We are running out of Renaissance People, it appears. And if the trend keeps up, the pace of true innovation in technology companies may slow to a virtual crawl.
According to a research study entitled “The Burden of Knowledge and the ‘Death of the Renaissance Man’: Is Innovation Getting Harder?”, presented by Ben Jones of Northwestern University in September 2005 — and referenced by a short article in the December 2008 issue of The Atlantic, we are in trouble.
The thesis put forth there is that technologists need to learn a great deal more than ever before in order to be put together that true breakthrough product idea. This means either more formal education and related study just to keep up with a given technology area, or becoming more narrow and specialized in one’s work. More often than not nowadays, the choice is to narrow one’s studies.
Becoming more specialized makes the learning challenge more manageable, but with that specialization comes also a critical lack of knowledge of alternative technologies and ideas. And in that vacuum one tends to see all solutions as tied to the knowledge one does understand well, just as, as the old saying goes, “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail”.
As one who has had the privilege of leading many highly innovative teams — and continues to innovate himself — I would agree with Mr. Jones’ conclusions, amplified even more strongly than he has made them. To me the issue is even more serious because, as we’ve chased deeper understanding of the fringes of technology, we’ve not only lost critical breadth in our technology understanding, we’ve also lost the strong cross-field connections (whether with different technologies or perhaps between technology and the humanities in general).
I personally come from an unusual educational background where my undergraduate technology college, Harvey Mudd, insisted on — and still requires — a very high percentage of non-major course work. I, for example, majored in Physics and minored in English Literature (a serious pursuit that I’ve continued over time, even if it doesn’t bring home the income that the major has). My graduate work was focussed solely in the specific disciplines of Optical and Electrical Engineering (for two different degrees), but even then I was allowed considerable freedom to explore a wider range of topics within those disciplines than is true today.
With the increased emphasis on specialization, organizations of all kinds that require high innovation to stay ahead in their fields try to make up for this by bringing together people from different areas of specialization in intense collaborative efforts. Online collaborative technologies of all kinds are helping bring these people together, and companies also harnessing what is referred to as “Open Innovation”, to leverage ideas from customers, strategic partners, and even what were once thought of as pure competitors to assist in innovating. Many people, such as in the recent New York Times‘ 12/5/08 article entitled “For Innovators, There is Brainpower in Numbers”, applaud these approaches.
All of this works to some extent, but I still believe the strongest innovations are ones where individuals are trained broadly enough so they can sense into where the edges of one technology (or business) ecosystem might just flow nicely into the edges of another such ecosystem. You’ve probably seen it yourselves in your own business, when one of your brighter employees takes the time to investigate something they’ve never explored before. They suddenly have insights and new ideas they would never have considered before. Just bringing highly-specialized people together has nowhere near the same innovative potential.
There are ways to work with this within your existing groups. The most innovative companies, such as Google (in Information Technology), IDEO (in Industrial Design), and Apple (in consumer products) make building these cross-discipline bridges a critical part of their creative process.
But if we continue down the path Mr. Jones warns us of in his research paper, we are going to end up with fewer and fewer of the true “Renaissance People” that in the past have been the source of our most brilliant innovations. Neither Soichiro Honda, the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, nor Isaac Newton could have done what they did without broad cross-discipline understanding. In the present day, I would argue that the founders of most modern technology businesses would never have made their companies what they are today without such an understanding as well.
And for them, as with the esteemed Leonardo da Vinci whose face graces the beginning of this article, it all started with the educational process and from the earliest ages. We must insist on a return to those cross-disciplinary explorations as part of our fundamental learning processes if we are to stay truly competitive.
Finally, within the organizations we lead and with those we employ now, we should insist on taking some of the best and brightest in our midst and giving them the opportunity to play in areas they’ve never touched before. Because it may be that only by doing so will we continue to make the breakthroughs that can solve the critical problems of global warming and global health issues, among others, while at the same time enabling us to continue to enjoy the increasing quality of life that we hope to leave for future generations.