Mine experience for design insight

What’s the value of experience in the rapidly changing world we inhabit?

This isn’t a new question. Mark Twain raised it over a century ago:

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.

Experience matters when it offers insight into what action to take next. In a slower world, the insights can be treated as scripts to execute because we know that they work. We may not particularly care why they work if the world is stable enough.

Change makes old scripts obsolete. At one extreme we can adopt Mark Zuckerberg’s observation that “I want to stress the importance of being young and technical…young people are just smarter.” Ignore experience, move fast, break things, hope your IQ points manage to mesh with where the world is going. It’s difficult to argue with Zuckerberg’s success. On the other hand, Facebook is now constrained by its own history and experience. Experience remains a factor.

If change happens too fast for experience to be packaged into scripts, how do we then leverage experience? My hypothesis is that the answer lies in actively processing experience. I think this is part of the argument for knowledge management. However, knowledge management approaches in many organizations focus on accumulating and organizing experience without real processing. They are anchored in an assumption that simple access to experience will be sufficient.

The value of experience in a rapidly changing world is to reveal patterns that can be mined for principles that in turn feed the design of possible responses.

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