How do knowledge workers, especially new ones, learn how to be knowledge workers?

When I asked for a time out from all the myriad tools that seem to continually pop-up, especially social networking and collaboration tools, I didn’t expect that time out to last three months. (And I really didn’t expect the time out to end because of yet another tool, but that’s a story for a different time.) But the time out has given me a lot of time to think about what I’m really interested in writing about.

I’ve realized that it is very difficult to talk about the concept of mastery in the abstract, and it kind of misses the point if all I write about are the successes (like in sports) of the process, instead of the process itself. I’ve also realized that what I’m really interested in understanding the nature of knowledge work and how individual knowledge workers obtain mastery in their craft.

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 Knowledge work as craft work; I’m sure you’ve seen that or other similar pieces. Jim’s article has many excellent insights, and I’m sure I’ll get around to all of them eventually, but the following is what brought the question in the title of this post to mind:

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.

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. I’ve also taken a renewed interest in this process as described in the biographies of historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci. Jim’s description of how the junior members of the team learned the process sounds very familiar in that context.

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?

These are the questions I’d like to explore in more detail as I move forward. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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