The evolution of the employee-employer relationship

Here’s another piece from the archives, this one from April 2004. I’ve pulled this one out as part of a response to a discussion between Bill Brantley and Harold Jarche on the question of the work literacy gap and its impact on, and the role of, the organization.

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Employee-employer relations in a knowledge based economy

I’ve long believed that the prevelance of knowledge work in organizations today will (eventually) fundamentally shift the employee – employer relationship. In many ways, knowledge workers will come to be “self-employed” in the sense that they are working to improve themselves and to make an impact on the world at large and not just within the company they happen to be “working for” at the time.

With 401k plans allowing for retirement planning independent of a specific job or pension plan, and for various other reasons that are well documented elsewhere, knowledge workers don’t seem to be staying in the same place for their entire careers anymore. With retirement taken care of, other things today’s employees need to consider include health/life insurance, etc. A truly self-employed knowledge worker also has to worry about the business end of things, such as billing’invoicing, taxes, payroll, etc. etc.

By working “for” a company, knowledge workers are in many ways simply out-sourcing the business end of being self-employed so they can focus on the job itself.

This obviously raises some interesting questions for organizations….

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The emergence of Web 2.0 has definitely had an impact here, since individuals can be more “independent” than ever, even within the confines of being an employee of a company. As Bill writes:

In fact, as the rise of social network-based learning has demonstrated, employees no longer need the company to develop their knowledge, skills, and abilities. In many professions, communities of practice and professional organizations have replaced the shop floor and company mentors as the source of employee training.

The challenge for organizations in this situation becomes not providing employees the training they need to carry out the company’s goals and projects, but rather providing employees with goals and projects that engage the employees and effectively use what they are learning for themselves.

Updated [27 Jun]:  Although this post is primarily targeted at the changing role of the organization, it also addresses Michele Martin’s questions concerning changing knowledge workers’ attitudes about learning and training.

Lessons learned and learned lessons

Dave Snowden, with whom I share a general dislike (maybe distrust is a better word) for lessons learned / best practices, has a post from about a year ago on the difference between lessons learned and learning lessons. I’m revisiting these ideas after sharing my thoughts about knowledge work as craft and the growth and development of young knowledge workers as craftsmen with the Work Literacy group.

Before someone can start working in a craft, they must first learn the basics of the craft. Part of this learning is traditional learning of the facts, procedures, and techniques that have been learned and passed along by those who have gone before. While not “lessons learned” in the usual sense, this type of lessons learned (or best practice) can be of value.

In fact, I think that assimilation of this knowledge, obtained from lessons learned by others, is a key early step in helping people become able to learn their own lessons later on in their career. Without a solid foundation of what has already been learned, the apprentice is destined to “reinvent the wheel” more than is necessary. (Note the “more than necessary” caveat: I believe that it is important for the novice to attempt some reinvention of their own; this gives them an understanding of the importance of those early lessons.)

The journey of an apprentice to the realm of the master is, in many ways, a journey from knowledge consumption to knowledge creation. As an apprentice, the reliance on existing knowledge is very high. The journeyman learns to understand the knowledge in use and apply it in creative, new ways. The master, while grounded in the existing knowledge of the craft, is not constrained by that knowledge as he creates new knowledge for use by the next wave of apprentices.

The same progression can be seen in many aspects of knowledge work. Most will start off in college, accumulating that basic information they need for their chosen field, then move on to a “journeyman” stage in a company (or their own company) where they will learn how to apply that accumulated knowledge. For most, this is the stage they will remain at for most of their career.

If they are lucky, and of course diligent in continuing to develop their own work literacy, they will progress to the “master” stage where they can re-write what is taught to students in college.

Innovation is good, but innovators are bad…

…if you are looking for someone to help you get the word out about your innovation. At least, this is the message I get from a quick read of Innovators are a bad choice for change from Shawn at the Anecdote blog.

Dr Rogers persisted thinking, if only he could get one farmer to try it out and then they could influence everyone else. After a time he did find someone to try out the new corn, a hipster dude who wore Bermuda shorts and fancy sunglasses. He enjoyed a bumper crop but the other farmers were unimpressed. This maverick farmer derided their way of life, he was an outsider and there was no way they were going to adopt anything from a Bermuda short wearing weirdo.

The story Shawn is discussing comes from Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, which has this to say in regards to the story:

Rogers learned that the first people to latch onto a new idea are unlike the masses in many ways. He called these people innovators. They’re the guys and gals in Bermuda shorts. They tend to be open to new ideas and smarter than average. But here’s the important point. The key to getting the majority of any population to a adopt a vital behavior is to find out who these innovators are and avoid them like the plague. If they embrace your new ideas, it will surely die.

Though I hate to say it, this explains a lot. I don’t know if I buy into it completely, but I think anyone who fits the description of “innovator” given above can probably recount more than one story like this from personal experience. Shawn goes on to say that the recommended approach is to approach “early adopters”, but I must admit I’m not sure I understand the difference between an “early adopter” and “innovator” in this context.

I also can’t help thinking of this in the context of Michele’s recent question in Developing Work Literacies: Who’s the Target Audience? Regardless of whether you stake out your target as the workers themselves or the organization’s leadership, it seems that you should maybe avoid targeting the people who already embrace the concepts of Work Literacy.

Hackable training content

Nearly 10 years ago now, I was responsible for customer training for a new piece of equipment we had produced. (Actually, I assumed responsibility about 1/2 way through the project.) After training our first customer, I sat down with the training crew to see how we could make the next session better, as I had seen and heard some things that weren’t correct, or could be better.

Silly me.

Our training vendor politely informed me that the training material was what it was, and it couldn’t be changed after it had been approved. In fact, they seemed shocked that I even brought the idea up, as if it were some sort of training community heresy. I was not, and am not, a “training person” so the attitude was a bit surprising to me.

“What do you mean, you don’t want to make your training product progressively better as you learn more about it” was what was going through my mind. (In fact, I went to my project manager and told him he needed to fire the training vendor we had and get someone who “knew what they were doing.”) I’ve since learned that this was not an isolated incident; on the contrary it seemed to be the standard.

In a post today titled Learning content should be hackable, Harold Jarche makes the case for content developers to take a lesson from what’s going on in the rest of the digital world.

However, there is one principle that is not taught or followed in instructional design that would really reflect the nature of the Web. There should be a principle of making learning content hackable, so that it can change with the times, the needs of instructors or learners. Licenses such as CC-By-NC would allow remixing. Perhaps we need a special “CC-Education Remix” license.

Anyway, if you want your content to live a long, healthy and even diverse life; make it easier to hack.

Good advice for any content developer, but especially for learning content developers.

Something new, something old – Microsoft OneNote 2007

Three years ago I wrote the following about my thoughts on and approaches to note taking and personal info management:

As much as I use, and enjoy using, information technologies, my primary personal note taking (and storing, for that matter) media is a paper notebook. My current book of choice is the Infinity Journal from Levenger. With 600 pages, I get about a year out of each book. Everything goes into this book, including random thougths throughout the day, notes from meetings, and quotes/passages from books/websites, etc. At times I even print-and-paste things from my computer into the notebook so I have it available whenever I may need it.

Of course, paper does have some limitations. Two key ones are searchability and organization. To solve the searchability problem for key things such as phone numbers, e-mail addresses, web sites, etc. that tend to get jotted down in haste, I use a Moleskine pocket-size address book. Though it is called an address book, it is really just a notebook with the letters of the alphabet on tabs every few pages. No “rules” on what should go in, just a simple way to organize. (I’ve chosen to alphabetize names by first name, since that is what I usually think of when I want to call someone.)

As for the organization part, that’s not so easy. I do use a paper calendar to keep basic schedule stuff (see my response to Jack’s post Thinking While Note Taking for more on that), but that doesn’t help with organizing the notes I have. I do number the pages, as well as date them when I jot something down, so that helps a bit.

For the most part, this is still my process. I do use some digital tools, such as MindManager, The Brain, and the ever-present Microsoft Outlook, but these do not give me a single, consolidated approach. When a friend told me I should try out Microsoft OneNote 2007 – I think his exact words were, “Dude, I don’t know how I lived without it!” – I downloaded the trial to give it a try. (Interestingly OneNote was not part of the Office 2007 Professional package, it is only part of the Home and Student package.)

So far, I like it. Or at least the concept. I’ve not put too much into it yet, but I see the possibilities. Note taking, cross-linking to Outlook calendar and tasks, integration with the rest of Office (obviously). Multiple notebooks, sections within the notebooks, linking between pages in the notebooks, drawing tools. The ability to put notes anywhere on the page, pictures, etc and then move them around. Pretty much all the things I do with paper now, or wish I could do. (Makes we wish I had a TabletPC!)

I’ll give it another week or two before I decide if it is worth $100. I’d love to hear of any success (or horror) stories about how OneNote has (or hasn’t) worked for you.

Books, books, and more books

As I mentioned a couple of posts back, it was a social networking site related to books, Shelfari, that recently brought me back into the blogosphere. I’ll write some more about that (and social networks in general) in a bit, but for now I just want to talk about books themselves. Or, at least, books in the news. It was a busy week last week in book news.

This week, On the Media is dedicating the entire show to one of our favorite topics – books. From Oprah’s Book Club to the Google Library Project, the way we buy, search, read and even discuss books is changing. And so we begin with a look at some of the forces now tugging at the industry.

A new report from the National Endowment for the Arts reveals that Americans are reading less frequently and less proficiently. The report links the decline in voluntary reading among teens and young adults to poorer performance in school. It also raises questions about the role of reading in a world full of digital distractions.

  • And then, while I’m in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, I see the 26 November issue of Newsweek, with a picture of Jeff Bezos and the headline The Future of Reading.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos already built a better bookstore. Now he believes he can improve upon one of humankind’s most divine creations: the book itself. (If you’ve shopped Amazon.com recently, you know what Bezos is talking about: the Kindle.)

Like someone’s trying to send me a message: READ MORE BOOKS!!!

I’m the first to admit that I don’t read nearly as much as I used to. And the subjects of my reading has changed quite a bit too. I used to have a steady diet of fiction, then a bit of a mix of fiction / non-fiction, and now an almost exclusive diet of non-fiction.

Looking back, it seems that my taste in reading is somewhat tied to my life at the time. My interest in military / political fiction was undoubtedly sparked by my service as a military officer. Though fictional, the stories in these books provided great insight into leadership, conduct of operations, etc.

As I moved into the “corporate” world, where there is a bit less (a lot less, actually) fiction that can be helpful in learning and growing, I turned to non-fiction business books. The books that appealed to me most were the ones that have a bit of narrative feel to them. I have a few of the “checklist” type books, but never really got much out of them.

And as I’ve gotten older – and as my kids have gotten older – I’ve developed a bit more of an interest in the nature of the world and our place in it. My elder son’s autism has also inspired a deep interest in how the human mind works, and what it is that makes each of us unique (or not).

My wife, on the other hand, reads a lot. I mean a whole bunch, putting me to shame. This is consistent, though, with the findings of the study mentioned in the Talk of the Nation piece, so I don’t feel too bad. (Read “Why women read more than men” on the TOTN page for this story for more details.)

Still, that’s no excuse. I know it’s not quite New Year’s, but I’ll go in for a resolution anyway: I resolve to read at least as much fiction as non-fiction. Just watch me on Shelfari if you want to see how I do. (And let me know if you’d like to join my friends list, I’m curious what you are reading, too.)

The new gamer generation: Not who you think

The New York Times today writes about the new gamer generation in Retirees Discover Video Games. Yep, retirees. They are making up a larger and larger part of the market for “casual” games, and game developers and distributors are taking notice. The Nintendo Wii, with its simple controls for many games, is making a splash of its own.

My favorite part of the article is that told by semi-retired businessman Dick Norwood:

Dick Norwood, 61, a semi-retired businessman who lives in a community for residents 55 and older in Crest Hill, Ill., spotted the Wii in a mall in December. After playing Wii bowling with two other couples at home, he persuaded Giovan’s, a local Italian restaurant, to begin a “seniors only” Wii bowling league, where nine couples now show up every Thursday.

“When I started calling people about it, they had no idea what I was talking about, and they were laughing at me saying, ‘You want to start a bowling league on a video game in a bar?’ ” he said. “Well, we got there the first time, and we were there for six solid hours. In the past, I probably would have agreed that video games are just for kids. But I’ll tell you, at our age when you bowl for real, you wake up with aches and pains. Those balls aren’t light. But with this you’re getting good exercise, but you’re not aching the next day.”

Regular readers here know my fondness for the Wii, and I’m not the only one. My wife, my brothers, even my mom love to play games on the Wii, especially Wii Sports. The appeal of the Wii, especially in a sports game, is captured by Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good For You, in 5 Thoughts on the Nintendo Wii:

What strikes you immediately playing Wii Sports — and particularly Tennis — is this feeling of fluidity, the feeling that subtle, organic shifts in your body’s motion will lead to different results onscreen. My wife has a crosscourt slam she hits at the net that for the life of me I haven’t been able to figure out; I have a topspin return of soft serves that I’ve half-perfected that’s unhittable. We both got to those techniques through our own athletic experimentation with various gestures, and I’m not sure I could even fully explain what I’m doing with my killer topspin shot.

In a traditional game, I’d know exactly what I was doing: hitting the B button, say, while holding down the right trigger. Instead, my expertise with the shot has evolved through the physical trial-and-error of swinging the controller, experimenting with different gestures and timings. And that’s ultimately what’s so amazing about the device.

Games for years have borrowed the structures and rules — as well as the imagery — of athletic competition, but the Wii adds something genuinely new to the mix, something we’d ignored so long we stopped noticing that it was missing: athleticism itself.

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Update:  For every silver lining, there is apparently a cloud, including for the Nintendo Wii.  The physical exertion that makes the Wii so fun seems to be leading to an increased risk of physical injuries, as described in Virtual video games cause real injuries.  Just like all games, people need to learn to play in moderation.

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