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.)

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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.

Collaborate, cooperate, or coordinate?

Using the Cynefin framework, which I’ve also discussed here, Shawn at the Anecdote blog takes a look at the question of When should we collaborate? It’s always useful to define your terms before starting this kind of discussion, and Shawn obliges with the following:

So what is collaboration then? It’s when a group of people come together, driven by mutual self–interest, to constructively explore new possibilities and create something that they couldn’t do on their own.

Turns out the best time to collaborate is in a complex situation, as opposed to a complicated (cooperation) or simple (coordination) situation, as shown in Shawn’s diagram below.  Of course, the diagram also shows that there is potential overlap between the quadrants, and you really do need to look at each situation individually.

On the internet, no one knows you’re autistic

When people with autism or other disabilities try to engage in face-to-face communications, it is often made difficult because of a bias, intentional or not, on the part of the other person in the conversation.  Another aspect of the value of social media to autistic people and others with various disabilities is the fact that they are judged not by their appearance nor the quality of their voice, but by what they have to say.

Consider the following excerpt from an autism advocacy blog:

What started the conversation was a person we know offline who has acquired a new condition over the course of the time we have known her. She has always been extreme in both her ableism and her refusal to even contemplate thinking politically about disability, more extreme than most people. Her entire identity has been tied up in the work (paid and unpaid) that she can’t do anymore. And she’s currently mired in some of the worst kinds of self-hatred because she appears to have transferred her bigotry towards disabled people (which she never acknowledged as such, and would probably be insulted by that description, but it’s true) to herself, and is busy thinking of herself as the useless burden on her family that she thinks of disabled people as in general. And she does not even have the solace of understanding disability in a broader sense than her own feelings (that she believes come out of nowhere and are therefore not things she can change), because while she is capable of thinking politically in that way, she fears it and refuses, believing it would make her miserable. There’s nothing I or anyone else can do about this, but I hope one day she’ll realize that the kind of thinking she fears would actually both be closer to reality and make her less miserable and fearful over the long run.

Was that written by a man? Or a woman? Young or old? Black or white?  Disabled , or not?

As someone who spends a lot of time on the phone, e-mail, and IM, it is safe to say that I’ve never met, and will likely never meet, as many as half the people I interact with in the course of a day, week, month. Occasionally, however, I do meet face to face someone I’ve known virtually for a long time. Without fail, my thoughts of what they will be like are completely wrong. (Imagine your favorite radio DJ, then look up their picture online: you’ll see what I mean.)

Unfortunately, the norm in our society is to allow a person’s physical appearance and behavior affect our impressions of that person. In the case of autism, especially what is commonly referred to as ‘low-functioning’, this is especially problematic.

The beauty of social media, and the internet in general, is that your physical appearance doesn’t matter. Your method of communication doesn’t matter (granted, this is mainly because everyone communicates in much the same way online). People accept you – or not – for what you say, for who you are.  Not what they think you should be capable of because of how you look or sound. We can only hope the offline world catches up.

BTW, the excerpt above comes from the Ballastexistenz blog. For an example of someone caught in the act of judging by appearances, check out Kev Leitch’s post If Someone’s Not Broke, Don’t Fix Them.

Most of this post originally appeared  on 27 June 2006 on my blog 29 Marbles.

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.

= = == === =====
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….

===== === == = =

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.

Innovation is good, but innovators are bad…

…if you are looking for someone to help you get the word out about your innovation. At least, this is the message I get from a quick read of Innovators are a bad choice for change from Shawn at the Anecdote blog.

Dr Rogers persisted thinking, if only he could get one farmer to try it out and then they could influence everyone else. After a time he did find someone to try out the new corn, a hipster dude who wore Bermuda shorts and fancy sunglasses. He enjoyed a bumper crop but the other farmers were unimpressed. This maverick farmer derided their way of life, he was an outsider and there was no way they were going to adopt anything from a Bermuda short wearing weirdo.

The story Shawn is discussing comes from Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, which has this to say in regards to the story:

Rogers learned that the first people to latch onto a new idea are unlike the masses in many ways. He called these people innovators. They’re the guys and gals in Bermuda shorts. They tend to be open to new ideas and smarter than average. But here’s the important point. The key to getting the majority of any population to a adopt a vital behavior is to find out who these innovators are and avoid them like the plague. If they embrace your new ideas, it will surely die.

Though I hate to say it, this explains a lot. I don’t know if I buy into it completely, but I think anyone who fits the description of “innovator” given above can probably recount more than one story like this from personal experience. Shawn goes on to say that the recommended approach is to approach “early adopters”, but I must admit I’m not sure I understand the difference between an “early adopter” and “innovator” in this context.

I also can’t help thinking of this in the context of Michele’s recent question in Developing Work Literacies: Who’s the Target Audience? Regardless of whether you stake out your target as the workers themselves or the organization’s leadership, it seems that you should maybe avoid targeting the people who already embrace the concepts of Work Literacy.

Newly discovered blog on a big topic of my interest

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that one of my big interests is in the area of Personal Knowledge Management, or PKM. (Note: as I went to insert a link to the PKM category of this blog, I discovered that I don’t, in fact, have one. Thus the link to the KM category.) Key to this is an interest in and exploration of the various tools available today to help individuals improve their ability to perform their work.

Thanks to a post from Harold Jarche, I now have a term that very neatly (and concisely) describes what my interest really is: Work Literacy. From the inaugural post at Work Literacy:

Work Literacy is based on the beliefs that:

  • With the growth of new technologies, explosion of new information, and accessibility of experts around the world, there’s a growing gap between the skills that most knowledge workers possess and the resources available to them.
  • As knowledge workers we need practical skills, methods and tools that will improve our effectiveness and help us stay on top of our game.
  • This is an issue that’s evolving quickly and we need a way to start discussing the implications, sharing ideas and learning how to better manage our work and learning.

Work Literacy will:

  • Inspire action
  • Pull together a wide variety of individuals who will collectively help provide content that is meaningful to the “average knowledge worker.”
  • Provide a hub for the discussion of this topic by knowledge workers.
  • Provide access to resources such as workshop providers, presenters, information, etc. offered by people in the network.

This one is definitely going into my feed reader, you should take a look at it as well. (And yes, I am also setting up a Work Literacy category.)