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Ploymath Culture

. PeteW

There's much talk throughout the halls of Sears Holdings about culture change. Transformation. Collaboration. And we're certainly not alone in this space--it seems many organizations--many industries--are looking for how to rethink how they create value both externally and internally.

Looking inside the organization, at the people, there's much being written about what kinds of people, skills, and approaches it now takes to be successful. One thread of this involves specialization. In the industrial age, specialization that created silos of work each with defined and manageable chunks was the rule of the day.

Now, it's a different story. Today, a number of factors are changing the way we need to think about the people and the culture we build. One of my favorite innovation people is Saul Kaplan, founder of the Business Innovation Factory in Rhode Island. He blogged about this awhile back:

1) Knowledge is expanding at ever increasing rates. Knowledge flows are moving so fast that it’s ludicrous to think experts or groups of specialists can absorb all available knowledge in any silo. What we learned yesterday is less and less relevant. What we learn today and how prepared we are to learn tomorrow is far more important.

2) Knowledge is more accessible than ever in human history. Access isn’t limited to the elite few. We are on our way to democratizing the entire body of knowledge. Think about that. The entire logic of the industrial era is no longer operative. Any of us can access the knowledge we need without relying on specialists. Specialization has been disrupted by the web and broadband connectivity. Specialists command a body of knowledge that is becoming increasingly less relevant every day.

3) The gold is in between knowledge silos. The biggest opportunities to create value and to solve today’s challenges require us to recognize patterns across silos connecting ideas across disciplines and sectors. Solutions are increasingly interdisciplinary. The future is trans-disciplinary. Designing the future isn’t the domain of specialists it’s the domain of collaboration and about tapping into the adjacent possible across disciplines. Those with the best access to knowledge flows across silos get the gold.

What wold it take to realize this? More people who are polymaths (and a culture that supports this way of thinking/being). What's a polymath? A polymath is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. When we think of polymaths we tend to think of dead scientists from another era like Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci. Rarely do we apply the moniker in modern times. We need more polymaths. We need a generation of youth who want to be polymaths when they grow up.

Kaplan continues in his post: If the new era is about collaboration and finding value in the gray areas between silos we need more polymaths. If the new era is about recognizing patterns and defining new disciplines we need more polymaths. If knowledge is changing faster than professional boundaries and job definitions can accommodate we need more polymaths. If we need more polymaths we will have to rethink everything we know about education and workforce development. We need a generation of youth that want to be polymaths when they grow up. Calling all Polymaths.

What does a culture need to do to support this kind of change? What do you think Sears Holdings should / could do?


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