Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Employable Skills: Knowledge-based Economy and Geography

The matrix I used in a previous blog on careers highlighted the relationship between your value and your replaceability, pointing out that it is very good idea to have highly valued skills that are unique to you making you hard to replace. The Royal Geographical Society website ‘Careers with Geography’ has a lot of resources that highlight the skills that you can gain from Geography and why these are important skills to take to the workplace.

An important question to ask is what are the high value skills that make you irreplaceable? In a knowledge-based economy any individual will need to show the ability or capability to learn, but in addition geographers have a world-view, a view of the world as a series of spatial relations that is almost unique.

Why this capability and uniqueness of world is view such an important issue in a knowledge–based economy? It is important to think about what a ‘knowledge-based economy’ actually could mean. What is knowledge? How does knowledge differ from ‘mere’ information? Are the two related? According to Nicholas Rescher (Complexity: A philosophical overview, 1998), knowledge is distinguished from information by its significance – knowledge is information that has exceeded some threshold of significance. I would add that knowledge implies understanding of information, a sort of higher-level information (hence the threshold idea). Just collecting additional information does not necessarily increase your knowledge – you need to extract knowledge from the information, so knowing how to change infromation to a form from which you cna extract knowledge is vital as is the process of extraction itself.

Rescher suggests that knowledge, K, is the log of information, I. As a simple formula that is:

K = log I

Although he expands upon this simple idea, the basic point is clear. The amount of knowledge you have does not increase at the same rate as the amount of information you need from which to extract that knowledge. Knowledge increases at a slower rate than information and you need increasing amounts of information to extract that extra knowledge. It can take longer if you have a lot of information already accumulated to develop new or novel knowledge. Graphing this relationship gives you something like the figure below. Increasing the amount of information only increases the level of knowledge slightly, but there can be breaks, rapid changes in our understanding of information due to increased knowledge that suddenly lead to a glut of understanding. These rapid changes are followed by periods of relatively quiet where information accumulates again and knowledge develops slowly. Kuhn, back in the 1960s used a similar “stasis and change” model for paradigm change in science.

So what has this got to do with employability skills? Well this model suggests that there are two things that a knowledge-based economy needs: information and knowledge. Geographers are well placed through the skills they learn to provide both. They have the techniques needed to go out and collect information in an appropriate manner (remember information is never just collected- there is always a purpose to the collection). Skills such as collection and analysis of census data, surveying, GIS construction and analysis provides the raw materials for converting vast amounts of information to a form that can be understood and interpreted. Then the second skills knowledge or rather extraction of understanding from the pool of information. As well as analytical techniques and tools such as statistics and GIS, geographers also have that spatial and relational mode of thinking that can create links and find patterns, converting information to understanding, to knowledge.

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