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?

For knowledge workers, solving problems is the easy part

I read – and highly recommend – Garry Kasparov’s book How Life Imitates Chess a couple of years ago, and am thinking I should pick it back up again. If not to read in its entirety, then at least to skim through my dog-ears and margin notes. There are a lot of good insights into the nature of work today, especially what we call knowledge-work.

For example, Jack Vinson’s (@jackvinson) recent post Some qualities of a knowledge worker reminded me of the following excerpt:

Knowing a solution is at hand is a huge advantage; it’s like not having a “none of the above” option. Anyone with reasonable competence and adequate resources can solve a puzzle when it is presented as something to be solved. We can skip the subtle evaluations and move directly to plugging in possible solutions until we hit upon a promising one. Uncertainty is far more challenging. Instead of immediately looking for solutions to the crisis, we have to maintain a constant state of asking, “Is there a crisis* forming?”

Solving a puzzle that you know has a solution may require knowledge, but it is knowledge that already exists. Figuring out if there is a solution to a problem, or even if there is a problem at all, requires the manipulation of existing knowledge, the gathering of new knowledge / information, and the creation of something new.

This is when knowledge work becomes art.

Do they need to learn the old way, or do we need to adapt to the new?

During my conversations with colleagues about a world without e-mail, the Beloit College Mindset List for the Class of 2014 came up. One of the points from the list that was brought to my attention was that this generation

“will need to acquire the patience of scholarship. They will discover how to research information in books and journals and not just on-line.”

This is obviously written by someone coming from the perspective that these new students need to learn the old ways of doing things, that the old ways are inherently better because they are, well, old. (Maybe “existing” or “proven” would be more palatable, take your pick.) But I would be willing to bet that this generation, or one not too distant, will be the one to make “patience of scholarship” a thing of the past and the distinction between “books and journals” and “online” disappear.

Schools, like business, need to accept that the evolution of technology, and the generations that grow up with that technology, will result in significant changes and do what they can to ride the wave of those changes, instead of thinking that they need to do what they can to mitigate the effects of the technology so they can continue to do things the way they’ve always done them.

If the rising generation is not using e-mail, because it is too slow, etc, do we really want to go out of our way to make them use it and, in the process, slow them down?

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?”

Some new thoughts on “my dad is a knowledge worker”

Several years ago (has it really been almost 5 years?!?) I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek blog post entitled “My dad is a knowledge worker“:

While I was reading Martin Roell’s Terminology: “Knowledge Worker”, a TV commercial I saw a while back came to mind: elementary school students were telling the class what their dads did for a living, and after a couple of well defined jobs (policemen, construction, etc.) were announced one boy proudly stood up and stated, “My dad’s a pencil pusher!” I don’t remember what the commercial was for, but the imagery stuck with me I think for the same reason Geoffrey Rockwell, as described by Martin, doesn’t like the term “knowledge worker”: the job title gives you no real idea of what the job is.

Apropos of what I’m not entirely sure, but this old post came to mind earlier today when I was thinking about some ideas related to Work Literacy.  It occurred to me that calling someone – say a Systems Engineer like me – a “knowledge worker” would be like calling Albert Pujols an “athlete”.  (Not that I’m comparing myself to Albert!)

Sure, he is an athlete, but he is a very specific type of athlete, in a sport that requires a very specific set of skills and experiences. You can not get across what he does, or what he must be able to do, with a generic description of “athlete”. Like all athletes, though, there is a core set of skills and abilities that Pujols must have simply to be able to consider participating as an athlete in his specific sport. Fitness, endurance, flexibility, etc., all things common to most athletes.

In the same way, each individual knowledge/concept worker is a very specific type of k/c worker, requiring a very specific set of skills and experiences in order to do the work they do.  But like athletes, there is a core set of skills and abilities that anyone who would be a k/c worker must have. And that core set of skills and abilities is, I believe, what the term “work literacy” should encompass.

The question then, of course, is what makes up this core set of skills and abilities?

(As you may be thinking, I am not the first to raise this question – visit for more on the subject. On completing this post, I realized that it was simply my way of putting the question into a context that made sense to me.  I hope it makes sense to you, too.)

Cynefin, concept work, and the role of deliberate practice

Over the past week or so there have been several blogs that have helped me pull together a bunch of things I’ve been trying to connect in my mind for a while.

First was Harold Jarche’s post Working Together, in which he looked at Shawn Callahan’s ideas on group work against the backdrop of Tom Haskins discussion of the Cynefin and TIMN frameworks. Next was Tony Karrer and Ken Allan‘s discussion of the role of deliberate practice in the development of skills less than that of an expert, based on Tony’s question:

Any thoughts on how deliberative practice relates to becoming something less than an expert.  It seems it should be applicable to all levels of achievement, but everything I’m reading is the study of becoming an expert.  Is that just aspirational, or is deliberative practice also studied for quick attainment of proficiency?

Read Tony and Ken’s posts, along with the comments, for all the discussion including my comment:

…the application of deliberate practice is not the most efficient way to achieve basic proficiency, even though it would be effective. As proficiency turns into literacy and then mastery, I think that deliberate practice becomes not just the most effective way but the most efficient as well.

After some thought, and several pages of scribbles, scratches, and doodles in my notebook, I put together the following table that pulls together several different topics using Cynefin as a guide.


The first two columns come directly from the definition of the Cynefin framework. I had just a bit of trouble in the third column, primarily in trying to figure out what the best term would be to carry out “simple” work tasks.  I’m not completely happy with the term “assembly line”, but I think it gets the idea across. I am open to any suggestions to improve this.

I was also not quite sure about the use of the terms in the “Skill Level” column, specifically the order of “fluency” and “literacy”.  Again, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this.

The heart of the table, especially as it applies to the original question that Tony asked, is the column “How to Achieve”.  Various levels of deliberate practice could have been included in each row, but in looking at each level of complexity as a stand-alone level it seems to me for the “simple” and “complicated” tasks that deliberate practice, at least as defined by Geoff Colvin in “Secrets of Greatness” and the more in-depth Talent is Overrated, is overkill. And probably an unreasonable expectation to have of people who just want to do their job and go home, which is more typical of those performing this type of work.

It is once you move into the area of complex and chaotic work that the benefits gained from deliberate practice are needed, in fact necessary.  Not only must you be able to apply what is already known in ways that have already been identified, you need to be able to learn new things and figure out how to apply them in new ways. That is the nature of mastery, and the ultimate result of deliberate practice.

You don’t get better at writing essays by writing more essays

Though perhaps a bit more rigorous in his approach, what Geoff Colvin has to say about deliberate practice in Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else is not unlike what George Leonard says about “practice” in Mastery or how Josh Waitzkin describes his process of mastering chess and T’ai Ch’i in his recent book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance.  What caught my eye about Colvin’s book, and the main reason I read it, is its relating of this idea of deliberate practice and high performance to the world of business.

Early on in Chapter 7, Colvin highlights an issue that I’ve wrestled with in my mind for many years:

We saw earlier how hostile to the principles of well-structured deliberate practice most companies seem.  That’s all the more puzzling when you consider how many high-profile organizations apart from businesses embrace these principles.  We’re awed by the performance of champion sports team or great orchestras and theater companies, but when we get to the office, it occurs to practically no one that we might  have something to learn by studying how some people became so accomplished.  The U.S. military has made itself far more effective by studying and adopting these principles….  But at most companies – as well as most educational institutions and many nonprofit organizations – the fundamentals of great performance are mainly unrecognized or ignored.

The reference to the military really struck home with me, since over half of my professional life (so far) was spent as an officer in the Army.  To simply say that the Army engages in “deliberate practice” – at both the individual and organizational levels – would be a gross understatement.  In fact, in a peacetime Army the primary activity of soldiers and units is deliberate practice, with the explicit goal of continually improved performance.  (More on a wartime military in a bit.)

When I left the military and joined the corporate world, what struck me most was how little practicing – and how little learning and improving – anyone did.  For anything.  The general impression was that if you needed to “practice”, then you obviously were the wrong person for the job.  (This is the “hostility” to the principles of deliberate practice that Colvin refers to in the quote above.)  Needless to say, in the areas where I had influence I did my best to change that perception.

The problem is, as the title of this post hints at, that you can’t get better at something by just doing that something.  The early part of Talent is Overrated is full of examples:  Jerry Rice didn’t become the greatest football player ever by playing football games; Tiger Woods didn’t become the greatest golfer by simply playing endless rounds of golf; and Benjamin Franklin didn’t become the incredible writer that he was by writing essays.  All of these people, and many more, became incredibly good at what they do (did) through deliberate practice.

One of the biggest challenges for a wartime military is how to balance the need and desire for deliberate practice and continued improvement with the day-to-day operational requirements of carrying out its missions.  Having spent a few years now in the civilian world of business, I’ve come to realize that the “operational environment” of most organizations is much like that of a wartime military – there is such a strong focus on meeting day to day mission requirements that it is a challenge to find the time for individuals and teams to engage in deliberate practice to improve their ability to perform.

Colvin finishes with some thoughts on how organizations can apply the principles he addresses in the book for both individuals and teams.  And he believes, and I think shows throughout the book, that any organization, any individual, has the ability to become great at what they do if they are willing to put in the work.