The less, the better, Perhaps: Learning from Music Language Youngjin Yoo The less, the better, Perhaps: Learning from Music Language Youngjin Yoo The other day, I was at Severance Hall, watching the Cleveland Orchestra perform a century-old piano concerto. The Cleveland Orchestra had never performed the piece before. It was incredibly rich in its texture and filled with emotions. I was struck by the extraordinary energy erupting out of the Orchestra, filling the entire hall. When the composer composed the piece, he must have felt something. He might have even seen or heard something. And, he put his feelings and thoughts into the music. Yet, what was left behind were pieces of paper with a set of symbols and, perhaps few words at the most. More than a century later, to a conductor and the members of the orchestra who performed the piano concerto, however, those limited words and restrained symbols were more than enough. More than enough to stir up their own imagination, feelings, and thoughts. More than enough to touch and move people who filled the concert hall that night. Yet, the composer never spoke to anyone in the hall. I have been studying and thinking about knowledge management and computer-mediated communication over the last 10 years. I have studied desktop videoconferencing systems, groupware, and other modern computer and communication technologies. Many of the problems that I have studied in the past share a common thread. That is, computer- mediated communication is often too constraining and is not rich enough for effective communication, coordination, and learning. As a result, we (technologists) build more and more tools, with more bandwidth, with more speed, and with richer media. We first added audio channels, then video channels. We added multi-media graphics. We also added interactive data and application sharing capabilities. Then, we realized that we did not have enough bandwidth. So we wanted broadband Internet connections. Now, we want broadband wireless connection everywhere. We invented e-mail. But, the responses from our colleagues and friends via e-mail were not simply fast enough. So, we invented “instant” messaging systems. We even have media “richness” theory. The richer and faster, the better the world would be, we thought. I first experimented with computer and communication network for teaching in 1995. Back then, we connected two classrooms, one in Maryland and the other in Arizona, via two sets of 28.8kbps modems and 128kbps ISDN-based videoconferencing. The modem connections were used to transmit professors’ PowerPoint slides to the students at the other side. It was painfully slow. We had to remove all the fancy background patterns that Microsoft programmers wanted us to use. The videoconferencing was slow. The image was blurring. The sounds and the motions were usually out of sync. Back then, we thought that once the technology became better and faster, more universities and professors would do what we did as an experiment for real. Around that time, someone even wrote an article entitled “Will the Internet Revolutionize Business Education and Research?” Now we have an impressive array of technology at our disposal. Connections are much faster. Our school is moving into a building with a “giga bit switched network to the The less, the better, Perhaps: Learning from Music Language Youngjin Yoo desktop”. I don’t have to remove nice background patterns from my PowerPoint slides any more. Students can see the videoconferencing from their desktop or laptop computers (soon, they may be even able to walk down the street with their PDAs). Yet, there is still no sign of a revolution in business education and research to be found, at least not due to the technology. A few years ago, I conducted a field study at a large global management consulting firm for their use of “knowledge management systems.” It was a large repository of probably hundreds of thousands of documents created by the consultants. Consultants of the firm all over the world could share the “best practice” of the firm to solve their clients’ problems. It was heralded as an exemplary use of technology to manage organizational knowledge. To my surprise, however, few consultants were actually using the systems in the field. The reason was that they could access the systems only through the dial-up connection and most files they wanted were too big to download via dial-up. Therefore, many consultants simply did not access the systems unless they were in their offices, which was very infrequent. Thus, consultants often used the systems to win the contracts, but rarely used them during the project. The management of the firm also talked about adding video clips to share “tacit” knowledge. They felt that documents were too constraining to share tacit knowledge. Today, the firm has access to virtual private network with high bandwidth Internet access. I don’t know whether they added “tacit” knowledge to their system using video clips of their experts. But, what I know is that the firm is still searching for the “holy grail” technology for effective knowledge sharing, particularly valuable tacit knowledge. Going back to my experience at the Severance Hall, I have to wonder why management people (particularly those of us who love to apply technology to solve complex business problems) cannot do what musicians all over the world have been doing over centuries. Their symbols are deliberately limited and simple. Yet, musicians routinely communicate extremely complex sets of ideas and feelings—beauty, sorrow, death, and life—using these limited and simple symbols. I propose that the secrete lies in the way they use the symbols. In music, symbols are not used simply to communicate ideas and knowledge. Instead, musical symbols are used to design a musical space in which performers and audience are effectively invited to participate. When an orchestra is performing a piece, they are not communicating with the composer through the notes. Rather, they are creating a musical space in which the audience is also invited to participate. They are invited to design their own spaces using their own imaginations. Composers do not communicate all of their thoughts and feelings through the symbols. Instead, they rely on the reflexivity of the people who perform and listen their music to fill the details. Thus, the musical space shapes and is shaped by the people who design them and the symbols are used to bring them together across time and distance. It is this notion of “design” of the space that shapes and is shaped by the actions of participants and the use of simple and limited symbols in the design of such space that I would like to emphasize in this essay. Unlike composers, we technologists often try to provide more and finer details with better technology. We often forget that technology that we design will be used by other people The less, the better, Perhaps: Learning from Music Language Youngjin Yoo who can think. We design technology as if people are mere connectors of these intelligent tools. Thus, we use more symbols and symbols are getting more elaborate. Yet, we fail to effectively communicate. For example, new e-learning tools are fast. We can put many things on a web site. Our entire lecture can be captured via video and made available over the Net. Yet, there is no evidence that e-learning is actually enhancing students’ learning. Why? I would like to argue that it is because our e-learning tools are designed as tools to communicate, not as tools to invite people to design and create learning space. When we design e-learning tools as if there will be no teachers and no learners, it will fail. When we design e- learning tools as if there will no learning processes, it will fail. When we design e- learning tools as if there will only e-learning tools with “dummy” teachers and “dummy” learners, it will fail, even if the tools might have the greatest and the latest features. However, when we start thinking about learning space that shapes and is shaped by teachers and learners, technology tools begin to have very different roles. Like musical symbols, they are used not only to communicate, but also to invite people to join the learning space that is made of both people and technology. Thus, it requires the simultaneous design of both technology and the learning process. When the technology is used to design such a socio-technical learning space, we maybe able to find the appropriate level of the use of technology in the process. Will we still look for technology that is faster, better, and richer? Probably, yes. But, probably for different reasons. Let me conclude with an anecdotal example. When we look PalmPilot’s handwriting recognition system, it expects a lot from the users. In fact, it demands people to learn its “graffiti” system and get used to it. As a result, the designers of PalmPilot could keep the tool simple, yet very effective. Contrarily, Apple Computer’s infamous Newton attempted to learn everyone’s different handwriting styles. As a result, it became complex and bulky and it failed. While the designers of PalmPilot were able to design a man-machine system of PDA and used their simple tools to invite others to join, Apple’s designers were only designing the tools. PalmPilot’s designers were able to trust their users and used simple tools, Apple’s designers did not leave any room for the users. Composers need to trust the people who will perform and listen their music in order to re- create what they want to create to begin with. They always have to think about the people and their symbols together. After all, musical notes without people to perform does not do anybody any good. Likewise, technologists will need to learn to design simultaneously technology and organizational space at the same time. For that, they will have to learn how to trust people who live and practice in organizational space first.
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