Friday, May 24, 2024

The Transient Knowledge Trap

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Have you ever stopped and thought about all of the skills we are losing? How many people today can do even basic math without a calculator or apply logical analysis to a problem greater than where to eat for dinner?

I can’t help but wonder what the ultimate outcome of our headlong plunge into accelerated technological adoption while also allowing education to languish. The increasing skills gap in various segments of our populous is alarming.

Technology is amazing and offers much, but it is an unforgiving means to an end that is all-too-often pursued as an end goal in and of itself. As a society we cannot lose basic skills — yet that is exactly what we are allowing to happen.

Some skills loss is attributable to transient technologies that are now road-kill on the techno-society highway. These were skills we learned in order to operate now-obsolete technologies such as 8-track tape decks, punch cards, etc.

These are example areas of knowledge that, while interesting, are shifting into arcane history with little likelihood of future use. At their time in history, they had value, but not to society now, and unlikely at any time in the future. (Then again, look at how vacuum tubes all but disappeared and then had a resurgence in high-end audio equipment.)

Losing the Fundamentals

On the other end of the spectrum from transient knowledge is the underlying foundational knowledge that is persistent over time. Loss of that knowledge and/or the inability for groups to have access to it is deeply troubling. There are fundamentals that are forever morphing as our learning grows, but they cannot and must not be lost. Technologies may come and go, but there is foundational knowledge that will always position use for the future.

To illustrate, consider the ability to logic and reason. Many universities made logic a mandatory subject years ago and now it is gone. What about math? One of the most fundamental constructs underlying technologies. How about basic science, ethics, history, philosophy … the list goes on and on. Why? What will the ultimate outcome of this be?

In the 1980s we were concerned with robots and mechanized production lines reducing workers to mere “lever pullers.” We’ve unfortunately leapt past that state and now risk doing it to our society overall – at least in the U.S. we certainly risk it.

We have let our educational systems deteriorate and our corporate interests lie so much in the short-term that many either do not train at all and hire for skills or train employees purely on transient skills that have a relatively short value life. For example, sending people to focused technology training that may not be needed by the organization in five years or with diminished to marketability if the person leaves to seek employment elsewhere without updating.

Within organizations that hire for skills — meaning they buy people with the skills they need — and then fail to continue to develop the employees, people will realize what is happening. The best employees will leave rather than let their marketability languish — and once the word gets into the market, new hires are apt to avoid the employer altogether.

For employers who do train and develop employees, that is a great thing because practically any training is better than no training. Even training on transients is preferable to nothing as certain foundational knowledge can still be inferred.

From a macroeconomic perspective, the primary danger to society of an over-emphasis on transient-based skills is that, as the underlying knowledge and skill base deteriorates, innovation will suffer. Employers will move work to other parts of the world where innovation flourishes in the bountiful soil of knowledge. In the meantime, the country with the over-emphasis on transient knowledge will watch its economic lead suffer first, military might plummet second and then fall into a gray twilight of either being a former superpower or of never being one at all.

We, as a society, need to recognize the urgent need for education and development of our people. We need to spur education and training. Why, for example, can’t money invested in training not only be a tax write-off of one-to-one, but actually be a multiplier such as: “For every $1 spent in training we will allow a $2 discount in taxes.”

Of course, such a proposal would run into a political minefield, but stop and strongly consider the alternative: In the future there may be such a train wreck of an economy and society that there is an economic collapse. It brings us to a very simple inescapable truth: An an economy without adequate investments in education is not sustainable.

Make no mistake about it, education is fundamental. Our companies need it. Our municipalities and countries need it and at the absolute foundation of it all, our people need it.

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