The Tale of Two Cultures

Effectiveness, Chief Learning Officer magazine, June 2013. This is the article as submitted; the printed version may vary.

Most columnists in CLO magazine advocate something they’re sure of. This column is different: it’s about an issue I’m not at all sure of but I think it important and would enjoy getting your opinion.  

In 1959, British scientist/novelist C.P. Snow wrote an essay describing the “two cultures,  whose thesis was that ‘the intellectual life of the whole of western society’ was split into two cultures — namely 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.” (Wikipedia)

Half a century later, the world grows more complex everyday and the two cultures have grow further apart. It’s worth a revisit because the growing divide will shake the training industry to its roots. I am going to use the concept to describe two different sorts of knowledge and the different way we learn them. #1 is intuitive knowledge and #2 is logical knowledge. They are different as night and day.

Intuitive knowledge

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

Examples of intuitive knowledge: 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 “get” the skills of dealing with complexity: critical thinking, prioritizing, working with people, design thinking, and so forth — by doing them.

“I do things I do not know how to do by doing them.” Picasso

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

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

Rational knowledge is straightforward (or complicated, which is several simples mushed together.) It’s 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 Kahn Academy can teach Rational Knowledge. Example of rational knowledge: programming PERL, the states and their capitals, multiplication.

The Explicit and the Tacit

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? (The editor here gets on my case if I don’t relate topics to the needs of chief learning officers.) Well, here’s the punch line: 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 vs. learning to be.

While different parts of the brain deal with Intuitive and Rational knowledge, these are not the old (and discredited) left/right brain theories. This is more about the conscious and subconscious minds.

Dave Snowden, a oracular figure in interpreting complexity for business ends, 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 bi-cultural; it melds the intuitive with the rational

Bi-culturalism melds two originally distinct cultures into a holistic co-existence.

Ask yourself: is your learning  bi-cultural?

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