I wrote this back in 2016 and still read it every few months.
I had a boss in a previous life who was always keen for us to share. “If you find out something interesting — I want to see and hear you share it”.
I did my best but occasionally I would sit on a piece of information because I didn’t really have time to figure out how to share it with the wider team. “I’ll get to it soon” I would tell myself. A lot of the time I did not. But how beneficial is sharing as opposed to devoting your time to working and innovating? I happened across an interesting model based around a similar question, put forward by Evolutionary Biologist Joseph Henrich. Let’s think about two groups of people.
There is a twist though. Humans don’t necessarily always acquire new inventions by engineering an innovation all on their own. They acquire them by learning. In this regard, the Engineers are at a distinct disadvantage. Each Engineer will only share a new development with one other Engineer. Sharers on the other hand like to chat and will share a new development with ten other Sharers. They are 10x more social than the Engineers. Let me just boil that down: Engineers are 100x more innovative; Sharers are 10x more social.
Learning from someone else isn’t easy though, so let’s assume that in both groups, if an innovation is shared, it sticks only 50% of the time. Which of these groups do you think will end up more ‘advanced’ — at least from a technological innovation perspective? Let’s look at the Engineers first. It turns out that over time, a particular innovation will spread to 18% of the Engineers. Not too bad. 50% of them figured it out for themselves and the remaining 50% learned from another Engineer.
Now let’s look at the Sharers. They’ve flourished. 99.9% of them have the innovation, even though only 0.1% of them discovered it for themselves.
If both of those groups are human tribes and the innovation we are talking about is a bow and arrow, whose side would you rather be on?
This elegant idea goes a long way to explain human cultural and technical development. In Henrich’s words, “if you want cool technology, it is better to be social than to be smart”.
Of course my original question is a little oversimplified: the best situation would be a group of smart engineers who are willing and able to share. So what can we do to enable this? The level of inter-connectedness globally has skyrocketed over the last 25 years, which I believe, goes a long way to help explain the level of technological growth we have witnessed and the even more impressive growth we are probably about to witness. It is much easier to share with motivated individuals now than ever before. But there is still room for improvement: plenty. And if we can make sharing easier, specifically new knowledge and information, then it stands to reason that technical development can occur more quickly and a wider group of people can benefit. This counts for our personal and professional lives but also for the world at large. Remember:
If you want cool technology, it is better to be social than to be smart.
So why do we still struggle in terms of sharing? These seven areas come to mind to start with. All seven can refer to ‘local’ difficulties that might impact us professionally or personally, or they can refer to more global difficulties that are hampering our efforts as a species:
Is enough being done to help overcome these difficulties? Do they represent decent business opportunities? Are they worth investing in? Here is my guess: some, yes and yes. When you frame the problem in terms of the value of sharing as I did earlier, it seems like a no-brainer that more could and should be done as the long-term value is there.