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Centaur Stage Ep. 7: Why broad knowledge wins with James Piecowye

Centaur Stage is a weekly video series where we explore bold ideas about the future of work and learning. Each Thursday afternoon, on LinkedIn Live, at 2:30 PM UAE-time, Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs is joined by some incredible guests to share insights, opinions, and perspectives about the future of how we work and learn.

In this episode, Marilyn and James Piecowye explore the value of having range in your knowledge and skills, and how generalists will shape the future of work. James also talks about the interconnection of learning, and how this emerges in his teaching style.

Watch the full episode here

About James Piecowye

James is a 20 year veteran of Zayed University's College of Communication and Media Sciences where he is an associate professor. James is also a prolific podcaster on PODAHOLIKS and his own channel THEJAMESCAST where Marilyn was invited to speak about the value of employee engagement.

In his spare time, James works with a wonderful team of volunteers at CreativeMornings in Dubai to imagine and deliver extraordinary monthly breakfast lectures.

James is a Canadian born in North Bay Ontario and he earned his PhD in Communication from the University of Montreal. He believes that absolutely everything we do has educational value and encourages others to spread their interests far and wide - and more on that in a bit.

About The Topic

In preparation for this episode, James spoke about how passionate he is about broad knowledge. A book that Marilyn often references is “Range: Why generalists triumph in a specialized world” by David Epstein and it inspired the name of this episode.

In the book, Epstein argues that specialization is useful for what he calls “kind problems”. These are problems that challenge us in closed predictable environments like a chess game or playing music. But the modern world is characterized by “wicked problems” which require us to deal with new situations where we can't rely on past experience to perfect our decisions. The pandemic is of course the perfect example of this.

David Epstein believes that broad knowledge is exactly what a rapidly changing, “wicked” world demands - conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts". He cites an example from InnoCentive, a company that specializes in crowdsourcing solutions for intractable problems. The company found that

“the further the problem is from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they are to solve it.”

The Interconnection of Learning

James started by presenting the reality of education today and described the fundamental problem in our education systems. "You go from being really broad to being really narrow. You think of your primary school in your kindergartens, and then you start moving up and you're in middle school. Up to about that point, it's pretty broad range stuff. Once you start getting into high school, and then definitely once you get into university, you start going down these big, giant silos. If I'm doing management, I'm going to business school. If I'm doing art, I'm in an art school. If I'm doing communication, I'm in the communication school or maybe I'm in an English school. If you're doing that stuff, you don't mix with other people until you come out with your very narrow degree that has focused you only reading and thinking about certain things in your professional career."

He continues, "So you go from being very creative in how you think about things to very, no, that's only, you only read this stuff to know it. I think we are currently doing ourselves a big disservice because we're teaching like this and some teachers are trying to broaden out what we do by creating environments where you need to bring together a whole bunch of things to make what your teaching works. The reality is, as we start looking at these problems, like crowdsourcing and being able to ask other people what they think and being able to respect people who are outside of your domain of knowledge, that's really hard because the doctor knows best or the auto mechanic knows best, or the engineer knows best..

"When we start to realize that we all have these intrinsic relationships that work together, and we all bring pieces of the same knowledge with slightly different bends to it, as soon as you start realizing that and trusting it, you start to reimagine what you're doing. Connecting the two together becomes a much better possibility."

New ways of Teaching

James appreciates how teaching has become technologically-driven and sees that it has added extra value to teaching by allowing for more possibilities of interaction during class and more creativity in the content that is being presented. "The fact that it has happened over 10 months instead of 10 years is frightening and exciting at the same time," he added.

Lifelong learning

As Marilyn states in the interview, learning cannot stop after university. Organizations have to become incredibly good at teaching people or helping them learn new skills. James thinks that we need to be more mindful about ourselves and about how things are interconnected. Our home life, our work life, how we're actually doing things. There's now a whole bunch of people going back to the office and thinking, why am I in the office? I was way more productive at home and maybe coming to the office once a week and having that meeting is enough.

He continues, "What we start to ask ourselves is, what are the skills I really need? There are a number of hard skills we need, but there are a number of soft skills that many organizations have been undervaluing. Organizations need to think about how to actually mentor these people. A mentor becomes a really important thing to have.

This brings us right back to this “range” idea of what are the things I could be learning and doing that don't necessarily seem like they connect to my job? But that in fact do. So an example would be cooking. Why wouldn't I sign my employees up for some cooking courses? How does that relate to accounting? So the first thing is you've got to feed people and people have to eat balanced food. But cooking is also a huge time management tool. You need to manage your time. You need to make choices. Often you have to make substitutional choices on the way things go together. Cooking involves following a plan through and thinking about the course of action and the implications of everything you're going to do, with a set deadline. Suddenly cooking is a micro picture of every organization.

Why don't we start bringing in some of these ideas? If you're sending people to do things that they need to do anyway, and that they're going to see some value in. It's like a win-win win. Your employees kind of go, I work in the best place in the world because they’re forward thinking. And they're so concerned about me.

The future of learning is…

At the end of a very excited exchange about the wonders of learning how to cook or cooking together with a colleague, James answers our favorite question.

"The future of learning is exciting. I think we are sitting at this enormous opportunity and it's ours to lose because never before have we had such a reset."

He continues, the challenge with the opportunity in our education is that it's shifting. We've been so structured into this brick-and-mortar education system that is attached around buildings, where suddenly we've been told, we've been shown that we don't need the buildings anymore. Sure, we need some training in how to do these things differently. We need better wifi and broadband. We need better computers and different screen setups. Sure, there's all these physical things, but we have this exciting opportunity to reinvent education for the real world for today. That is going to take us into this innovative environment that is being forced upon us.

Other episodes of Centaur Stage

Episode 5: Watch Marilyn's debate with Rama Chakaki on whether remote work creates more opportunities for refugee talent, or read the key insights here.

Episode 6: Watch Marilyn's discussion with Nitesh Batra on mindful leadership or read the key insights here.


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