Sunday, 12 January 2014

15. The value of difference

Differences in knowledge, perception, emotion, feeling, views, ethics and culture, which I have called cognitive distance, are bothersome, because they are a source of misunderstanding and prejudice and make collaboration difficult. On the other hand they are also interesting as a source of learning. The challenge is to find partners with optimal difference: sufficient to be able to tell or show each other something new but not so much that one cannot understand each other or cannot deal with each other.

Empirical (econometric) research (that I did with associates)[1] shows that such optimal difference yields economic advantage through improved performance in innovation. The ability to work together with people who think differently yields economic advantage. That yields hope for diversity and tolerance, because if those were economically disadvantageous they would hardly be viable.

The ability to collaborate has a cognitive component in the narrow meaning of intellectual understanding (absorptive capacity), and a cognitive component in the wider, also affective sense of ethics and morality, of views on good and bad. One should not only understand each other but also be able to collaborate.

As argued in the previous item in this blog, next to absorptive capacity the other side of the coin is communicative capacity, the capacity to help others absorb what one is doing or saying.

The higher one’s absorptive and communicative capacity, the greater the cognitive distance at which one can collaborate. This enables relationships at larger cognitive distance, offering a higher degree of learning and innovation. The positive effect of that has also been demonstrated in the empirical research indicated above.

However, the more one knows the more difficult it is to still find someone who can tell or show you something new and interesting. One must search at increasing cognitive distance to sill find something new.

One can also make use of go-betweens that help to bridge cognitive distance, preventing or eliminating misunderstandings, clarify views and habits, and eliminate suspicion.

To the extent that relationships last longer and are exclusive, i.e. closed off from relationships with other, more distant parties, cognitive distance will in due course decline. One becomes so familiar with each other that one begins to see, think and act in the same way. That is convenient, in fast and easy agreement, but it can also yield intellectual incest and lack of learning and renewal.

However, long lasting relationships can retain their cognitive vitality when parties also maintain relationships with different others that can feed the relationship with fresh ideas and perspectives.

In closely-knit communities, the advantage of strong local connections is that they enable close cooperation, with social control, reputation effects and mutual trust, but they can also lead to rigidity and stagnation. Isolated, cohesive groups are in danger of losing the impulse of novel ideas and experience, and to prevent that from happening bridges should be built to connect with other groups. And for that one must overcome the inclination to distrust outsiders.

An alternative for maintaining innovative vitality is turnover in the composition of the community: sufficient exit and entry to maintain variety.

[1] B. Nooteboom, W.P.M. van Haverbeke, G.M. Duijsters, V.A. Gilsing & A. v.d. Oord, Optimal cognitive
distance and absorptive capacity, Research Policy, 36 (2007): 1016-1034. 

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