New work, new attitude

Nine Shift has a series of posts on the changing nature of work and how the idea of responsibility usurped morals during the industrial age (See Part 1Part 2Part 3).

“In the Industrial Age of the 20th century, you didn’t have to be of good moral character to work in the factory. But you did have to be responsible.  And so teachers in the 20th century schoolhouse and college taught (still teach) responsibility.   And by that  teachers mean specific behaviors.

Those behaviors are now obsolete. They made sense in the factory …  But not in the virtual office.”

This post had me thinking about our approach to work literacy, and its foundation on skills, such as how to deal with information flows or personal knowledge mastery. What if the real challenge to be productive in the new workplace will be an attitude shift? Organisations may not be concerned if you work a full shift or are spending time at your work space. Compensation may become focused not just on results but creative solutions to the organisation’s issues. The required attitude may be creativity, as in “what have you done that’s different?”.

As we moved from morality to responsibility one hundred years ago, are we now shifting from responsibility to creativity? If we do, then most of our organisational tools and measurements about productivity may have to get thrown out.

11 Responses to “New work, new attitude”

  1. Ishani Mitra

    Great observation!! I would like to specially emphasize on the point of innovation and say that it IS really the key to success for modern entrepreneurs. Another interesting article that you can consider reading in this regard isthis one.

  2. Karyn Romeis

    “most of our organisational tools and measurements about productivity may have to get thrown out”

    Yes please!

    As to the comment above, I think you got spammed.

  3. Harold Jarche

    Karyn, I think there is great potential in the field of new and better measurement, and I’m keeping my eye on it. As for the spammer; WordPress inserts “nofollow” into all links, so no Google juice.

  4. Jason Priem

    Harold, I love your blog, but I’m not so sure I buy your point here. I thought that perhaps some context for the quotations would help, but after reading William and Julie’s posts over at Nine Shift, I think I must be either missing their argument, or they–and you–are missing some evidence.

    What makes you say that “we moved from morality to responsibility one hundred years ago?” I’m no expert in the history of education, but my understanding of the terms makes this statement seems pretty questionable.

    First, in what ways did schools change when they started “teaching responsibility?” For that matter, what do William and Julie (and you) mean by “teaching responsibility” anyway? The Nine Shift posts seem to mean enforcing deadlines; I certainly could be ill informed, but I thought that 19th-Century schools did this as well?

    And how about the other direction: did 20th-Century schools really abandon moral education? A little time with Google Scholar leads me to suspect otherwise; seems that most authors see the first half of the decade as chock full o’ morality ed. (See here, for instance. I’ve not read McClellan’s book (which seems widely cited), but a brief skim suggest that he sees the collapse in moral ed holding off until the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s. Indeed, the topic would seem to remain relevant, at least to scholars, today: Google Scholar returns 20k hits for ” schools AND ‘moral education’ ” published since the turn of the millennium. We can suspect that this scholarly interest probably reflects certain amount of moral education on the ground, as well. I certainly know that moral education was stressed in the middle and elementary schools where I’ve taught and volunteered. My point is that this argument which seeks to draw an analogy from history seems less-than-ideally aware of the history from which it draws.

    And while I certainly agree that creativity is an absolutely essential part of an good education, and in increasingly important qualification for many jobs,I think I’d stop well short of saying that responsibility will be less important. I think that people will always prefer to to business with folks that honor their commitments, return correspondence, and meet deadlines.

    Now, I do think that in some fields our notion of what constitutes a hard day’s work may change…many jobs will (and do) require a lot of what a line worker might call sitting around doing nothing. But I think that’s very different from responsibility. And I think it’s got very little to do with a supposed Big Shift from morality to responsibility ed in schools.

  5. Harold Jarche

    Good points, Jason. Not sure if I have all the answers, but this post, and my blog, is a work in progress anyway.

    The difference between free public education in the industrial era and what preceded it are two very different types of schooling. I wouldn’t compare one with the other. Free public education for the masses shifted the emphasis of learning to schools and took this role away from the family (except for the rich, who don’t attend public schools anyway). Industrial schools may have taught morals but the main expectation of the system was responsibility. Responsibility was the necessary behaviour of the factory worker and the system, with periods, grades, subjects. It was designed after the Prussian military model and especially to create a place so that the unruly mob could be kept under control. Family/Church morality has moved to second place under this system, as witnessed by the backlash of Charter schools.

    The industrial school model focuses on an enforced sense of responsibility. Students are told what is important and that they will be tested on it. Students are responsible for doing their work but what work has to be done comes from an Authority.

    So if the implicit direction from schools is that it is important to do as you are told, attend classes, be on time, complete assignments and listen in class; will these behaviours be necessary for most people in the next half century? I don’t know, but I found the premise interesting, so I had to get my thoughts out there. I look forward to the resulting conversations and of course the disagreements.

    I’m interested in the larger patterns here. Do kids finish school with more of an understanding about morality or of responsibility? Is the type of responsibility pushed by industrial schooling an adequate behaviour for the “new” workplace? Does it matter? These are the ideas floating around in my mind and I really wanted to expand here on the Nine Shift articles.

  6. Jason Priem

    Don’t get me wrong, Harlold: I think it’s a thought-provoking post, and I’m glad you published it. One of the strengths of blogging is the ability to put out your thoughts and get feedback. And you do a good job of clarifying your ideas in your comment, I think.

    I’m still unconvinced, though, that the historical shift you identify actually took place. I’m woefully underinformed about the history of American schooling, so I’d be more than happy to be corrected, though.

    I haven’ t seen any mention of exactly how industrial schools were meant to have “focus[ed] on an enforced sense of responsibility,” beyond things like “students are told what is important and that they will be tested on it, ” and the observation that students were penalized for turning in late work. I guess I still can’t understand how these were innovations of industrial schools. Preindustrial schools didn’t do this?

    It seems to me that your description of industrial-age schooling, “students are responsible for doing their work but what work has to be done comes from an Authority,” would apply quite nicely to 19th-century American schools; indeed, it would seem to describe quite a large proportion of formal schooling from all sorts of times and places, as well.

    My point here isn’t to quibble; rather it’s to suggest that the desire to enforce, and perhaps instill, personal responsibility (particularly in the puzzlingly narrow Nine Shift formulation, which seems to boil down to “finishing your tasks on time) seems to extend well before the 20th Century. If that’s true, than we may have less reason to suspect teaching responsibility won’t extend beyond the 20th Century, as well.

    But of course, I understand that this comparison with history isn’t your whole point; after all, even if responsibility had always been the main concern of education, it would be possible for that to be changing now. I’d suggest, though, that quite apart from any appeal to historical trends such a change strikes my as unlikely.

    It’s not that I see no changes for the workplace Of The Future. Although I still suspect that the importance of the “new economy” is being overrated (yes, we’re adding knowledge jobs–at about the same speed we’re adding service jobs), I can see how certain types of work will certainly change. As I mentioned earlier, I can easily see a change in what what we mean by work…”why aren’t you at your desk?” could conceivably become a thing of the past in some fields . But I think that the “meet your deadlines” type of responsibility currently encouraged by schools is likely to become more important in an economy where people don’t have a boss making sure they’re working every minute. Doesn’t more independence requires more responsibility?

  7. Harold Jarche

    In my mind, the big shift came when we went from small, locally controlled schools to those directed by states/provinces and other centralised authorities. It was also the time that we went to real mass schooling, where public education was available to all. The moral direction was lost when we went to a larger, industrial scale and there was no single moral authority to guide a pluralist society. Hence, responsibility had to be the rule. A bit simplistic, I admit, and I agree that we’re not seeing changes by the educational structures, yet.

    However, I’m beginning to think that the whole concept of direction from above and control by authority may be unraveling faster than we think. As 4 billion of us become hyperconnected, we may soon find out that no one can be in charge.

    I’m still thinking about all this and I really appreciate your comments.

  8. Jason Priem

    Yeah, I’ve enjoyed this conversation; it’s provided impetus for some much needed study of ed history on my part. I think you’re right in seeing the importance of free public schooling’s rise; that’s certainly a significant historical shift. I still question the association between this shift and industrialization, though, as it seems to me that free, compulsory education was becoming well established by the 20th century. For example, Wikipedia reports that “by 1870, every state provided free elementary education,” and that “By 1900, 31 states required children to attend school from the ages of 8- to 14-years-old.” And those schools, I think, were just as likely to insist upon timely lesson completion as their 20th-century counterparts (indeed, wasn’t the sort of draconian strictness of these schools exactly what the Progressives would later react against?)

    So I still don’t see a connection between industrialization and and teaching responsibility. But I do think that it’ll be interesting to see how the new connectivity affects authority. There’s a lot to like about the idea of a new, Illichian, distributed and free learning environment, and some reason to think the internet could bring it about. But of course for every cyberpunk vision of network freedom there’s a competing Orwellian one of inescapable corporate and government surveillance and control (if you wanted to be provocative, you could say this is already reflected in the growing gulf between the LMS and PLE ways of doing things…) Time will tell.

  9. Jon Husband

    So I still don’t see a connection between industrialization and and teaching responsibility.

    Mightn’t it be in how “responsibility” is defined, and in what context and how that definition is used ? Education began to be some time ago, and increasingly is (as a generality), preparation for performing correctly when in employment, no ?

  10. Harold Jarche


    Pre-industrial – prepped by the Church (morality)
    Industrial – prepped by the State (job responsibility)
    Post-industrial – prepped by ourselves? (creativity)

    Of course, many would see anarchy if we did not have some higher authority telling what was right and wrong.


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