Chen Chunhua: Activate yourself and Empower Yourself with Knowledge


Talking about "knowledge" in the era of knowledge is like we are keen to figure out "what makes a person", and also like I am going to tell you about "what is university" as a professor. This is a challenging topic, and hence I chose to start with "activating yourself". In a time of great changes,how can we better keep pace with the time?Then you will need to know where the most important core value of the time lies.

Tracing back to the past, the earliest core value was labor, then skills, and later experience. Up till now, be it labor, skills or experience, none would suffice to confront you with the current changes. In this case, what is the most pivotal value? Today, we choose "knowledge" as the carrier of our capabilities.

To empower yourself, knowledge is most needed. You should activate yourself and empower yourself with knowledge.

For people who live in the era of information, the biggest challenge is to differentiate knowledge. Most of the time, what we acquire or pay attention to is not knowledge itself, but a message, a symbol, or something meaningless but distracts you. Are they knowledge?

What is the value produced by the knowledge you are able to differentiate? How can you get prepared for the era of knowledge? Claiming to be a knowledge worker, I became a teacher after graduation from the college. When I prepare for the courses every year, even if it is the same course, my comprehension towards it and identification of value differ. A student told me he listened to my organizational behavioral sciences course for 13 years and I was startled. I asked, " as you listen to it every year, what do you hear?" He said while the teacher is different, he is different as well. Therefore, even for the same course, understanding of the same person can be poles apart.


Inspired by him, I started to rise to the challenge of interacting with new knowledge and the time. He himself was also inspired to tackle the challenge of conducting self-cognition under different circumstances. That is perhaps what all of us should do.



What is the relationship between the reality we are faced with and the knowledge we understand? At present, everyone is knowledge worker, and almost everything about you bears the mark of knowledge, be it study or work: when you watch a movie, you are supposed to understand the plot and the changes unfolding in the plot; when friends communicate with each other, without exchange of knowledge, no one would sympathize. People’s craving for knowledge is stronger than ever, and the outburst of such craving is more powerful than ever. Not until that moment do you realize that you are overwhelmed.

Personally, there are five reasons that make us long for knowledge and yet overwhelmed:

First and second, everything is uncertain. Such uncertainty was brought about by technology and knowledge, and therefore upgrades rapidly. Sometimes I get a bit anxious as well. Towards the end of every year, I would invite my undergraduates to list the most up-to-date words of the year (50). I undertook that task in 2013, when I recognized half of the words; while in 2016, when I was only able to recognize three, I realized I was far away from the young people and the innovative words. The upgraded, accelerated and new knowledge poses challenges to many, and I am one of them.

Third, cognitive surplus. There are too many options for us to choose from. The question I am most frequently asked is not " people cannot learn and do not know", but to a large extent " failing to make decisions". Inability to make decisions results not from a lack of knowledge, but from excessive knowledge. Previously, asymmetric information enabled us to make many choices, whereas now, symmetrized information renders difficulties for us to choose. All of it makes us unable to decide when problems occur.

Fourth, our time is more scares. We tend to use the term "fragmented", which on the one hand means the increase of time and the fragmentation of time rises; one the other implies that decrease of time and greater difficulties with controlling an entire chunk of time that delivers concrete value.

Last, our requirements for the authentication of knowledge get higher. Teachers used to be sure and students would deem knowledge generated by teachers right. While today, you can no longer be so sure, because the information you have is less than what your students possess. At this moment, you will realize it has become more difficult for you to authenticate the knowledge you utter.

The series of challenges lead to two attitudes toward knowledge economy. Citing somebody else’s words : deep anxiety and downcast solitude.

The genteel expression is quite vivid. We have plenty of options and possibilities, but we are unsure about which is relevant with us. We hope that we can have genuine dialogues and composure. When you have them, you will need strong capabilities of being alone and making judgements. When you acquire such capabilities, you will find it is a kind of real solitude. We have become people who are profound, knowledgeable, and yet solitary.

Such a situation highlights the key: whether you are able to truly understand knowledge. You can identify, judge, swap the value of and choose things that are consistent with your objectives, with the premise being whether you can truly understand knowledge. We should look into the future, but how?

Only with knowledge are we able to face the future.


Section One : Do we really know what is "knowledge"?


This first thing I did was question myself. With research and writing being the mainstay of my life, I like people to dub me as an "intellectual" most. I have read and written a lot, but does reading count as knowledge?


Many friends are proud of having experienced a great deal and being able to make judgements. Then is experience knowledge?


Others think the achievements they have made in the past prove that they are successful, and all that proof will be internalized as personal capabilities, which lays the foundation for them to achieve success constantly. Are those capabilities knowledge?


While discussing knowledge, which topic should we prioritize? You will find the question can date back to a long time ago, even to Socrates in ancient Greece who asked at the very beginning: what exactly is knowledge?


Humans have been asking that question repeatedly in the hope of finding the answer. The question epitomizes the relationship between humans and the world, and between humans and themselves. It composes four primary aspects: whether humans are capable of cognition, how do they cognize, the extent to which they are able to cognize and the criteria of truth.


When we look back to that part and talk about the concept of knowledge, we will realize humans have begun to ponder the relations between humans and the world, between humans and themselves and between humans and the external when they started to have wisdom and think.


Take Socrates – the first to ask what knowledge is. He asked Theaetetus and the latter said: when someone knows something, from the perspective of perception, knowledge is feeling. That is the earliest definition drawn for knowledge on record. When we speak of knowledge, we will think of Socrates’ question. That is an interesting viewpoint about knowledge.


Then what is this feeling? I have spent a rather long time sorting out the literature concerning knowledge and thus can express such "feeling". It is descriptive, so we can feel it, but are unable to say it.


Numerous people have answered the question of "what is knowledge" and I hereby categorize them as follows:


Category 1: Knowledge is state of mind. When you have sincere and genuine faith, that is knowledge. It means knowledge is faith in nature. You get to define what you believe in, and thereby get the faith.

Category 2: Turn knowledge into an object. Whether you have consciousness of knowledge or not, it can be measured and cognized. In this sense, knowledge is the benchmark, and it completely depends on you.

Category 3: Regard knowledge as a process of cognition and action. Devoted to research on knowledge management, the renowned contemporary Japanese scholar Ikujiro Nonaka raised that opinion and proposed another: knowledge is the condition of obtaining information. His most famous expression is: implicit knowledge and explicit knowledge. That makes clear the precondition of acquiring knowledge.


Category 4: Knowledge will affect future behavior. That is to say knowledge changes destiny and adjustments are made on humans and things via knowledge. The definition Peter F. Drucker came up with was : knowledge is the information that can change humans or certain things.


Category 5: There is no such thing as knowledge. It is imagined by you and is unreal.


The categorization is very helpful to me. Everyone is trying to understand and talking about "knowledge", but they do not necessarily look at it from different angles. For instance, state of mind, choice of behavior, conditions of obtaining information and the ability to choose future behavior – all should be taken into account. That gives me a strange feeling about knowledge, namely, knowledge t is a huge framework where everything can be put inside, including those you can, cannot and want to understand, and those that has been verified. This is probably the broadest definition I have ever seen.


From the time of Socrates to now, no consensus has been reached regarding knowledge. That is the same case with the notion of "culture" I have researched on, which is general while no consensus is arrived at. There are a great number of definitions including lifestyle, way of thinking, customs, unspoken rules, hidden rules, etc.


By drawing a parallel between knowledge and culture, I mean to demonstrate: the two of them are processes continuously evolving and being verified. Having more knowledge helps you understand the external in a more extensive manner, and that is the most vital link where knowledge can support you and change your destiny.


Seen from the academic point, knowledge is a collective definition that consists of three parts: intuition, wisdom and formalized knowledge (common sense, law, etc.). They constitute the aggregate of human knowledge.


By classifying the definitions made by various scholars, I found knowledge is:


First an extensive and abstract idea. Everything can be covered by knowledge, but it has to be relevant with you.To some degree, knowledge is individualized. It only belongs to you and how general it can be hinges on you.


Second, knowledge is an effective and reasonable belief that reinforces human behaviors.


Those two definitions were not drawn by me, but I am in favor of them.


Because of my understanding towards knowledge and my definition of it, I would like to ask: do you really own knowledge?


Many people read a lot of books and receive a long period of education, but the effective knowledge they have at hand is not released. Sometimes we see people who may not read as many books as you have imagined, but the release of their effective value is far beyond your imagination. I would say that the latter has a better grasp over knowledge, or while the latter has acquired knowledge, the former has not.



Section Two : Do you really own knowledge?


In reality, we observed four scenarios:


In Scenario One, we often hear people say they "like this and dislike that". That is a sense of differentiation, not discernment. Discerning people will not simply put it as like or dislike, because when you see the real value, you will push your limits. Without such discernment, you will only have a sense of differentiation. You may spend too much energy differentiating things, thus undervaluing discernment.


In Scenario Two, " I can’t do it". Many students asked about why I would be able to write 3,000 words every night, because it is challenging. I told them, "you can start from three words every night, then 30, and gradually 300 and 3,000. It is not that you are able or unable to write, but you do not make efforts to understand self-limits and cognition. Therefore, you fail to spot the real reason.


In Scenario Three: the world is changing too fast and I often ask myself if I have not been changing equally fast. People who are familiar with me would know that I was not highly involved in the era of Weibo ( the Chinese equivalent of Twitter). Later I realized if I continued to be like that, I would be eliminated. As a result, I started to be more proactive in the era of WeChat. Whenever paid knowledge is needed, I will lose no time in providing it. The main reason is not I am able to provide or not, or the world is changing fast or slow, but whether I change or not, and am fast or slow.


In Scenario Four: most people think it is tricky for us to deal with the explosion of information and upgrading of things in this era. The fact is you are habitually unable to tackle it. Unless I need to give lessons, I do not actually like interacting with people by video, but I still did. Some people asked me what is professionalization. It is struggling with your habit unyieldingly. Then, you get to be a very professional person.


You may talk about the difficulties of obtaining knowledge from other perspectives, but the abovementioned four are what I view it. Why does it become difficult? I think it is correlated with a core question: do you really own knowledge?


If you truly own knowledge, you will have discernment instead of a sense of differentiation. You will know you can push your limits and every change is an opportunity. More importantly, you will realize that the world in front of you is more beautiful once you do not judge it based on your past experience. That is the solution I worked out.

To resolve that problem, we really need to know whether what we have is knowledge or not.We should draw a clear distinction between data information and knowledge.In the era of big data and information, we are more likely to mix them. Many people at the enterprises told me during my visit that with big data in hand, they would be dedicated to digitalized transformation and become data enterprises. I think the idea makes sense, but I would ask what they would like to use the data for. In most cases, they were unable to answer.


1. Data. We tend to be confounded because we are unclear about the boundary of knowledge. Data is defined as unprocessed information and knowledge and can be utilized from different perspectives. Once I paid a visit to a county-level city in Shandong, and a leader told me its GDP was the highest among cities of its kind across the country. I asked what its total population was, and he remained silent. Its population might be the largest in all the county-level cities in China. In other words, its per capita GDP ranked not so high. Therefore, having the largest aggregate GDP is pointless.


I travelled to another city the day after, and another leader told me its per capita GDP was the highest among the second-tier cities. I once again asked about its population, and he said 400,000. I said then its aggregate GDP must not be very high. If not processed, data is not conducive to decision-making. If we use the data to make decisions, we might do harm to ourselves. Considering that, we should elevate ourselves to a new level: information.


2.Information。 I visited an enterprise who claimed to be No.1 in its industry. I asked how long had it been No.1? He said 12 years. I continued to ask if their enterprise grew during that time period. He said no growth was registered in the past five years. I said then what was the point of being No.1? Why do we have to transit from data to information? Unprocessed data is not helpful to make judgments. Then can we make judgements with processed information? Not yet. We need to go one step further. That step is knowledge.


3. Knowledge. Knowledge is generated by identifying processed information. After knowing about a city’s GDP, I will go on to understand its industrial structure and make a judgement on its overall economy. Then I have knowledge of the city and that can help the city to make choices.


By answering the question of whether you have knowledge or not, you will need to do three things: find the real source, process it and identify it. Only when you have undergone that process will you be able to discuss and own knowledge.


For people living in this era, the gravest challenge is to effectively distinguish between information and knowledge. To address that challenge, you need to keep in mind "knowledge belongs to the individuals" mentioned in the definition of knowledge. After that, I can assist you in differentiating information from knowledge: you should have individualized information and have the process of streamlining and processing information (you need to have your own methodology and that is up to your own judgement) .


Sometimes when I communicate with people, they always convey what the others have expressed as their own interpretation. In this case, they have not mastered knowledge. The information has not been internalized and hence the prerequisite to the mastery of knowledge is not yet in place.


It is by no means easy to have real knowledge. You can obtain a great deal of data and a smaller amount of information through technology and the internet. However, if they are not individualized and processed, I should say you have rather poor knowledge. In the era of knowledge, our knowledge is nothing but poor. That is terrifying.


Here is another concept: knowledge flow chain. That means how we can process data into information, integrate it with our own identification and judgement, turn it into tangible actions, get feedback and acquire wisdom.


The highest demand by humans is that humans can be equipped with wisdom. The formation of wisdom is a chain of process. Those who have real wisdom get to have a larger quantity of data, convert it into cognition and put it into practice. In doing so, wisdom will augment and that is the flow chain.


The relationship between data, information and knowledge can be told from this graph. As long as you are willing to, the data obtained in the objective world can be processed into information, enter your brain through your processing, and become something that is exclusive to you. Then, by combining it to provide guidance for your behaviors, you become an individual with wisdom.


I was asked by many about what is wisdom? I said, to explain it in the academic way by splitting the characters "智慧"up, "智" is composed of "know" at the top and "day" at the bottom, meaning you should know more every day; "慧" is a combination of "雪"atop "心",namely you should calm down and study, and double your efforts to take the knowledge in. What is taken in needs to be internalized to become yours and that is when you have "慧". You ought to seek for data and information from the outside, but then they should be internalized as your value and judgement.


Let’s have a look at an example:after a tsunami jolted Phuket, a 10-year-old rescued 100 people stranded on the beach. The reason he was able to make a judgement is that he is an individual with knowledge. He made the judgement based on the data and phenomenon he processed. Thanks to his knowledge of tsunami, he saved many lives and his act symbolized human wisdom. That should be treated as the complete understanding towards "having knowledge".


I would like to introduce a person and his book: Alfred North Whitehead and his The Aims of Education. What is education used for? One of his opinions has been influential to me -- Theory of the Three Phases for Intellectual Development. Intellectual development of a person will undergo three phases: the phase of romance, the phase of accuracy and the phase of comprehensive application.


The phase of romance: when you are young, you are supposed to acquire cognition of the world as it is in the phase of romance. No analysis is required and imagination alone will be enough.


The phase of accuracy: when you grow up, you have to be accurate. You should be able to process the information you receive. At this moment, analysis on information and correct elaboration are prioritized.


The phase of comprehensive application: while you have learned the above, intellectual development is far from being completed. You should be able to apply the previous two phases comprehensively and return to the first phase of romantic cognition of things.


In a nutshell:first, when you look at the mountains, they are not mountains and when you look at the rivers, they are not rivers; next, when you look at the mountains, they are mountains, and when you look at the rivers, they are rivers; ultimately, when you look at the mountains and rivers, they are the way they are.


My question is also my conundrum: people are usually deficient of the ability of comprehensive application. We have learned the phase of romance and then the phase of accuracy after graduation from college, but we just cannot comprehensively apply what we know. Our intellectual is not developed at all, and that is what I am concerned about.


Truly mastering knowledge means understanding and digesting everything, and utilizing it. Knowledge will only have value when it is proven by practice and put to use. If the data and information you have is unusable and its value cannot be verified by practice, then it is fair to say that you do not have knowledge.


Quite a lot of people talk about Wang Yangming and "the unity of knowledge and action". I would like to recite Wang’s words here, "genuine knowledge is what can be put into practice, or it does not count as knowledge." If you do not take action, you will not be able to prove that you know it. The Confucianist Jin Lvxiang living in late Song Dynasty and early Qing Dynasty said in his book Verification of Comments on the Analects, "Men of vision and virtue have knowledge and are able to convert their knowledge into action. As they combine knowledge and action in unity, the descendants acknowledged it and followed them."Only by achieving unity of knowledge and action can you prove that you truly have knowledge.


The above is all for individuals. I have been carrying out management in organizations and ought to say something about how organizations are supposed to have knowledge.



Section Three: How can organizations have knowledge?


We care about the ability of an organization to face the future. Recently, I wrote Activating Individuals and Activating Organizations to attest to the idea that apart from ensuring performance, organizations should have the ability to surmount the uncertainties in the future. Of such ability, it is important for organizations to have knowledge.


But have organizations mastered knowledge? Peter F. Drucker‘s viewpoint in this regard is inspiring to me : he said be it in the East or the West, knowledge was once regarded as the "metaphysical", which seemed to be far away from us and few were able to acquire. Then it became the "physical" overnight, which is very close to us and is used as a solution, a tool and an approach. That was a dramatic change and we should treat it seriously.


Peter F. Drucker began to conscientiously review the process where knowledge was generated and the tremendous changes it led to after humans entered the era of industrial revolution. He conducted analysis on the first three phases:


In Phase One, knowledge was used for production tools, production procedures and product innovations, thus triggering the Industrial Revolution.


In Phase Two, knowledge and the meaning it was endowed with was applied to work, thus resulting in the productivity revolution.


In Phase Three, knowledge is being used for itself, thus giving rise to the management revolution.


I added another phase on top of it: knowledge is rapidly becoming the principal production factor, and therefore put capital and labor on the less important position. I termed it as the "knowledge revolution".


Division of the four phases will bring about sweeping changes to industrial efficiency, production efficiency, management efficiency and total-factor efficiency. Under such circumstances, does your organization want to have knowledge?


What the modern Industrial Revolution calls for is transforming skills and experience that have been passing on for thousands of years into knowledge, and condensing the experience of craftsmen into methodology and tools. The methodology and tools are collectively known as knowledge, which makes the efficiency of the Industrial Revolution much higher than dozens of centuries ago. The most evident adjustment formed the milestone management book -Frederick Winslow Taylor’s The Principle of Scientific Management .


As knowledge is applied to work, social productivity spurred, doubling every 18 years. When Taylor’s book was published in 1911, after which management became science that was used on industrial production lines, productivity of all the developed countries rose by around 50 times. That was a huge contribution.


As a matter of fact, knowledge is the sole meaningful resource today. I t has become an approach to get social and economic benefit and is being used for systematic innovations. Today, we can hardly imagine how much it can improve productivity. Now knowledge has been used in all sectors of society : Google, Amazon, General Electronics, Alibaba, Tencent…Enterprises valued at hundreds of billions or even trillions were rare, but today, they managed to realize it on owing to the support of knowledge. If enterprise want to be competitive, then I hope they can be driven by knowledge.。


A knowledge-driven organization, just like its peers mentioned above, should make arduous endeavors on four things: first, there should be DNA of knowledge in the organization.second,its structure should be driven by data.third, it should establish a partnership system with open knowledge chain and data flow.fourth, it should constantly create value.


Is your organization driven by knowledge, responsibility, investment, power or resources?


How can we garner those driving forces? There is a person I like especially that influenced the Japanese economy, and he is Dai Ming. He introduced quality management in Japan, enabling the latter to enjoy leapfrog industrial development in the 1970s and the 1980s. Dai Ming advocates a profound knowledge system in the organization, which constitutes four interrelated elements: appreciate the system (maximized appreciation for the overall system) ; understand all the knowledge related to changes and have its own knowledge theory; comprehension of human psychology. The four elements are interconnected, thus making the organization systemic. If an organization is systemic, then it will be highly efficient.


Please work to nurture a profound knowledge system in your organization. Once it is accomplished, you will have strong competitive edge. The productivity of knowledge is increasingly becoming the determinant of economic and social success, and overall economy performance.


Two factors are important for determining whether your organization has knowledge:whether the organization is driven by knowledge; whether it has systemic profound knowledge.


Section Four: How to realize it?


I have three mottos, of which there is " your hands are at a higher level than your head.". That is to say, we should walk the walk and verify what we have in mind. In this way, knowledge will become yours and make you feel powerful. We should innovate knowledge with the existing knowledge in a systematic and organized manner.


Two things need to be done while we take action.


First, we have to give something up purposefully. The organization should give something up with a clear purpose. It is not hard to learn something new, but difficult to forget about the old. Or else there will not be ample room for the new.


Second, we should keep trying to understand the outside world.


Next step, we should make some moves. The first is to “ clear three hurdles”: forget, borrow and learn.


That is widely used in organization management. Should you want to engage in new business or new sectors, it has to clear the three hurdles. It is the same story with entering a new field of knowledge. "Forgetting" is tough. To get rid of the stereotype formed in the past, I would empty myself; I encourage you to "borrow" from the advantages of others, and that will empower you.; "learning" means getting to know something about the unknown. Be it precise or not, you should have the ability to learn it.

I would like to propose some suggestions:


First, what a British novelist said is very helpful to me. When people asked why his novels were so well composed, he said, "nothing but achieving mastery through a comprehensive study. "


Based on the logic to acquire knowledge, first you should identify the problem instead of attempting to solve it. People ask why I can finish so many things. I think it is irrelevant with time and the things themselves. Most of the time, we are busy because we are not clear about the problem. We do not know which problem is ours and then work hard to address all problems. Consequetly, we are doomed to be busy. We fail to finish things worthwhile and that is precisely where the problem lies;


Next, we should analyze the problem, process the data into information and process the information into knowledge. Therefore, we must conduct analysis on whether the problem is ours. When I worked for an enterprise, I would tell my colleague to take over many things. He said he would report to you, and I said no need. Just do it. He said what if a problem surfaced? I said then I would take the responsibility and what he needed to do was find the solution. Thus, many problems can be settled. But if not, they will remain unsettled.


We must conduct systemic analyses on real things and work out our own methodology. My first method is, I will specify the time it will take for me to do certain things. For example, running, writing, reading, travelling, meeting friends, etc. What needs to be accomplished in every hour of my day is clearly specified and I seldom say I would spend one day on one thing. Then, I realized a day can be divided into eight hours for eight things. If I approach them by the day instead of by the hour, I may merely be able to get one thing done.


Lastly, many things remain to be unknown, so you should follow the four steps above.


Second, to own knowledge, the only thing you can do is pursue lifelong learning;


How so? Lifelong learning takes three abilities: basic learning ability, procedural learning ability and comprehensive application ability. The first is the understanding toward pure knowledge, specialized knowledge and stored knowledge. Creative knowledge shows up in the second ability, including procedural knowledge, incremental knowledge and interdisciplinary knowledge. The third ability is crucial as it can verify your comprehension and imagination.


Third, push your self -limits.


Humans set their own limits, while three obstacles are oftentimes ignored: first, we are too egocentric; second, there is difference between the truth we believe in and the actual facts. Yet we always think what we believe is true; third, if your experience remains unchanged while things have changed, it will become a stumbling block.


Peter F. Drucker said the role of professional managers should be altered. In the past, they were responsible for work, their subordinates and business performance, but in the future, they will be in charge of knowledge application and performance. To make sure that your ability and future value suit society, you will have to change.


In a society of knowledge economy, the one thing that cannot be wasted is the potential of knowledge. We should work to accept self-training, gain in-depth insight and vision, and internalize them. The precondition is whether you are willing to be more inclusive. You ought to emerge in social changes, and only by doing that will you be able to have deep enough knowledge that belongs to you.



Finally, I would love to share with you some words I like: What makes a prominent person? A truly prominent person will continuously improve his behaviors, act with higher standards than others, avoid self-obsession and constantly accept changes.

Only one thing is needed to bridge the gap between the ideal and the reality:action.Do it once you think of it. My pet phrase is: go for it.

The height of a person is determined not by his thoughts, but by his hands. Hands are at a higher level than the head.To ride the tide in the era of knowledge, you should first have knowledge. To that end, you need to convert data into information, turn information into knowledge and become one with wisdom through concrete action. (End)


On Aug 30, 2017, Professor Chen Chunhua themed lecture "Activate yourself and Empower Yourself with Knowledge" was broadcasted live on Zhihu Live. Above is the transcript organized by Bijixia.