carpe diem

Arun Pradhan recently asked about my own experiences of learning and working. I decided to work and learn out loud and post my responses here. There were four questions, but my responses overlapped, so I have written a single, narrative response, below.

  1. Q1. In your working life, how have you learnt effectively from experience, please provide an example if possible? (e.g. how have you used intentional practice, learnt from failure, learnt from ambitious projects and/or used reflection)
  2. In your working life, how have you learnt effectively from people, please provide an example if possible? (e.g. how have you learnt from project teams, mentors, coaches and/or broader social networks)
  3. In your working life, how have you learnt effectively from courses, research or investigation, please provide an example if possible? (e.g. how have you learnt from reading on the web, reading books or attending courses)
  4. What’s your top advice for someone who wishes to develop faster and learn complex skills in modern workplaces?

The first twenty-one years of my work life were spent serving in the Canadian military. During that time I had four years of formal university education, followed by military courses and instruction totaling several years. I also completed a Master of Education degree part-time while working. I was a trained and qualified infantry officer, health care administrator, and training development officer. On leaving the military in 1998, I starting working in the field of learning technologies, where I had minimal formal education, other than a course in instructional design. My Master’s degree was in adult education and not much use in the field of knowledge management or human performance technology, the main focus of my work for my first two civilian jobs.

The formal instruction I received as an infantry officer was a comprehensive suite of training programs. It included basic officer training and several advanced courses in areas such as intelligence, logistics, and tactics. I could not have done my job as an infantry officer without this formal training, but formal instruction was only the first part of learning. It was combined with learning in a social setting: my unit.

When I arrived at my first operational unit, after one year of infantry officer training, I was told to forget most of what I had learned, as I would learn how to do things correctly now. I would now learn informally, through games and simulations. I would also learn socially, working with my fellow soldiers. The military calls this collective training. It is not run by training specialists, but rather the operational staff. The civilian equivalent would be that the lines of business, rather than HR or L&D, would develop all training inside an organization. The military understands that collective training, which fosters social bonding, is necessary for the complexity and chaos of battle. My regiment continued to practice learning at work, even in Afghanistan.

Almost everything I have learned since leaving the military has been through experience or from my colleagues. For example, it was while doing projects for clients that I began to understand civilian businesses, working with my peers at the Centre for Learning Technologies. My clients have been some of my best teachers. I have found that business value keeps shifting. I used to get paid well to help companies select new learning technologies. I have not done that type of work for over five years. I have learned that what worked yesterday will not work tomorrow. A few years ago, several of my major clients decided they no longer wanted to hire external consultants, and I temporarily lost a primary source of my revenue. At this time I was testing out my online PKM workshops. These happened to pick up just as consulting work was decreasing. Luckily I had learned to experiment in order to create emergent practices.

I learned about ‘internet time’ from Jay Cross. The idea is that in a networked society connections increase, time to market decreases and more gets done in a day that used to be possible. This is internet time. The many conversations I had with Jay over the years, as well as several consulting projects and a few collaborative ventures, taught me more that what I could have learned from an MBA. Our first venture together was the ‘Informal Learning Unworkshop’ series, where we used a different web conference platform each time, sometimes changing in mid-course when the technology broke. I learned to fly by the seat of my pants with Jay.

I have learned much from my various project partners over the years, especially the Internet Time Alliance, such as:

  • How to negotiate a contract.
  • How to establish fees.
  • How to manage client expectations.
  • How to deal with difficult client situations.
  • How to find a community of practice.
  • How to build a trusted knowledge network.

I also read as much as possible, and one way to remember the important parts is by writing book reviews here. I only write positive reviews because I only want to remember the good ones. Over time, these reviews have become a valuable mental refresher for me. Writing on this blog is another way I keep my mind fresh and try out new ideas. Some of these ‘half-baked ideas’ later get formalized into e-books. I have written three in the perpetual beta series and the fourth will be published shortly.

My advice is to learn as much as possible, however you can. If you have the time and money for formal education, choose well and immerse yourself in it. But it is even more important to learn by doing. This means trying out new things on a regular basis. Get out there, and seize the day. Note that our interconnected economy is forcing all of us to be more innovative because replication is just too easy. Others can copy most of what you are doing as soon as you do it. The only way to stay ahead is to keep your work, and learning, in perpetual beta.

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