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The Productive Workplace: The Space for Computational Thinking

Computational thinking: ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning.

This post marks the half-way mark of this series of posts on the productive workplace and the need to support the skills and activities of the future.

Like many of the previous post it’s worth having a definition here:

Computational thinking is the thought processes involved in formulating problems and their solutions so that the solutions are represented in a form that can effectively be carried out by an information-processing agent.

Cuny, Snyder, Wing

Or more simply:

Computational thinking describes the mental activity in formulating a problem to admit a computational solution.

In the IT buzz-phrase Top 10 for 2014 Big Data is certainly in their. Like most phrases it’s going through a significant amount of definition entropy as people seek to claim it for their own benefit. What is clear, though, is that what we call Big Data today is only just the start of the sea of data that is going to become available in the coming years.

Another IT buzz-phrase for 2014 is Internet of Things with Gartner estimating that there will be 26 billion units on the Internet by 2020, each of them sending out streams of data.

If we are going to gain insights from all of this data then we are going to need to be equipped with a set of creative skills and metal techniques.

Much of the ocean of data is going to be freely accessible so it’s not going to be the possession of data that is going to be the value differentiator; it’s going to be the ability to gain insight from the data that’s going to set people and organisations apart.

The processing of the data is also becoming incredibly cheap, even free, so those capabilities are not a differentiator either. It will be the ability to point the processing in the right direction to solve the problem and gain the value that will be the required skill.

That’s where Computational thinking comes in with skills like:

  • Decomposition
  • Pattern recognition
  • Pattern generalisation and abstraction
  • Algorithm design

What is the workplace that best supports this way of working?

In earlier posts I’ve used an existing location type as an analogy of what is needed in the future workplace to enable the skills and activities being described. Finding an analogy for this one has been tricky because I’m not sure that there is a current workplace that does this type of work. The nearest I got to was the Physics Lab.

The Physics Lab of the Future

What is needed is a place where it’s possible to formulate the right question, decide on the model or abstraction for that question, compute the question and test the answer to the question. A bit like a physics experiment. The problem with this analogy is that it’s already out-of-date, most physics takes place on data and simulations already. So you have to think back to the physics lab of old, that place which was full of prisms, Newton’s balls, Foucault’s pendulums and van der Graaf generators.

Within this space we were schooled in the art of experimentation and the writing of the lab report. While I, like many, hated the writing of the lab report it did at least teach us a method that required us to formulate the purpose of the experiment before we carried it out.

I chose a physics lab because physics is about abstraction which is what computational thinking is about. We can’t see electricity or gravity, but we can build experiments to see the effects of it. That’s what we are going to have to do with all of this data that we are generating; build experiments that show us an effect.

Like the modern physics lab though, the computational thinking lab is mostly virtual, but doesn’t consist of people sitting at desks with screens. As most modern physics experiments are done with teams; so will most problems that need computational thinking.

Perhaps what I am envisioning is something a bit Iron Man J.A.R.V.I.S. but integrated into a team experience and not being solely used by the lone maverick.

The computational thinking space is likely to share many of the same characteristics as the Novel and Adaptive Thinking Space and the Sense Making Space. The important activities are thinking and collaboration both of which are greatly influenced by the space in which they are undertaken.

Some videos to make you think:

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