Knowing and Doing
May 31, 2008
For some strange reason, I have been thinking about, of all people, Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici (1519-1574). In particular, I have been thinking about a specific portrait by Giorgio Vasari entitled "Duke Cosimo I and his Artists" (located in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence).
To my mind, what makes this portrait interesting is its depiction of the interaction between an executive (the Duke), responsible ultimately for doing, and the artists, responsible for knowing and creating.
What I especially like about the portrait is that it depicts, quite intentionally to his favour, Cosimo's interest in the arts. He is depicted holding a compass and a ruler, so he is trying his hand. But best of all is the fact that he is shown as interrupting the discussion and stirring into action. Something important is happening and the time for action has arrived. There is a tenderness in how Cosimo is interrupting the exchange while there is an evident awareness amongst the artists that they need to step aside so that the Duke can take care of business. Now all this is squarely set in the long tradition of portraiture but nonetheless the treatment of the dynamic between knowing and doing is memorable.
On regular occasions in my experience, and specifically on those occasions where academics are drawn into business environments, I have seen where this same dynamic emerges. What is sometimes missing in these events is an awareness on the part of the academics that the understanding conveyed in knowledge is only one input to the process of decision making. On the other side, the business executives often miss the value of putting aside the demands of the minute so as to seek an understanding of what they have been taking for granted and that may need modification.
Even within the last few weeks, I have found myself hankering for ways to reintroduce a more constructive interaction between the two domains. Specifically, I was participating in a workshop where on one side the academics continuously quoted obscure research while the business people were looking for overly expedient answers whose shelf-life would be measured in days at best.
There is a fundamental difference between the domains of knowledge and those of action and facilitating a pragmatic and productive interaction between the two is central to being successful, with success here being defined as broadly as possible.
As I am sometimes heard saying "To focus on knowledge is to focus on potentials. Business, let us not forget, is about actuals." This does not denigrate knowledge because what can actually be achieved is bounded by what is possible. The range and quality of the knowledge available and readied for application determines the range of possible actions. It is the interaction between the two domains, of knowledge and action, that is really interesting and, at the end of the day, important.
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