sheepAs wonderful as the internet is, I have a nagging feeling1 that some of its most popular tools make it a little bit too easy to convince yourself that you know best. Amazon's recommendations and suggestions are all based on what people who like the same things as you also like. While you can follow anyone you like on Twitter, most users follow either people they already know, or people who have similar interests to themselves. It's a similar story when it comes to blogs. Search and social networks are designed to connect us to the information and people that we want to connect with. Generally, this is a good thing, but our natural tendency to seek out information that confirms our preconceptions means that we're less likely to actively seek out and consider ideas, or people, that contradict what we believe to be true. A dangerous position to be in, as the world's financial institutions have found out recently.

'Real' world differences

The attraction we have to people of minded ideas and beliefs is called homophily. It's a pattern that exists in the 'real world' too, but there's less freedom of choice in the real world. We don't get complete freedom to choose who we associate with at work, for example. While working at a large financial services company, I worked on various projects where the team was made up of people from the Legal, IT, Finance, Customer Service and HR departments. Left to my own devices, it's pretty doubtful that I'd seek to spend time with all the people on those projects, but I know that I benefited as a result. Working with people who had quite different viewpoints helped me to see the world in a different way and, on occasions, changed my viewpoint on a particular subject.

Seeking out dissenting views

I recently bought Superfreakonomics, the new book by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. I quite like the measured and empirical way of looking at the world that economists have,2  but I'm very cautious of only getting one side of the story. Anyone who just reads the book because they broadly agree with the world view of Dubner and Levitt may miss out some of the debate surrounding some of their claims. This has practical implications for knowledge workers and managers. How do we go about ensuring that we're exposed to new and challenging ideas if we predominantly seek out information and people that we already broadly agree with? How do we find a better way of doing things if we're convinced we already have the best way? As learning professionals, what's our role in making this happen?


[1] Backed up by a decent chunk of research. [2] I'm talking about those economists who specialise in areas that can be understood, not the ones who guess wildly about global markets.