The death of experience

As you know, I spent last week at Amplfy09, an innovation festival hosted by AMP of Australia. At one of the events, I had the chance to sit with some financial planners and their clients. The question I posed was this:

Which do you think has more brain power: 25 twenty-three olds (i.e., brand new graduates) with a year's experience each, of one 65 year old with 25 years of experience?

The obvious answer, of course, is that the crowd of 23 year olds has more brainpower, but the real question is whether the value of experience outweighs the obvious advantage in mental watts of the group.

My thinking is it does not, and here is why.

Experience is a result of the formation of mental models about the way things work. Essentially, one observes that certain actions produce certain effects, and over time one learns to generalise so that even actions which are only marginally related to those previously observed can result in reasonable predictions of outcomes. Because the mind has limited abilities to accept information and process it, developing experience is something that takes a large number of years.

This is why you generally reserve very accountable positions in organisations for those who have lots of experience.

But try this experiment. Get a group of new graduates together, and confront them with a crisis. You will be amazed when you watch what happens: instead of some alpha-male/female attempting to take control of the situation, the group optimises itself, using rapid fire burst of communication, to solve the problem synergistically. It looks like chaos, and you wonder whether or not anything will ever come of it, but invariably very good outcomes do. And the order that emerges from all this chaos tends to be a highly optimised resolution of the problem at hand.

I know this, because I've had lots of time to study our new workforce at the bank, and they do things in quite different ways to those that my peers and I do things. We try to take control, to lead. They don't bother with any of that, and self organise into a non-structure that produces results, which are often unexpected.

Coming back to my original question, then, the value of experience as a differentiator in this case is very much reduced. Because you have 25 minds processing things in parallel, the amount of information that can be involved in a mental model is incomparably greater than that for a 65 year old with experience. 25 minds working together can accept all the evidence a 65 year old accumulates over their career in hours or days, and Instead of building models over time, they do it in real-time. The result will tend to approximate the best available outcome given a much broader analysis of data.

Here's another experiment you can try if you don't believe me: talk with a group of twenty-somethings about a project they've been working on, and ask them for detail of things they didn't work on personally. They'll have no clue at all what their peers are doing, and will refer you onwards. They don't care what their peers in the crowd are doing, because they have self-optimised their handoffs and interactions so they don't have to care.

That's quite different to the way that I, for example, would approach something. I need to know that the whole outcome is under control. I need to know the detail is in hand. And I must certainly feel able to explain the whole project to anyone who asks me. I am accountable; therefore, I must know what is going on.

In other words, I am unable to harness the power of multiple minds in any way which makes the whole greater than the parts.

Now, before I leave this topic, I want to make one last point, and it is this: the communications and collaborations technologies in the hands of our new workforce already let them collaborate at lightning speed. But these are not technologies that one expects in any way to slow down their advance. The power of crowds of young people to do things previously reserved for only older, more experienced people will continue to grow, probably in an exponential fashion.

Consequently, I predict the death of experience as the defining decision factor in who gets what job in our workforce within the next 10-15 years. That's the timeframe, by the way, that significant numbers of these collaborating crowds of young people will start to win their first senior jobs away from the old guard non-collaborators who presently rule the roost.

I'll close this post with another discussion I had at Amplify last week, and it was with a senior executive I'd made these points to. He wanted to know, if the end of experience was nigh, what would happen to all the older workers out there? Now, I don't have a convenient answer to that, because I don't know. But what I have observed so far is that collaborating groups in this age band tend to make collectively moral decisions which include the social best interests of most players.

The probable result? Our experienced workforce will get taken care of, whilst at the same time, they are pushed to the edges of major decision making. They will be reference encyclopaedias that can be called on for historical facts quickly and easily, but won't be core to the actual process of creating substantial change.

2 Responses to“The death of experience”

  1. Orlando Falvo
    June 30, 2009 at 5:16 am #

    Arrogance…pure arrogance and your comment that you…
    …”observed so far that collaborating groups in this age band tend to make collectively moral decisions which include the social best interests of most players.” …is the end of the independent mind… Thank you “Lord of the Flies”.
    You have no base line data to support your comment just an opinion based on your observations.

  2. June 30, 2009 at 2:10 pm #

    Why must it be a question of experience OR collaboration? Isn’t the biggest opportunity to find ways to blend the two?
    “I predict the death of experience as the defining decision factor in who gets what job in our workforce within the next 10-15 years”
    I acknowledge you’re not saying it “should”, just that it “will”; and while it may indeed happen, that would be terribly sad, unfortunate and misguided. I’m the first to acknowledge that experience should not be the sole gatekeeper for positions of power and influence, but I still believe that the real change (authentic, sustainable change) will be driven by those able to blend experience and collaboration.
    “But what I have observed so far is that collaborating groups in this age band tend to make collectively moral decisions which include the social best interests of most players. ”
    High collaborators are not immune from mob behavior, group-think and social proof; to suggest this ignores much of the research into the fundamental nature of how humans work in groups.
    I understand (and in many ways agree) with many of your points about control v. doing, over self-organizing and self-optimizing, of reducing transaction costs between groups, of the power of combining multiple minds v. a single person, of the ability for crowds of young people to do things previously reserved for older people; but I think we’re over-correlating the *opportunity* to create change rather than the *ability* to create change.
    This clash between generations, cultures, styles and methods is going to be one of the most interesting challenges for business and society in the near future (as all generational changes are); I believe the true winners will be those that can blend the cultures and methods most appropriately for their task, situation, culture, company, organization. And I sincerely hope we’re able to find better ways to integrate experienced workers into the core of driving change rather than reducing them to “reference encyclopedias”.

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