Oct 03, 2014

    Losing common sense in the information age

    IS COMMON sense that common any more?

    Common sense is a term that is bandied around in all walks of life. In business, it implies sound and prudent judgment and, indeed, this is the usual dictionary definition.

    The term is ancient and the original definition is bound with the five senses: we see, touch, feel, hear and taste things and form an opinion on them accordingly.

    In short, we experience something and learn from it. The commonality comes from other people experiencing the same thing and sharing their interpretation.

    Sharing information is just communication - as humans, we do this in three ways. The most basic is body language and we all have an innate perception of what others' displays mean. It can be confused by culture - raising your middle finger means different things in different cultures. Body language also includes general conduct, such as timekeeping, dress and cleanliness.

    Advanced forms of communication are speaking and listening, and writing and reading.

    Verbal communication used to require physical proximity, but is now often remote via phone or screen.

    Written communication is almost always remote, so we cannot see the writer and, therefore, cannot make a judgment on them with our five senses.

    We do make judgments, of course, but they are based on pictures we put in our heads and tones that we apply to the language we are reading.

    Writing started on paper (or parchment or stone, if you want to be pedantic), but is now most frequently accessed on screen.

    It is dominated by the Internet and includes things like e-mail, messaging systems (such as SMS and Twitter) and, for business, databases of what the leaders think is relevant to their employees.

    The written word allows us to learn about every idea had by anyone under the sun. I cannot remember who said it, but a good definition of our age is that there are no new ideas to be had, only the application of existing ones.

    Fine. This all sounds good - we can access information on any subject, anywhere, and apply it to our own lives and to situations at work. But, hang on, does the information we receive lead to the application of common sense?

    To have common sense means you have to have experienced the current situation or something similar to it, not just read about it, or been told about it.

    If you don't have the personal experience, you are applying someone else's experience, which may not be relevant.

    If you do not see the person who is telling you something, you cannot make a personal judgment on the quality of the information. You just take it "as gospel".

    So what?

    Modern systems of communication give us access to information that we would never have thought possible even 20 years ago. They stuff us with knowledge.

    But do we learn from them and do they give us experience? Are we better at our jobs for it? Are we better people?

    My rather pessimistic conclusion is "no". We are losing the art of talking to each other, debating with each other and forming personal conclusions.

    SMS and e-mail mean we don't see each other as much as we should. We don't look into each other's eyes, we don't evaluate honesty - we take things for granted far too much.

    Methodologies and templates are replacing original thought and expression. Granted, they mean that we should not forget to do something, but what use is that if we didn't understand the importance of it in the first place?

    My first job as an "in charge" auditor was a simple manufacturing audit in North London. I forgot to request a stocktake at the year end. If you are not an auditor, this is a pretty basic error. Having to conduct one in arrears and reconcile back to the right date taught me everything I know about stock.

    I had a business partner who banged on and on every year about the importance of the bank reconciliation in an audit. The staff used to hate it, but we encouraged it because if you want to steal money from a company, it has to show up in the bank reconciliation sooner or later. All the major Singapore frauds were caught that way.

    The availability of information, no matter how good, is no substitute for finding out for yourself. Databases on an auditor's laptop are wonderful aids, but only when they are adapted to actual conditions, because they are designed to be generic, not specific.

    Adaptation requires experience. Experience means personal experience. Personal experience means using the five senses and, for human communication, this is mainly seeing and hearing.

    Modern communications cut us off from these natural tools. We are losing common sense.


    The writer, a business communications consultant in Britain, was a Price Waterhouse Singapore partner for 18 years in the 1980s and 1990s.