James Evans, a University of Chicago sociologist, recently presented his research on Electronic Publication and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship at Stanford. The gist of his findings is that in developed countries, the availability of research in the sciences, social sciences and humanities has narrowed rather than expanded scholarship. Research that is popular and newer is cited more than older and less referenced works.
His findings parallel what occurs on the web. People (including myself) cite existing sources, re-Tweet the social net, etc. Original reporting is expensive compared to “re-reporting”. (At some point we may be down to one original source and millions of references!) As Evans commented during his presentation, people like to belonging to groups that share common interests and practices thus narrowing feeds our human needs as well
Anita Elberse amplifies Evan’s research in her Harvard Business Review article that illustrates in music, videos and books, so-called blockbusters are thriving now more than ever. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of titles in the top 10 percent of weekly home video sales declined by more than 50%. This is contrary to what Chris Anderson’s Long Tail argument would suggest.
The implications for working wider are significant. Stepping beyond one’s boundaries is just the first step in working wider. What you do when you get there matters greatly. Don’t be the American tourist who searchers for MacDonald’s when in Paris. One has to place themselves in contact and be fully present with the differences one encounters. Taking in the experience is a precondition for learning wider.
I recently rented The World, a Chinese film that was described as one of their better movies. Well over 2 hours in length, I found it a fascinating look inside the new consumerism of China but conducted at a painfully slow pace. Hanging in was a better learning experience than entertainment. (Self confession: I can handle about one of these a month.)
After you’ve taken in an alternative experience, strongly resist the temptation to slot it into your existing experience and mental catagories of how the world works. Instead, ask yourself, what surprises you about what you’ve experienced? Detroit executives returning from benchmark trips to Toyota notoriously used much of their air time explaining or defending how similar their own practices were to Toyota’s. That’s strange since they certainly weren’t getting the same results. Imagine if their core question was instead, “How come we think we’re doing the same thing when we’re not getting their results? What are we missing?”
In the genre of the U.S. Army slogan, to get the benefits of reaching wider, you have to allow yourself to be as wide as you can be.