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The Polymath Proposition

At the recent DevLearn conference, one of the keynotes was Adam Savage.  And he said something that gave me a sense of validation. He was talking about being a polymath, and I think that’s worth understanding.

His point was that his broad knowledge of a lot of things was valuable.  While he wasn’t the world’s expert in any particular thing, he knew a lot about a lot of things.  Now if you don’t know him, it helps to understand that he’s one of the two hosts of Mythbusters, a show that takes urban myths and puts them to the test.  This requires designing experiments that fit within pragmatic constraints of cost and safety, and will answer the question. Good experiment design is an art as well as a science, and given the broad range of what the myths cover, this ends up requiring a large amount of ingenuity.

The reason I like this is that my interests vary broadly (ok, I’m coming to terms with a wee bit of ADD ;).  The large picture is how technology can be designed to help us think, work, and learn.  This ends up meaning I have to understand things like cognition and learning (my Ph.D. is in cognitive psychology), computers (I’ve programmed and designed architectures at many levels), design (I’ve looked at usability, software engineering, industrial design, architectural design, and more), and organizational issues (social, innovation…). It’s led to explorations covering things like games, mobile, and strategy (e.g. the topics of my books).  And  more; I’ve led development of adaptive learning systems, content models, learning content, performance support, social environments, and so on.  It’s led me further, too, exploring org change and culture,  myth and ritual,  engagement and fun, aesthetics and media, and other things I can’t even recall right now.

And I draw upon models from as many fields as I can.  My Ph.D. research was related to the power of models as a basis for solving new problems in uncertain domains, and so I continue to collect them like others collect autographs or music.  I look for commonalities, and try to make my understanding explicit by continuing to diagram and write about my reflections.  I immodestly think I draw upon a broad swath of areas. And I particularly push learning to learn and meta-cognition to others because it’s been so core to my own success.

What I thrive on is finding situations where the automatic solutions don’t apply. It’s not just a clear case for ID, or performance support, or…  Where technology can be used (or used better) in systemic ways to create new opportunities. Where I really contribute is where it’s clear that change is needed, but what, how, and where to start aren’t obvious.  I’ve a reliable track record of finding unique, and yet pragmatic solutions to such situations, including the above named areas I’ve innovated in.  And it is a commitment of mine to do so in ways that pass on that knowledge, to work in collaboration to co-develop the approach and share the concepts driving it, to hand off ownership to the client. I’m not looking for a sinecure; I want to help while I’m adding value and move on when I’m not.  And many folks have been happy to have my assistance.

It’s hard for me to talk about myself in this way, but I reckon I bring that  polymath ability of a broad background to organizations trying to advance.   It’s been in assisting their ability to develop design processes that yield better learning outcomes, through mobile strategies and solutions that meet their situation, to overarching organizational strategies that map from concepts to system.  There’s a pretty fair track record to back up what I say.

I am deep in a lot of areas, and have the ability to synthesize solutions across these areas in integrated ways. I may not be the deepest in any one, but when you need to look across them and integrate a systemic solution, I like to think and try to ensure that I’m your guy. I help organizations envision a future state, identify the benefits and costs, and prioritize the opportunities to define a strategy.  I have operated independently or with partners, but I adamantly remain my freedom to say what I truly think so that you get an unbiased response from the broad suite of principles I have to hand.  That’s my commitment to integrity.

I didn’t intend this to be a commercial, but I did like his perspective and it made me reflect on what my own value proposition is.  I welcome your thoughts.  We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog already in progress…

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