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The Tale of Two Cultures

Facts are impotent until coupled with feelings. People learn rational knowledge and absorb intuitive knowledge by different means.

June 10, 2013
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Management
KEYWORDS culture
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In 1959, British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow wrote an essay with a thesis that “the intellectual life of the whole of Western society” was split into two cultures — the sciences and the humanities — and that this was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems. Snow contended that scientists did not understand the humanities and humanists did not understand science. As the world grew more complex, the two groups grew further apart.

Half a century later, the world grows more complex every day, and the two cultures have grown further apart. The growing divide will shake the training industry to its roots. The concept can describe two different sorts of knowledge and the different ways we learn them — intuitive knowledge and logical knowledge. They are as different as night and day.

Intuitive knowledge is what Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes in Thinking Fast and Slow as System 1. It’s the province of the emotional brain. It works with patterns; it knows no words. In other words, it is tacit.

Since the emotional brain is much older and works faster than the logical brain, intuitive knowledge is the first to come to mind. The rational brain uses logic to weigh whether or not an intuitive response is valid or must be tempered. Intuitive knowledge is also known as muscle memory.

Intuitive knowledge is complex, unpredictable, inductive, volatile and emergent. It’s firmly within the realm of imagination and deals with people’s interpretations. It lives in the minds of the people who pull it together.

Examples of intuitive knowledge include how to dance and to sell. Training departments can’t do much with the increasingly important intuitive skills. Intuitive things are learned by doing — experientially. People develop the skills they need to deal with complexity. We call those skills critical thinking, prioritizing, working with people, design thinking and so forth.

As Picasso said, “I do things I do not know how to do by doing them.” Experience can be supplemented with stories — someone else’s experience; simulations — fake experience; trial and error — the school of hard knocks; and mimicry — copied experience.

Rational knowledge is the opposite of intuitive knowledge. It’s the province of the rational brain and it works with logic. It is explicit and can be explained with words.

Rational knowledge is straightforward. It is Newtonian clockwork, an equal and opposite reaction for every action. It is formulaic, yes or no, and reductionist. It deals with facts. It’s true no matter who is looking. Training departments help people learn the rational. Workshops, programmed instruction and Khan Academy can teach rational knowledge. Examples of rational knowledge include programming, the states and their capitals, and multiplication.

As the world becomes more complex, people need to rely more on the interpretive power of intuitive knowledge. So what does this have to do with a CLO? People learn rational knowledge and absorb intuitive knowledge by different means.

The basic difference is that you get to know rational knowledge. Intuitive knowledge, on the other hand, transforms your identity. For example, I can know a lot about plumbing, but until I have intuitive knowledge, I can’t call myself a plumber. It’s learning to know versus learning to be.

While different parts of the brain deal with intuitive and rational knowledge, these are not the old left/right brain theories. This is more about the conscious and subconscious minds. Dave Snowden, a Welsh knowledge management consultant, says the greatest danger is confusing a complex situation for a merely complicated one.

If you are concerned only with helping people learn rational knowledge, you’re abandoning a vital facet of learning. Facts are impotent until coupled with feelings. Feelings without facts are mute. A successful learning organization is bicultural; it melds the intuitive with the rational. So ask yourself: is your learning bicultural?

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