In 1978, science historian James Burke created a documentary series for BBC television that I would claim is the greatest documentary series ever created. (Yes, even better than Ken Burns!) Called Connections, it rejects a more linear view of historical progress, and shows how interconnected our ideas are. It offered what at that time was an entirely new vision of technology and human interaction. Each episode traces an ancient technological moment through a series of seemingly unrelated events and triggers—often actual mistakes or accidents—and shows how, for example, the invention of the chimney directly influenced the invention of the jet plane.
It also offers a prescient view of where Burke thought the world was headed. In the final episode in 1978 he tells the audience:
“We’re on the edge of a revolution in communications technology that’s going to make that [access to knowledge] more possible than ever before. Or, if that’s not done, to cause an explosion of knowledge that will leave those of us that don’t have access to it as powerless as if we were deaf, dumb, and blind.” – Yesterday, Tomorrow and You, 1978
I was thinking about this quote when I was perusing Eric Mosley’s new book, The Crowdsourced Performance Review, this weekend. Among other things, the first part of the book does a terrific job of describing and unpacking the world that Burke predicted—and which we have inherited.
Compare what Burke writes above with this, from Mosley:
“The workplace is a continuous flow of conversation, e-mail, tasks, events, teamwork, individual work, urgent and trivial tasks—the life of work. Everyone who is even barely alert participates in this flow. People work together and observe others working in the next cubicle or loading dock, forming relationships and opinions while writing the story of their work lives in their minds.” – The Crowdsourced Performance Review, page 21
This is just one of the insights the book makes that resonate so strongly with me. As much as the book is a provocative vision for the future, it is also a clear map of the present—and a guide for how we can gather this “explosion of knowledge” and make it work for us.
We are all interconnected. We are all part of a singular flow of information and we are all able to impact one another’s behavior and attitudes. In some ways, crowdsourcing is a very new and innovative idea. But in other—deeper and more important ways—crowdsourcing is simply the output of that flow of information. When we use the wisdom of the crowd, we are simply making the most of a dynamic that is already there and growing stronger every day.
As Burke says at the beginning of Connections: “The moment man first picked up a stone or a branch to use as a tool, he altered irrevocably the balance between him and his environment. From this point on, the way in which the world around him changed was different. It was no longer regular or predictable. New objects appeared that were not recognizable as a mutation of something that existed before, and as each one merged it altered the environment not for one season, but forever.”
What will be your stones and branches? Your tools? How will you influence change? How will you use this explosion of knowledge for the good of your organization and your employees?