might conclude that it would be “better” to allow the expert in that discipline to address the concern. On a different extreme, one might assume that one’s area of knowledge is the “best,” and that there is little benefit to be gained from learning an “inferior” area of knowledge. Whether it is through respect and deference or arrogance and condescension, knowledge can prevent learning. Such a situation is consequential for analytic consultants.


The tools available frequently define the problem. Stated somewhat differently, what one knows influences how one frames a situation. It is well established that people define problems such that they can solve them. This is a concern for those providing analytic support to organizations. Since any analyst will know or specialize in only a subset of the theory and praxis of analysis, that focus will provide the likely parameters used to define the problem. The issue with this approach should be obvious. The techniques selected are not necessarily the ones that provide the most utility to the organization to understand and overcome challenges, but are rather the ones that are most immediate for the analyst to employ. In a case such as that, knowing has become a barrier to learning. Whereas this situation is common enough, it doesn’t have to be that way.


There are analytic consultants that approach the situation differently. These analysts aren’t “selling a product,” but are rather interested in applied problem-solving. The process starts with the short but challenging question: what’s going on? The follow-up question is frequently, what is needed? Notice that the focus of these two questions isn’t on the analyst and or the analyst’s gained skill set but on the organization, its problem, and its needs. Using this perspective, one can define the type of analysis that is needed to address the concern adequately and effectively. Perhaps this will require learning something new. Such a situation, when it occurs, is enriching to the analyst and beneficial to the organization. Each of these two elements warrants a closer examination.


Overlaying a prepackaged solution onto an organizational problem isn’t analysis, it’s sales. Organizations benefit from real analytic consulting, not being sold a product.


Overcoming challenges is fulfilling, whereas repetition is boring. What does this mean for those engaged in analytic consulting? Providing rote solutions based on one’s knowledge will eventually become mundane. It is a relatively small step from this to simply engaging in a performance, in which one is pretending to be engaged. Learning new techniques and applying them to address an organization’s specific challenge is rewarding. For the analyst to be fully present in the consultation, one must focus on the actual situation. There is a world of difference between the confidence associated with the perspective that one will determine a solution to the problem and the arrogance associated with the perspective that one can already provide a solution to the organization. The first focuses on learning, the second on knowing. Overlaying a prepackaged solution onto an organizational problem isn’t analysis, it’s sales. Organizations benefit from real analytic consulting, not being sold a product.


It’s a little counterintuitive that organizations would want analysts which are learning as they work on their projects. Wouldn’t they want an expert who has faced this problem before? The answer here is mixed. There is an obvious benefit from hiring an analyst who knows a variety of analytic techniques in depth and who has a breadth of consultation experience. What is being advocated here isn’t that one hires entry-level analysts. The key is that the analyst will learn, perhaps be eager to learn, and is focused on generating the best solution possible in terms of the problem and not on what the analyst knows already. These two approaches are radically different. It is beneficial for organizations to differentiate between the two. If the analyst spends most of the consultation time talking, the organization is being sold a product, if the analyst spends most of the consultation time asking questions and attentively listening, the organization is being viewed as an opportunity for collaborative learning.


As Sir Francis Bacon famously stated, “knowledge is power.” Significant benefits are derived from knowing. Nothing is detracted from the esteem held for knowing by acknowledging that it can become a barrier to subsequent learning. Finding the right balance between knowing and learning in the space of analytic consulting is neither easy nor universal. Organizations and individuals benefit from understanding the dynamics between knowing and learning and the implications for analytic engagement and operational effect. Being sold an analytic solution that is technically correct but organizationally misaligned does little to improve the situation. True power is achieved through the realization that knowledge without continuous learning becomes weaker with every passing day.


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