Life skills for knowledge workers

In his post Some qualities of a knowledge worker, which I also mentioned yesterday, Jack Vinson (@jackvinson) mentioned a few skills needed by knowledge workers and notes

These are things that aren’t part of the standard training curriculum.  Maybe these things should be in the next generation of “life skills” classes they teach in high school.

This gets right at the heart of a question I’ve pondered for several years: How do knowledge workers learn how to become knowledge workers?

Is “knowledge work” something that should be taught in school, in high school as Jack mentions or maybe in college? Or is this something that individual workers need to learn on the job, as part of their professional growth, as part of their development of their craft?

Schools are, for the most part, set up for you to learn the skills/knowledge that you need (or they think you will need) to do your job. But they don’t really teach you how to actually do the job. (It’s been a while since I’ve been an undergrad, so maybe this has changed somewhat?) I think, though, that with a little bit of thought and a lot of effort these skills could be incorporated into a schools curriculum, either formally or informally by individual teachers. The case for social media in school provides some good ideas on this front.

The other approach is to look at knowledge work as a craft. Obviously, “knowledge work” is much too general of a description to be a craft in and of itself [my dad is a knowledge worker!]. But just like the trades – plumbing, carpentry, electrician – you can look at the various forms of knowledge work as a craft – accountant, engineer, lawyer, software developer.

If the idea of knowledge work as craft sounds familiar, it’s not because of me. I first remember coming across that idea several years ago in Jim McGee’s (@jmcgeeKnowledge Work as Craft Work.

All along the way in this old style process, the work was visible. That meant that the more junior members of the team could learn how the process unfolded and how the final product grew over time. You, as a consultant, could see how the different editors and commentators reacted to different parts of the product.

More recently, Jim has written about this in the context of observable work (#owork). His recent post Finding knowledge work practices worth emulating and adapting has some excellent insights that expand on the idea of craft work, putting it in concrete terms of knowledge work, in this case the “trade” of software development.

My brothers both work in a trade (plumbing and electrician), and I’ve had many conversations with them about the process within the trade unions of developing young plumbers and electricians from apprentice through the master grade. It’s made me wonder how I ended up where I am, how I learned to do the job I do. A bit less structured than their experience, that’s for sure.

How did you learn how to be a knowledge worker? Did you spend your early years in an “apprenticeship” or were you just thrown into the fray? How do we help new knowledge workers learn their craft? How do we get knowledge workers, new or otherwise, to accept their profession as a craft? And how do we, as experienced knowledge workers, become even better at it?

Retaining knowledge in organizations – a contrary view

Yesterday’s #kmers chat focused on the topic Retaining the Knowledge of People Leaving your Organization.  Quite a bit of discussion around the topic, including questions about whether you should try to capture knowledge from those leaving, how you should do it, etc. etc.  Personally, I agree with V Mary Abraham (@vmaryabraham) when she says:

Ideally, move to system of #observable work. Then people disclose info & connections as they work & before they leave.

That way, the knowledge that is shared is in the context of a current action and not just information sitting in a repository somewhere.

This is a question that I – and many others – have wrestled with for many years now. Here is something I originally posted in Sep 2004 on the question. This is an unedited copy of that original post; I may come back later and give it a fresh coat.

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For many years now I’ve read about and been involved in discussions about the impending retirement of baby boomers, the effect this will have on institutional memory, and what can be done about it. Most of my interest in this at the time concerned the impact on the federal government workforce, which will be very hard hit since the retirement age is a bit lower than the populace in general.

Though I’ve not yet read it, the book Lost Knowledge by Dave DeLong addresses this problem in great detail (more on the book can be found here, here, and here). A snippet from the book’s website:

Dr. David DeLong, a research fellow at MIT’s AgeLab, has just created the first comprehensive framework to help leaders retain critical organizational knowledge despite an aging workforce and increased turnover among mid-career employees.

Like most discussions of the topic I’ve been involved in, the book seems to focus on the negative aspects of people leaving, and taking their knowledge with them. However, I have been reading James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and think that we may be missing out on an opportunity to actively reinvent the corporate knowledge as we try, probably in vain, to keep the old knowledge around.

Granted, there is some information and there are many processes that must be recorded and retained. This the basic infrastructure of how an organization functions. But if you simply take the knowledge of people who are leaving and transfer that to the people that are replacing them, you are effectively eliminating the value of the “new blood” coming into the organization. Or, in the words of Surowiecki, you are maintaining homogeneity at the expense of diversity.

Organizational memory, like human memory, can be a stubborn thing to change and often results in the this is how we’ve always done it syndrome. An excellent description of memory formation can be found in Tony Buzan’s The Mind Map Book (sorry for the lengthy quote, but it bears repeating in whole):

Every time you have a thought, the biochemical/electromagnetic resistance along the pathway carrying that thought is reduced. It is like trying to clear a path through a forest. The first time is a struggle because you have to fight your way through the undergrowth. The second time you travel that way will be easier because of the clearing you did on your first journey. The more times you travel that path, the less resistance ther will be, until, after many repetitions, you have a wide, smooth track which requires little or no clearing. A similar function occurs in your brain: the more you repeat patterns or maps of thought, the less resistance there is to them. Therefore, and of greater significance, repetition in itself increases the probability of repetition (original emphasis). In other words, the more times a ‘mental event’ happens, the more likely it is to happen again.

When you are trying to learn something, this is obviously a good thing. However, the very nature of this learning process makes it more difficult to learn something new, especially if it is very different (“off the beaten path”). By pointing new people down the paths of the people that are retiring, you are ensuring that the well known paths will continue to thrive and that it will be harder to create new paths through the forest.

That’s fine if your goal is to continue on the path you are on, but it brings to mind an old proverb I saw somewhere: If you don’t change the path you are on, you’ll end up where it takes you.

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Doing nothing

It is better to do nothing than to be busy doing nothing.

Doing nothing is refreshing, a chance to recharge if only for a little bit. Your mind is free to wander where it may, with or without conscious intervention. Free association of thoughts runs rampant, resulting in ideas that would never have come to you otherwise. I’m sure you’ve had these moments, where you stopped trying to solve a problem and the answer came to you, “out of the blue”.

(Just to be clear, I’m not talking about meditation or anything like that. While that is no doubt beneficial, meditation is doing something, not nothing.)

On the other hand, being busy doing nothing is mentally draining, an imposition of purposeless order on your thoughts that prevents your mind from resting and recharging.

And yet there are many people – including what I would estimate as a high percentage of managers or other “leaders” – who are made very uncomfortable just by the idea of doing nothing. Never mind actually doing nothing. Or, heaven forbid, letting their employees do nothing.

This mentality comes in large part, of course, from the factory approach to work: if you are not doing something, nothing is getting made. But that just isn’t true in many forms of work today. New, good ideas are the products of today, and these can’t be created on an assembly line.

But this discomfort with our own thoughts also comes from the anxieties and worries that we keep with us. It is hard to willingly let you mind wander when you know that it may wander to places you’d rather not go.

Alannis Morrisette describes this quite well in this snippett of song:

Why are you so petrified of silence,
Here can you handle this?
(silent pause)
Did you think about your bills, your ex, your deadlines
Or when you think you’re gonna die?
Or did you long for the next distraction?

Take some time today to do nothing. And then go out and do something.

Hero worship

Which type of person do you prefer to work with, someone who thrashes early and gets things quietly done, or someone who swoops in at the end for some last minute heroics?

Which type of person receives the most attention in your organization? Are you more likely to hear, “John was squared away and relaxed when it was time to ship” or “Did you see that incredible last push John made, working all night so he could meet ship date?”

Which type are you?

Next time you find yourself in a situation where you see some people cramming like crazy, and others sitting back apparently doing nothing, take a moment to think about which ones you’d prefer to have work with you to ship your product.

How can I join the conversation?

“Keep me in the loop.”

This all too common expression is – or should be – the bane of anyone trying to implement, or just use, a social media approach to collaboration and communication. What it really means is…

“I want to know what’s going on with your project, but I don’t care enough to actually spend my own time keeping up with what’s going, so please take time out of your own busy schedule and figure out what information I need to know and then make sure you get it to me. I may or may not bother to read it once you’ve sent it to me.”

The next time someone asks you to “keep me in the loop”, let them know where the conversation is happening and offer to grant them access. If they don’t take you up on it, then they don’t really care. If they do take you up on it, they may never join in. But they might, and their participation will be that much more valuable because they are there intentionally, not accidentally.

Of course, this goes both ways. Next time someone talks to you about a project that you are interested in, don’t ask them to keep you in the loop. Instead, ask them, “How can I join the conversation?”

Busy people

“If you really need something to get done, find someone who is already busy.”

I’ve heard this advice many times over the years, and even given it as advice a few times. I have accepted it as true, but haven’t given much thought to why it is true.

Reading Seth Godin’s latest, Linchpin, the answer occurred to me: busy people are the artists, the linchpins of an organization. The ones who actually get things done and make things happen.

On the other hand you have what I would call the “occupied” people, those who perform a specific task that was given them and then wait for someone to tell them their next task. These are the factory workers, the interchangeable pieces of the infrastructure of the company. The people who simply do things.
When I look at it this way, it’s obvious why the busy person is who you turn to when you need someone.

Management : Efficiency :: Leadership : ??

When talking about management, what most people are thinking about is efficiency, maximizing output per unit of input. Many (most?) people talk about the need for leadership in addition to, or even instead of, management.

But what exactly do we get from leadership? What is its purpose?

The first word that comes to mind is “effectiveness”. But most measures of effectiveness are based on a desired end-state, which to me makes this just a different way of measuring efficiency.

Is leadership just another way to get people to do what you want them to do so you can accomplish your own goals? Or is it something different, something more?

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Some thoughts:

When you “manage” something / someone, the best you can hope for is what you ask for. When you “lead” someone, there is no way to know ahead of time what you will end up with.

Maybe the question is better addressed in the context of the Cynefin framework:

Management : Simple :: Leadership : Chaotic

(and possibly disorder), with a sliding mix of the two being appropriate in complicated or complex situations.

Of course, I’m not the first person to consider this question. There are many (many many) more thoughts on this question out there, as you can see in the Google search results for leadership vs. management.