Work literacy aims to help people develop skills necessary for the knowledge-intensive and interconnected workplace, or as the website says:
Work Literacy is a network of individuals, companies and organizations who are interested in learning, defining, mentoring, teaching and consulting on the frameworks, skills, methods and tools of modern knowledge work.
I’m all for that and believe it’s necessary; it’s just not enough. Michele Martin says on the Work Literacy blog that:
… knowledge workers need to figure out how to leverage the social aspects of the web to make their traditionally solitary online activities more effective and useful. As Tony [Karrer] points out, this will be a big challenge because people are not necessarily aware of the extent to which these social changes impact how they do their work. We first have to make them aware of this changed context and then help the develop the skills to be successful in this new world.
The context of work is definitely changing.
When Henry Ford developed his automobile mass production system he based it on the results of the time-motion studies of F.W. Taylor. Taylorism was the unifying theory that work could be standardized and workers could be organised around jobs, tasks and responsibilities. Ford implemented that theory. I think that for work literacy to become part of the workplace it needs to be grounded on a common vision. If not, then work literacy is just an incremental way of making the industrial workplace (with its org charts, line & staff, job classifications, etc) a bit more efficient.
The industrial model needs to be replaced because more and more work cannot be organised along Taylor’s guidelines. I think that the governing principle of Wirearchy, “a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on information, knowledge, trust and credibility, enabled by interconnected people and technology” is a good start. Embracing this principle would create havoc in most organisations though.
A two-way flow of power and authority exists in few organisations but it is possible and I think necessary in an interconnected world. It’s how open source projects work and it is part of the tacit pact in many Web 2.0 ventures. Companies have to treat their customers in a trustworthy way or they may all leave, which of course will destroy the company as most of the value resides in the community. Think of YouTube without contributors.
Work literacy focuses on the tools and techniques for social media but there is an underlying subversive component. Social media are the equivalent of an industrial factory for each worker. Almost every worker has the ability to get a message out to the world in the blink of an eye. That message can go viral and the organization has no control over it. Workers can also connect to massive amounts of information or find specialists in any field. They don’t need the company database, which is probably out of date anyway.
As anthropologist Michael Wesch states, “when media change, then human relationships change“. The Internet has already changed everything. The social contract that we call employment has been changing for a while. Unions are shrinking, the self-employed are growing (2 million in Canada, which is more than all manufacturing workers) and low wage service jobs are our largest growth sector. What unites us is our ability to easily connect with each other, without traditional intermediaries. We’re just not used to it yet, but initiatives like CarrotMob show what the future may hold.
For me, work literacy is showing people that they have access to the most powerful communications medium in history and that individuals have to grab hold of it, understand it and use it for the good of society, because we are society. Work literacy is not about doing your job better. It’s understanding what it means to work, to create and to be responsible, all within the context of being visible to everyone else. For workers, work literacy means growing up, damn fast.
So here’s my reading of the situation. In an interconnected, interdependent and highly-stressed world there’s no more us and them. It’s just us. We can all figure this out together and maybe our organization will survive. It may not, but we may have learned how to cooperate in the process and then some of us may create something new. Trust is the foundation of the new workplace and work literacy can help us build trust because these social media tools are transparent. That means that bosses are going to lose control – better now than later.
Work literacy is the way in which we connect with information, build knowledge, gain trust and strive for credibility in the Internet age.