The Double Helix of Learning and Work

Editors’ Note

The Double Helix of Learning and Work by Orio Giarini and Mircea Malitza is a report to the Club of Rome first published by UNESCO in 2003. It advances fundamental paradigm-changing ideas in the field of education. Drawing inspiration from the double helix structure of DNA, the authors seek to strengthen the relationship between education and employment in order to bring ‘The Knowledge Society’ within reach. This article is a slightly abridged version of the fourth chapter of the report. The last and the next chapter will be published in the next issue of Cadmus.

Chapter 4
“The Knowledge Economy and Work”

4.1. Knowledge as a Commodity

A Swiss professor at the Polytechnic University of Zürich used to draw a large rectangle divided into four smaller boxes on the blackboard. There were also two axes, one for the matter which entered the composition of the products specific to a particular country and the other for the information incorporated into those products.

According to the diagram, a submarine contains a large amount of steel, but it also has an impressive control panel. The great world powers build their military capability on products that combine large quantities of energy for propelling large payloads over very long trajectories with small quantities of energy to show the way. A watch uses little substance and energy but its fine, precise mechanism provides vital information on the flow of time. A railway freight car has massive wheels, a chassis, and wooden or metal sides, but it has neither a “brain” nor command mechanisms. A sandal made of straps holding a sole is the manual product of a worker who puts very little matter and only a grain of intelligence into his work.

Figure 1. Relative amounts of matter and information/intelligence in the composition of products made in given countries


One could write “intelligence” rather than “information” on the left axis of this figure so as to account for the desire of humankind to create products which are new and different and which reduce human effort, e.g., through automation.

There is a new trend today according to which knowledge replaces information or intelligence. The “knowledge economy”, in which we are living, assigns a new and supreme importance to knowledge.

Does this modification mark a turning point in economic thinking? One might as well cast doubt on the novelty of the concept. It is simply necessary to remember that, three hundred years ago, the Industrial Revolution occurred when people learned how to make machines. For the past two centuries, especially in the last century, industry has been science-based. Nevertheless, the novelty is great if one considers the relative weight of matter and knowledge incorporated into products.

The importance of classical factors (among which knowledge was not even mentioned) in the production of goods has obviously declined. The resource-based industry that character­ized the first significant part of the history of manufacturing and shaped national strategies has lost its cogency. Japan is a major player in the steel market without having significant deposits of iron ore or of coal. Prices for natural resources fell 60 percent between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s because modern products simply use smaller quantities of raw materials. To be capital intensive is not a condition for commercial success, since capital is widely available. Moving toward labour-intensive production is no longer a trump card in an era when skilled, and, consequently, well-remunerated labour is more important when one has to run quasi-automated industries. In exchange, a new term has emerged in the equation of comparative advantages, something that counts more than the older factors and makes their location less relevant. As one author put it, “Today knowledge and skills now stand alone as the only source of comparative advantage” (Thurow, 1999).

“The effectiveness of knowledge is given by its movement. It does not produce anything when it lies still; it yields everything when it is intensively used.”

This new commodity called knowledge, which is incorporated into the structures of all goods, can be compared to money. This comparison is suggestive of a puzzle: knowledge is like money, but it is not money: it can produce money and can be obtained for money. The universality of knowledge means that no goods can be produced and exist without knowledge. Knowledge has a relationship of mutual penetrability with goods, much like the complete interchangeability between money and goods.

The same as in the case of money, the effectiveness of knowledge is given by its movement. It does not produce anything when it lies still; it yields everything when it is intensively used. Its behaviour should be considered according to the derivative of the function or the speed of circulation. There is erudition that is valued for itself; however, it is less valuable than a certain hidden treasure. The value of money, resulting from the use of this treasure, has been recognized since biblical times. If Molière mocked the sterile exercise of avaricious hoarding, society did not repudiate the knowledge owner in the same way. A man of knowledge was considered the educational ideal.

In spite of these qualities, knowledge cannot either be appropriated or expropriated, as happens in the case of money. The brain is the safest repository of knowledge, as long as it is not expressed and circulated. The same thing happens to both knowledge and information: if circulated, it does not get depleted when it is shared, and any of its applications may provide opportunities for growth or development.

Globalization has created networks that defy time and space, allowing for the quasi-instantaneous transfer of money or pieces of knowledge (information) anywhere on the planet, no matter how far away. Information is, evidently, an indispensable support for knowledge, while knowledge is not reduced to bare information, but it contains a surplus of explanations of the facts, of understanding, of control of the natural, physical, or social processes, and of applicability and foresight. Broadly speaking, knowledge is science enriched with tacit, artistic, or logically informal norms. Knowledge is the first human activity that has reached the status of universality, most likely followed by trade and types of exchanges. Eluding restrictions or barriers, it keeps seeping into the places where attraction and demand are the greatest.

Another comparison might be made between knowledge and goods. Although it is initially stored in individual human brains, knowledge is produced in a highly interactive and co-operative social melting pot. After it has been partially or systematically enounced, it becomes a public good that lends itself to general distribution. Everybody can drink from the “fountains of knowledge”. We assimilate knowledge in public or private schools, we explore it on the Internet using a personal computer, we discover it by reading, studying, experiment­ing, and judging.

What kind of public good is knowledge? Its first feature is that it is not subject to rivalry. One can have knowledge without depriving somebody else of it. Information has the same feature. But only disembodied knowledge or other objects of thought are purely exempt from rivalry. The moment knowledge is embodied or encoded in material forms, access to it may be subjected to commercial logic. It will have a cost and a price. It takes resources and time to embody knowledge in people or to apply it in products.

The second feature of knowledge as a public good should be its non-exclusiveness. One cannot exclude a person from the benefits of public facilities or from enjoyment of universal basic rights. But a qualification also intervenes in the case of knowledge. Owing to its power and the benefits it produces, knowledge is protected as a special form of ownership: intellectual property. Patents, licenses, and any other form of protecting property rights make knowledge partially excludible, and only those who can afford to pay its price are entitled to enjoy it.

Knowledge is therefore a public good, to some extent, but not totally and purely one. Were it to be completely excludible, companies would no longer invest as heavily in re­search; publishing houses would no longer print books; and costly scientific events would not take place at all. These remarks on knowledge as a public good lead to unsolved ambiguities and dilemmas, which are likely to become even more complicated in the era of the “knowledge economy”.

Nobody has ever changed mathematical theorems. This assumption of stability has applied to all statements resulting from serious research in the natural sciences or in societal phenomena. The moment there is an application leading to the production of tradable goods (e.g., pharmaceutical products), knowledge is protected by law and is capitalized like any private good. Moreover, one witnesses a phenomenon of rapprochement between the pure and the applied sciences. Their borderlines become blurred or fuzzy. Applied research laboratories have also begun to tackle theoretical issues, even though the results of such investigations pertain to intellectual property rather than to the public good. Those countries that understand the need to maintain a high level of research in the pure sciences have found it necessary to use clever stratagems in order to justify the funding of such research programmes. In the United States, the military have contracts with mathematicians specializing in pure geometry on the basis of a putative interest in potential applications.

Public schools operate in response to the constitutional requirement to provide education for all as a universally recognized right. The State invests public funds to produce people endowed with knowledge. Companies, however, regard that supply of trained people as a free input for their productive activities. Moreover, some states have built successful industrial policies on the conversion of the scientific results obtained by other states into highly profit­able applications. There are countries that rely, as a matter of policy, on the recruitment of foreign specialists who have been trained at a high cost in their countries of origin.

In the realm of education, there is continuing tension between the duty of the state to distribute and to transmit knowledge as a public good and the real chances that acquired knowledge will enter the circuit of private goods and protected property. Companies may occasionally be unhappy with the inadequate training that the personnel they require may have received in the public education system; therefore, they organize corporate training schemes for their own use, which are characterized by high costs and excludible knowledge.

The ever-increasing costs of public education, which, together with the health system, have become large consumers of the State budget, call for a comprehensive reconsideration of the educational process. From a different perspective, the major consumers of knowledge, especially in the public sector, are very interested in finding a workable solution. The people at large also expect a new approach. They aspire for emancipation and well-being in accord­ance with the new promises of human knowledge.

In the course of this century, a triad of decision-making and sponsorship is likely to emerge in the educational sector involving the government, the business community sector, and civil society. The new formula should also include parents, teachers, and young people. For the time being, this trend can only be detected in the convergence of the processes that influence current developments in schools: lifelong learning, work-related education, recurrent and alternative education, the modularization of curricula, the information and communication technologies, distance learning, and, ultimately, individual curricula and itineraries in the work/learning space.

We have to admit that most of the literature on the subject of the knowledge economy uses the term with different connotations. From a limited perspective, the knowledge industries are primarily those industries the major product of which is knowledge itself: software, biotechnology, and information technology hardware. The corresponding professions are engineers, scientists, programmers, and designers. Second, knowledge industries comprise units that are involved in managing, processing, and distributing information, such as telecommunications, banking, insurance, advertising, law, medicine, and education. They employ a broad range of professionals including managers, lawyers, bankers, and teachers.

From a broader perspective, the knowledge economy has been so described because it recognizes the primacy of the knowledge factor in the production of goods. This description applies in particular to the large industries, called by some authors “man-made brain power industries” in order to distinguish them from the classical industries, based on resources, capital, or labour. Usually, knowledge and skills are mentioned together. The synthetic (and not the analytical) skills seem to be the most important, since they are capable of putting together and capturing the synergy of all intellectual factors such as invention, design, manufacturing, services, and marketing, which are the premises of successful production.

There is considerable agreement on the role of tacit knowledge in craftsmanship. The intense familiarity of workers with the objects pertaining to their work, proper apprenticeship, and experience are more relevant to the final result than are given rules or formal training. The winner in this case is intuitive learning by doing rather than the application of systematic recipes.

The knowledge required by any of the industries, services, or productive activities (not only by those designated as knowledge industries) can also be classified into two strands. We might wish to call one of them “Schumpeterian”, since it addresses the entrepreneurs and in view of the fact that it was Schumpeter who first talked about them. This strand is a more élitist one that operates at the level of major decisions that determine the ideal combination of the numerous ingredients going into process technologies. The other strand goes to the basic level of the shop floor, where the workers can use their knowledge-based competencies to control processes, identify errors, increase efficiency, and develop initiatives.

Seldom has education held such a central place in the minds of reformers and of society as has been the case with the emergent knowledge economy. Learning has entered the mainstream of wealth-creating factors in society and of self-fulfillment in individual lives. The knowledge economy, however, reopens the problems of equal chances, of the right to education, and of the responsibilities of society, of the State, and of companies to organize adequate educational structures. At the beginning of a new century, we see the picture of an abundance of experiments and experiences, most of them redundant and costly, lacking orientation, and hardly lending themselves to effective classification.

4.2. Innovation

The key word for the life of work in educational discourse, the supremely persistent demand and cardinal virtue, is “innovation”. The classical qualities (i.e., skills, training, the work ethic, discipline, and teamwork) are not overlooked, but the ability to invent, to create, and to innovate is fundamental. The entrepreneur and the manager know that competition cannot only be confronted with lower prices and higher quality, but also with novelty. The product has to be labeled as “new”. The managerial school is not discouraged by the innovative trend.

Creation was traditionally assigned to a spark of genius or to an outburst of talent, inexplicable, non-transmittable, and inimitable, attributable only to hazard or to divine grace. Such theoreticians of management as Peter Drucker claim that innovation can be learned in the same way that one acquires knowledge and skills. They argue that, in addition to educational algorithms and the networks, there is another informal, invisible, and inexplicit way to acquire an ability to innovate, which is valid for the entire sphere of knowledge.

In order to better understand the demands of production and services, it would be edifying to examine more closely the contents and the nature of innovation. Any process, no matter how advanced, can be further improved. Incremental ameliorations of performance and efficiency occur slowly and tenaciously. The same happens in sports in which established records are constantly beaten by subsequent competitors. It is a universally valid, incremental, and cumulative method, which is used daily in professional or personal life. There are handy means to apply it, such as a pertinent remark, the repositioning of two pieces, the identification of the cause of a frequent error, or simply driving home a nail.

Small remedies can have major effects. It has been demonstrated that it makes sense to delegate responsibility down to the shop floor and to involve workers in the innovation circuit of production processes. Many of the innovations that have been made in this way remain anonymous. Still, they are vital and should not be neglected. Even a small reduction in costs may result in huge profits. An eloquent example is provided by the electronics industry, in which microprocessors are made under the microscope. Battles are fought for microns and nanoseconds. For years, chip technology has been reducing overall dimensions and has been increasing the hosting capacity of circuits. The constant pace of incremental improvement confirms the now famous law of Gordon Moore, according to which the available computing power quadruples every 30 months. (Moore’s Law of Productive Technology was enounced two decades ago). Those who design circuits know about the tremendous effects that the conquest of a minuscule space or the reduction by an infinitesimal fraction of operating speed can produce.

Each and every industry, company, or service is involved in a process of perpetual innovation that is reflected in price, quality, aspect, advertising, functioning, and user-friendliness. Innovation also accounts for a continuous effort to build additional layers of competitive advantages. At certain points, this race may show signs of exhaustion and saturation. No matter how massive the investments, profits no longer live up to expectations. In other words, the efficiency of the incremental approach is limited.

The discovery of this phenomenon has led to the examination of another type of innovation, called “value innovation” by certain authors (Kim and Mauborgne, 1990). This approach ultimately means to get out of the competition, to forget product improvement and incremental thinking, in order to choose a different track, one on which there is nobody just yet. Value innovation is innovation that actually introduces a different product, configures another market space, attracts new clients, and opens brand new horizons. In a comparative study of several new companies, it was noticed that companies using value improvement in an attempt to match or to beat their competitors generated considerably lower profits than those based on innovation. “Rather than building advantages over their competitors, companies with huge profitable growth aimed to make competition irrelevant by providing their buyers with a quantum leap in value”.

This perspective on innovation, along with the underlying economic strategy, has some qualities that are worth mentioning. First and foremost, the attitude toward competition became a real trap for the theorists of incrementalism. Competitors are no longer the obsession of a company based on value innovation; their adversaries no longer matter. The logic of the zero sum game is no longer valid. Secondly, the impulse no longer comes from outside, from a competing and imitative environment and its random events. It stems from internal resources and acknowledges a shift of focus from “exogenous” to “endogenous” growth and innovation. Thirdly, the reduced degree of competition allows some strategic relations with other firms in harmony with the requirements of the early “modular society”, in which network is the prevailing element. Finally, this concept fits nicely with the knowledge economy, since it relies on specific pieces of knowledge and ideas.

This example, taken out of the economic sphere, provides an interesting analogy with the progress of the theory of negotiations and conflict resolution.

The myriad experiences in this field comprise difficult situations, protracted or recurrent, resulting from conflicts between states or economic entities, in which the basic issue is that of distributing a material asset. Distribution may apply to a territory, a strategic geographical position, mineral resources in a certain area, a sum of money, even sharing loot or profit. Such situations were studied by the two-player game theory, especially zero sum games. They resulted in an important number of conclusions, practical observations, and recommendations. Most of these concern the negotiation process, the succession and proportions of the concessions offered, the threats, the bluffs, and the promises. The result points to a formula of mutual accommodation of interests to be incorporated into an agreement or final solution that is meant to bring about the termination of the conflict. Game theory is adequate because it defines a game as a rule-based competition.

Nevertheless, the possible analogy with the game of economic competition – in which the rivals are in dispute over one and the same good, namely the market and the buyers – is most striking. The moves of everyone are incremental and experimental. They are aimed at seizing maximum advantage from a sequence of ingenious steps. It should be noted that competing companies cannot possibly become partners in any of these two cases.

The theory of negotiations and conflict resolution has registered the limits of these methods and even their failure in different types of situations, which do not involve the (re)distribution of a tangible good but rather a confrontation between two cultures in an identity conflict. There is nothing to distribute or to reconcile when it comes to two religions, two languages, two histories, two categories of customs, two mentalities, or a territory jointly inhabited by two populations that illustrate the above-mentioned differences.

Such situations are what gave birth to the “innovative” school. It aimed at achieving a new formula of conciliation, based on common interests. The trick was to make the two parties work together. It was only in the few cases in which the innovative approach was utilized that a successful outcome was obtained, leaving behind the numerous disputes that had poisoned previous relationships. An even more explicit form of that school suggests a philosophy of the common project.

In the area of negotiations, the innovative school displays even greater similarities with value innovation than in the case of the chapters on classical incrementation competition in negotiation games, or of the hardly reducible rivalry between businesses. Indeed, it was this school in its most recent and explicit form that – following a comparative study of the conflicts in the Balkans and in the Caucasus – made a new start by leaving the old track and even overlooking the conflict itself.

The innovative solution is a project built on the clearly identified common interest of the conflicting parties. The proposed solutions pertain to the idea of civilization. They involve fewer and fewer values and beliefs, and they rely solely on the preservation instinct of the parties concerned and on their aspiration to normality. Of course, dialogue is not ruled out, but it gives way to the concept of interaction. In the final act, the initial problem is no longer even mentioned. It only contains the description of a common project in a non-controversial area and calls for constructive interaction.

All the features of economic innovation are to be noted here as well: the zero sum game is left aside; the source of the solution is endogenous, starting, as it does, from an idea related to the sphere of knowledge and intellect, and the goal is to transform former adversaries into partners. In economic matters and in political negotiations alike, the same word is used for the old competition or conflict; the common project makes it irrelevant.

This analogy points to an even greater degree of generalization so far as problem solving is concerned. Those problems that are by their nature protracted, difficult, or even unsolv­able by means of current methods, require a new audacious approach: the substitution of a problem with another problem that makes the former obsolescent and irrelevant. The newly suggested problem has the virtue of opening new horizons and simultaneously meeting the expectations of those who have been caught up in contradictions and dilemmas.

Education accepts the reality of its impasse and the fact that it can only get out of it by adopting a common strategy with an adjacent field, that of work, in its attempt to find an authentic, innovative solution, to leave the never ending track of small-step reforms and piecemeal approach.

We shall see whether or not the innovation in question can be learned in schools, in insti­tutions, or in society. Not only children learn but also adults. Today we use phrases such as: “learning companies”, “learning societies”, and “learning governments”. It is most likely that the attribute will secure the success of these undertakings.

Despite the abundance of courses, schools, and textbooks, it is difficult to believe that the mystery of innovation will vanish and that the cultivation of the capacity to exercise it can be confined to algorithms or universal practical recipes. Epistemological theories or the knowledge of how the brain functions only enable us to see innovation as a special attitude, a product of various, yet unidentified, factors. We might at least agree on the circumstances that could facilitate or encourage it to flourish. It is not clear who will come up with the surprise.

Here is an edifying example. We process knowledge, we use it, systematize it, or enrich it through reasoning. For centuries, we have debated the merits of the Aristotelian deduction or of Baconian logic. Both are vertical, but the former operates from the general to the particular, downwards, from principles to facts, while the latter functions the other way round, from particular cases toward generalization.

*All content being used from the book The Double Helix of Learning and Work – a Report to the Club of Rome – by Orio Giarini and Mircea Malitza, published in 2003, is copyrighted to UNESCO. The full book is available online for download at
Orio Giarini: Director, The Risk Institute; Member, Board of Trustees, World Academy of Art & Science
Mircea Malitza: Founding Member, Black Sea University Foundation, Romania; Fellow, World Academy of Art & Science
† “A little neglect may breed mischief: for want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost” (from Benjamin Franklin, Maxims Prefixed, to Poor Richard’s Almanac (1757), in Bartlett (1941), p. 227).

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