Universality and Convergence are themes which shape much of my thinking. I ponder them occasionally in my blog. I gathered a few of my thoughts below.
UNIVERSALITY AS A DEFINITION
Ironically, the term Universality itself has differing meanings within different disciplines. My interest is primarily logical: “An idea or concept is considered universal if it can be conceived of as true in all possible contexts without creating contradiction.”
I recently began a parallel layman’s study into systems study: “Universal properties in a system are independent of the dynamical details of the system.” In systems where universality can be detected, the closer a force-of-change comes to its critical value, the less sensitivity the order of the system seems to have in relation to the other details of the system.
UNIVERSALITY AS A METHOD
As an introspective person, I’ve long attempted to understand the way my own mind works (on those rare occasions when it isn’t slacking off). After a fashion, I’ve ferreted out the basic methods it employs. Like most minds it is a fickle little devil, but the lynchpin I use to approach most things is a single concept: universality.
People like the universal… simple answers… absolutes. Most people find comfort in cherished universal truths and beliefs. I often label this as the “seven rules fallacy”. The problem is… few things we encounter in daily life are universal. Nor are they of big enough scope that all the inner workings of them NEED to be universal. This is where context becomes the key.
The challenges when considering whether something is ‘universal’ center around perception and context. Can you perceive and measure it? If you can measure it, can you conceive of it in every context? Can you understand the deeper disciplines at play in each context? Here’s what I came to realize, despite my obsessive-perfectionist tendencies: Once you can perceive and measure something, you don’t have to do all the rest.
Critical thinking often reveals an Achilles heel that knocks a supposedly universal truth off its pedestal. The more skeptical and critical you are, the more you find this happening to you. That doesn’t mean one needs to throw out a fallen concept altogether. You can still work with it. To do so, you need to do some analysis. Determine if the key principles, goals and mechanics are universal across the context in which you are applying them – and the contexts you may need in your ‘stretch case’ scenarios. Beyond that… obsession becomes less a productive pursuit and more of an indulgent hobby.
This flies in the face of the ‘six steps to follow’ and ‘seven easy rules’ books. Instead of leaning on one-size-fits-all rote memorization, universal thinking relies on the oft-neglected skill of critical thinking. I’ve found that critically thinking about universals helps me reach beyond the ‘simple rules’ crutches to achieve more. To do so however you must recognize, develop, and flex your critical thinking skills and skepticism… without obsessing to a point of analysis paralysis.
HOW UNIVERSALITY FIRST INTERESTED ME
The concept of universality has intrigued me ever since I first entered into discussions of convergence in the mid-1990s. My first exposure to these two concepts was in the context of information technology. It slowly evolved for me into a world view, and then a conscious method. This was not driven by theoretical study. It was driven by attempts to apply technology convergence within businesses, cultures and subcultures.
I think you will quickly see how key issues from back then are truly coming to the fore just now, in our "new age" of social media and instant-on information.
Flash back to the late 1990's. Ray Ozzie and Iris Associates had birthed and solidly establishing an industry leading client-server software application called Lotus Notes. But even after deploying 60 million seats our customers and prospects often repeated a perplexing observation: "This is mighty expensive for an email application." This opinion was true, as far as it went. The problem: Notes was never designed to be an "email application." It was designed from the ground up as a collaboration and communication layer enabling workers to connect, share common knowledge, and amplify their creativity or productivity. It was built on a simple-to-deploy, easy-to-modify structure and replication scheme that allow it grow quickly. It can spread through an organization in organic ways as subject matter experts take the reins and shape it to their needs, further amplifying its effectiveness. However. As marketing from competitors painted Notes with a brush of "it is just email" in the 90’s, salespeople regularly sold and discounted Notes to fill only the email needs of clients. IT managers regularly bought Notes and justified return on investment weighed against its deployment and use as "just email." This often led Tim Halvorsen and the Lotus / Iris teams to wrestle with a key question:
"How do we get groups to perceive, quantify, and benefit from the collaborative tools we designed?"
This quickly propels a question of technology convergence from techno-geekery into the arenas of business operations, finance, marketing, social science, psychology, law, learning, and even ethics. We are now dealing with information, knowledge, expertise, veracity, memory, influence and thought-leadership – the very things many people argue make us… “us.”
What disconnected, uninterpreted information should be held tightly by management and experts to avoid sewing seeds of confusion? How does one quantify the value of not repeating research already done by another? How does one avoid mistakenly distributing internal brainstorming to customers as official positions? How much of an employee's knowledge is his own? How do employees understand and weigh the cost-benefit of sharing knowledge, versus consuming others' knowledge? How does one translate the jargon and technical terminology used in one discipline so that it can be shared with other disciplines before a "formal treatment" is performed?
Convergence of technologies, features and information are not enough. Universality of vision and value are needed across disciplines, teams and individuals. Otherwise, convergence is simply collision… a blind gamble. It may end up being more unpredictable and destructive than simply leaving things the way they are.
Universality is needed in order to unleash knowledge, help the whole achieve and learn more than the sum of its parts, and ideally raise the capabilities, perspective and awareness of every person participating in order to fuel growth.
The trick is: How universal does a value or valuation need to be to achieve a vision? How universal does the vision need to be? Does a vision or value need to be universal across a team? An institution? A nation? Do visions and values in fact need to stretch to and connect logically to properties of physics? Of metaphysics? Does it necessarily lend more veracity if a vision or value is common across multiple entities, instead of just one?
When I came to realize how many of these particular business challenges necessarily branched into the broader societal and life issues with which so many of us struggle, I developed personal methods for considering them.