Work competency, literacy, and mastery

Tony Karrer’s comments to a recent post of mine that discussed the application of a craft work model to knowledge work got me thinking a bit more about the subject. I’ve also been thinking some about the one of the goals of the Work Literacy project, specifically to “help build a foundation of knowledge of methods for knowledge work” (as Tony wrote in comments to Michele’s post Knowledge Workers as Craft Workers).

So instead of apprentice/journeyman/master, which refer as much to an individual’s position within an organization as it does to the individual’s skill level, I’m thinking the more basic terms of competency, literacy, and mastery may apply. These speak directly to the skill level of the individual in terms of the individual’s goals, and is independent of any organization they may be part of.

Obviously, these terms will need to be defined a bit in the context of knowledge work and work literacy to be of use to the current effort. A good place to start is at the basic definitions of the terms:

  • Competent: having suitable or sufficient skill, knowledge, experience, etc., for some purpose; properly qualified; adequate but not exceptional.
  • Literate: having knowledge or skill in a specified field
  • Mastery: command or grasp, as of a subject:

Though competency and literacy seem to be very similar, I see them as distinct in the following way. Competence means that you have the knowledge/skill to perform a given task, without necessarily understanding why it is done or having the ability to adapt of if the conditions under which you learned the skill change. Literacy, on the other hand, suggests that you understand why you perform the task the way it is and that you have the ability to adapt your performance to changing conditions and still be successful.

To re-word Tony’s goal stated above, the question in my mind then becomes, “What competencies are needed for knowledge workers today?”

Here are a couple that come to mind. I’ll save more detailed discussion of these for the comments or future posts.

SUGGESTED COMPETENCIES

  • Technology (hardware)
  • Technology (software)
  • Personal Computers
  • Social Networking (technical and personal)
  • Visual Communications
  • Information Assurance / Security
  • Impact of Globalization
  • Finance / money
  • Interpersonal communications

I’m sure there are more, and I’m sure some of these may not be appropriate. But it is a start.

What they say and what they mean

On the recommendation of a friend, I recently read Management of the Absurd by Richard Farson. The book is a wealth of ideas and views on management that you don’t often come across. An example of a management challenge that Farson discusses is the management of creativity:

Real creativity, the kind that is responsible for breakthrough changes in our society, always violates the rules. That is why it is so unmanageable and that is why, in most organizations, when we say we desire creativity we really mean manageable creativity. We don’t mean raw, dramatic, radical creativity that requires us to change.

As much as organizations say they want to be innovative and groundbreaking, they usually don’t mean they want each of their individual employees to be innovative and groundbreaking. An important thought to keep in mind when thinking about work literacy, especially when trying figure who the target audience is for implementing any work literacy initiatives.

Games and learning

I’ve had a strong interest in video games on a personal level for many years (see this page for some of my thoughts). More recently, I’ve become interested on a professional level in the potential for games to be used to support learning and other ‘serious’ purposes – hence the name “Serious Games“.

I see the techniques and technologies of video games playing an increasing role in helping to close the work literacy gap. This is especially true as games and systems become increasingly “network ready” and the games become more multi-player and social.

Commenting to a story in the Wall Street Journal, the Educational Games Research blog writes in the post PSP Mini-nets Show Small Group Potential:

The possibilities of harnessing the mini-net features of the PSP are striking. Small groups could be set up with the PSP to tackle a project together in an educational game. Excluding other players from the groups would allow a room full of students working on PSPs to organize into teams working on objectives within the game.

This is obviously a very small-scale, artificial (ie, classroom) situation, but it does show the potential of “social” games to help teach, and to help learn.

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.

Tools do not a master make [redux]

I’ve been catching up on the posts over at Work Literacy (that’s a lot of catching up!), along with discovering new (to me) blogs in the field of learning. This in turn has had me revisiting old posts and ideas of my own.

Joan Vinall-Cox’s post Old Skills and New Know-How, a response to Michele Martin’s post Knowledge Workers as Craft Workers (which, as it turns out, is based on a comment I left to another of Michele’s posts), discusses the importance of understanding the skills that must go into using a new technology.

Re-printed below is a post of mine from August 2006, Tools do not a master make, that explores a similar theme.

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No tool of modern technology is as universally used, and almost as universally reviled, in the world of business and government as is Microsoft PowerPoint. Perhaps most famous of the PowerPoint bashers is Edward Tufte, writer of several books and essays on information design. (I was fortunate enough to attend one of his courses in the late ’90s, his poster of Napoleon’s March to Moscow still hangs on the wall in my office.)

Tufte has described his issues with PowerPoint in magazine articles (such as PowerPoint is Evil in Wired magazine), in a self-published essay entitled The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, and in a chapter in his latest book Beautiful Evidence. In the past week or so a few others have also lambasted PowerPoint, including Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge in a couple of posts (Festival of Bureaucratic Hyper-Rationalism and Tufte and PowerPoint) and Scott Adams (via Dilbert).

Don Norman, of the Nielsen Norman Group, has a different take on PowerPoint. In his essay In Defense of PowerPoint, Norman places the blame not on PowerPoint but on those who use it improperly. “Don’t blame the problem on the tool.” Or, put another way – PowerPoint doesn’t bore people, people bore people. Cliff Atkinson is another who believes that PowerPoint can be used effectively. For some great ideas check out the Beyond Bullets blog or Atkinson’s book Beyond Bullet Points.

Of course, this problem is not limited to the world of business. One of the big promises of ever faster and more powerful consumer technology (if we are to believe marketing campaigns) is that everyone will be able to perform like an expert. Take, for example, the following pitch for Apple’s GarageBand software (emphasis is mine):

The new video track in GarageBand makes it easy to add an original music score to your movies. And don’t worry about your musical talent — or lack thereof. Just use GarageBand’s included loops, or try a combination of loops, software instruments, or any previous audio recordings you created.

Don’t get me wrong, I love GarageBand (and the whole iLife suite for that matter, I use it almost every day). It is very easy to create a ’song’ using loops, like my First Song. Once I got comfortable with the GarageBand interface, it only took me a couple of hours to browse through the loops, pull some together so it sounded good, and export it to iTunes. The ’song’ is listenable, but doesn’t reflect any real musical skill on my part. I didn’t apply any knowledge of time signatures, keys, tempo, or anything. I just dragged-and-dropped.

I guess my point is don’t get pulled into a false belief that a tool, any tool, can make you an expert at something or give you expert results. Remember, good tools are nice to have, but in the hands of a master even the simplest of tools can create wonders.

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You may also want to check out one of my earliest posts, Quick example of individual productivity gains / savings based on digital thinking.

It’s a good time to be a Nintendo based virtual musician

It is a good time to be a virtual musician, especially if your platform of choice comes from Nintendo. This past weekend saw the release of versions of the popular Guitar Hero and Rock Band game franchises for the Nintendo DS and the Nintendo Wii, respectively.

Guitar Hero On Tour brings the guitar strumming fun to the DS. I had a chance to try it out over the weekend and it is, in the words of my niece, “freaking sweet”. Like the console versions, GHOT has a custom guitar controller.

“But the DS doesn’t use separate controllers,” you say? Check this out:

That in combination with a pick-shaped stylus and the DS touch screen make for very cool game play. Check out the official game site for all the details.

The Wii version of Rock Band is, I’m sure, quite similar to the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 versions in terms of music and playability. Since I already have Rock Band for PS3 (working my way through a “Hard” solo tour), I doubt if I’ll get the Wii version, but I know my brother’s kids are already hounding him for the Wii version.