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.

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?”

Cynefin and mastery

When I first discovered the Cynefin framework, I remember thinking, “Exactly.” It is one of those things that once I saw it I realized how obvious it was, at least in hindsight after someone had pointed it out. Of course, I’ve been trying to actually figure it out ever since.

Dave Snowden blogged recently that he is putting together a history of Cynefin, and provides a brief timeline of its origins and where it is now. He also includes a diagram showing the diagram as it was in 2000 compared to what it is now:

My most recent post that included Cynefin looked at it in the context of  concept work and the role of deliberate practice in achieving mastery. The basic premise of that post was that success in the chaotic domain requires mastery, which is the result of a lot (10,000 + hours) of deliberate practice. Even though originally developed with a focus on knowledge management and communities of practice, the origins of the model, as shown above, seem to lend some validity to my understanding.

An added bonus to Dave’s blog post is the comment from Steve Barth (the emphasis is mine):

Something I’ve been thinking about lately relates to the original knowledge-training axis in the early drawings. It comes up working with clients to differentiate and merge knowledge management and organizational learning programs. Increasingly, I believe that knowledge and learning are often polar opposites, and the order/unorder sides of the model make this clear. Simple and complicated emphasize what we already know—or at least believe to be true—and further investigations and analysis must either accept or falsify these premises. We assume that our assumptions are correct. On the other hand, learning is largely about what we don’t know. That is, we must assume that our assumptions could be wrong.

I’m looking forward to the full history.

Don’t judge a new book by an old cover

Is Google making us stupid, as Nicholas Carr and others have told us? I don’t think so. Instead, it is making us differently intelligent. Carr, et al are simply judging this difference, the new type of intelligence, against the old standards.

In his article The War On Flow, 2009: Why Studies About Multitasking Are Missing The Point, Steven Boyd makes the point much more eloquently:

If you use industrial era yardsticks based on personal productivity to try to figure out what is going on in our heads, here, in the web of flow, you will simply think we are defective. We’ll have to learn how to measure the larger scope — the first and second closure of our networks — and distill from our media-based interactions how we influence and support each other. Get away from counting the calories, and get into how it all tastes.

I found Boyd’s article through Jim McGee’s article Asking more relevant questions about focus and multitasking, in which Jim adds his own take on the question of multitasking:

The question is not about whether multitasking is a better way to do old forms of work; it is about what skills and techniques do we need to develop to deal with the forms of work that are now emerging. … One of the useful things to be done is to spend a more time watching the juggling (to borrow Stowe Boyd’s image) and appreciating it on its own terms instead of criticizing it for what it isn’t.

I have to admit I’m a bit old-school, and still have some work to do on my “juggling”. In some ways, I  miss the old days of a “simple catch”. At the same time, I love the challenge that juggling presents and am working my way up to having ever more balls in the air. 

Who knows, one day I may graduate to flaming torches or even chainsaws.

(For a great intro to juggling and how you can apply it to work and life, check out Michael Gelb’s More Balls Than Hands: Juggling Your Way to Success by Learning to Love Your Mistakes.)

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 WorkLiteracy.com 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.

cynefin-concept-work

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.