Archive for January, 2006

Kai Hakkarainen on distributed expertise

Monday, January 30th, 2006

I attended a lecture by Kai Hakkarainen at the Helsinki University of Technology, before I had my own lecture on knowledge work kung-fu. Kai Hakkarainen is a researcher at the Centre for Research on Networked Learning in University of Helsinki. Here are my notes:

During the industrial era, we have moved through three different phases: Information society -> Knowledge society -> Innovation society. If information society was about collecting and transmitting information, innovation society is about creative learning, openness to new ideas and innovations in the way we cooperate. In other words, how do we solve problems together with others.

In the past psychology was negative towards a human abilities: humans were considered limited in thinking, information processing etc. Nowadays the research supports so called positive psychology, in which the picture has been reversed: together with others we are able to achieve much higher intellectual results, something we are uncapable to achieve alone.

There are three points of view when we think about learning:

  • Knowledge acquiring point of view (learning as a mental process)
  • Participation point of view (learning as interaction and collaboration)
  • Knowledge creation point of view (learning as creation)

In the past, our understanding about learning has been limited to learning as a mental process alone. Nowadays we look more towards learning as it happens on the level of groups and networks.

Learning through participative processes is important. For example, becoming a researcher requires social activities within that culture, where common practices and terminology reside. A profession is shaped by social practices within that profession.

Overcoming limits in our cognitive abilities is achieved by developing routines that free our cognitive capacity. This added capacity can then be directed towards solving much more complicated problems. This requires training for many years to master. Even then, the achieved rare abilities work only within the spesific environment. Achieving dynamic expertise so that the same ability can be utilized in different contexts is challenging. This is crystallized wisdom.

People have the rare ability to connect their cognitive processes together with various external non-human and human appliances. A good example of a non-human appliance is literacy. Invention of reading and writing can be compared to major evolutionary steps in biology, as it enabled distributing our cognitive processes on visual processing. We have socially and physically distributed cognitive processes. These are like proteses: we notice the lowered capabilities in our cognition once some of our external tools of thinking malfunction (like a powerpoint goes crazy during a presentation). Human++ refers to this ability to distribute our cognition to external tools of thinking.

Socially organized transactive memory helps one to compare possessed knowledge with the knowledge of other participants in the group. A group that has worked together is able to achieve much higher results compared to groups that have not yet developed transactive memory. This “metadata” of your peers in crucial for functional teams. We should however understand, that a group may be able to routinely solve problems they have faced before, but often new breakthroughs come from weak contacts to other groups. We live in our own small world of routines and our ability to solve much more complex problems requires new connections.

In the other hand, the reality is a bit different. In many organizations, collaborative learning is not as collaborative as it could be: information is protected, people limit each other’s career opportunities by back-stabbing, collective paranoia etc.

In many organizations, knowledge and expertise is concentrated on a single person. It’s interesting, how organizations self-organize and the collective ability tends to concentrate. The question is, how could we distribute this knowledge more evenly in the organization.

What left me thinking, was the question of transactive memory: it’s easy to fall into an assumption that working with one team for longer periods of time develops capabilities to solve problems, as the team becomes more aware of each others competencies. However, often new ideas and breakthroughs come from the domain of new connections. How much should we deveop new connections and how long should be stick into one functional group? Is there a golden middle-road?

Then again, how about understanding learning through complexity theories: shaping each other at the same time on the level of individual, group, organization and society. Seeing learning as a networked phenomenon, where we relate to each other and through those relations shape each other at the same time. Yes, that’s R. Stacey’s responsive processes of relating. That point of view calls for unifying the three different approaches to learning.