Who wins: Engineers vs Sharers?

I wonder which team they are on

I had a boss in a previous life who was always keen for us to share.

“If you find out something interesting — I want to see and hear you share it”

I did my best but occasionally I would sit on a piece of information because I didn’t really have time to figure out how to share it with the wider team. “I’ll get to it soon” I would tell myself. A lot of the time I did not.

But how beneficial is sharing as opposed to devoting your time to working and innovating? I happened across an interesting model based around a similar question, put forward by Evolutionary Biologist Joseph Henrich. Let’s think about two groups of people.

Group 1 is a group of Engineers. These people are so smart that they develop a brand new technological innovation once in ten lifetimes.

Group 2 is made up of people less gifted from an engineering perspective but more inclined towards social sharing. We’ll call them Sharers. They aren’t anywhere near as prolific when it comes to innovation. It takes them 1000 lifetimes to develop something. So you could say that the Engineers are 100x more innovative than the Sharers.

There is a twist though. Humans don’t necessarily always acquire new inventions by engineering an innovation all on their own. They acquire them by learning. In this regard, the Engineers are at a distinct disadvantage. Each Engineer will only share a new development with one other Engineer. Sharers on the other hand like to chat and will share a new development with ten other Sharers. They are 10x more social than the Engineers.

Let me just boil that down: Engineers are 100x more innovative; Sharers are 10x more social.

Learning from someone else isn’t easy though, so let’s assume that in both groups, if an innovation is shared, it sticks only 50% of the time.

Which of these groups do you think will end up more ‘advanced’ — at least from a technological innovation perspective?

Let’s look at the Engineers first. It turns out that over time, a particular innovation will spread to 18% of the Engineers. Not too bad. 50% of them figured it out for themselves and the remaining 50% learned from another Engineer.

Now let’s look at the Sharers. They’ve flourished. 99.9% of them have the innovation, even though only 0.1% of them discovered it for themselves.

If both of those groups are human tribes and the innovation we are talking about is a bow and arrow, whose side would you rather be on?

This elegant idea goes a long way to explain human cultural and technical development. In Henrich’s words, “if you want cool technology, it is better to be social than to be smart”.

Of course my original question is a little oversimplified: the best situation would be a group of smart engineers who are willing and able to share. So what can we do to enable this? The level of interconnectedness globally has skyrocketed over the last 25 years, which I believe, goes a long way to help explain the level of technological growth we have witnessed and the even more impressive growth we are probably about to witness. It is much easier to share with motivated individuals now than ever before. But there is still room for improvement: plenty. And if we can make sharing easier, specifically new knowledge and information, then it stands to reason that technical development can occur more quickly and a wider group of people can benefit. This counts for our personal and professional lives but also for the world at large. Remember:

If you want cool technology, it is better to be social than to be smart

So why do we still struggle in terms of sharing? These seven areas come to mind to start with. All seven can refer to ‘local’ difficulties that might impact us professionally or personally, or they can refer to more global difficulties that are hampering our efforts as a species:

  1. Language differences: This may sound obvious, but it is still a huge blocker. I’m writing this in English, which is great because it means there are plenty of people around who can read, understand and take some benefit from it. But “only” 840 million people in the world speak English as a first or second language according to language publication Ethnologue. So by far and away the vast majority of the world, even without any other impediment, cannot understand what I’m writing. What if what I had to say was important?
  2. National blockers: Sometimes, even with the best will in the world, it is either impossible, exceptionally difficult or just plain time consuming to share information beyond national borders. This might be due to legal and regulatory practices that are not aligned or commercial distribution mechanisms may not exist (or are very difficult) outside of certain national boundaries.
  3. Education: Can more be done in schools to foster an atmosphere of sharing information and knowledge? Shared and group teaching no doubt takes place, but our model of success is usually centred around the individual. What if we were to tweak this to encourage sharing? I’m not saying we move to a system where the group average is more important, but is there scope to enable an individual to benefit from sharing his or her insight in some way? Might this lead to more sharing later in life, particularly in the workplace? I believe so.
  4. Connectivity: Connectivity, connectivity, connectivity. Put people online and at least remove that impediment. Remote areas globally suffer from no or poor internet access. Admirable steps are being taken in this regard but the quicker we move the more we will all benefit.
  5. Curation: It is often difficult, even for a motivated individual, to find the information they want. Advances in search functionality (Google et al), content quality management by users or tech (Reddit, Quora, Medium et al) all do their part to assist in enabling the right content to get into the right hands and I have no doubt we have some of the finest minds in the world working on even better ways to do this as I write.
  6. In the workplace: I want to pull these out separately even though it is something worthy of a little attention. How can we make sharing both easy and less time consuming in the workplace? The key is the time consuming part — for all parties involved.
  7. Cultural/political palatability: Sometimes it just isn’t convenient for information to be widely distributed because it has the potential to disrupt the ‘fabric of society’. It isn’t necessarily suppressed (although sometimes it might be) but people nonetheless decide not to distribute or pursue it. As an example, the study of psychedelic drugs as treatments for various ailments including addiction itself, has only recently come back on the ‘acceptable agenda’, despite evidence going back decades that went largely ignored.

Is enough being done to help overcome these difficulties? Do they represent decent business opportunities? Are they worth investing in? Here is my guess: some, yes and yes. When you frame the problem in terms of the value of sharing as I did earlier, it seems like a no-brainer that more could and should be done as the long-term value is there.