Resetting learning and work

A large portion of the workforce face significant barriers to being autonomous learners on the job. From early on we are told to look to authority and direction in learning and work. The idea that there is a right answer, or an expert with the right answer, begins in our schools. John Taylor Gatto describes this in the seven-lesson schoolteacher.

The fifth lesson I teach is intellectual dependency. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices; only I, the teacher, can determine what you must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions which I then enforce. If I’m told that evolution is a fact instead of a theory, I transmit that as ordered, punishing deviants who resist what I have been told to tell them to think. This power to control what children will think lets me separate successful students from failures very easily.

Good employees wait for their supervisor to tell them what to do. In much of the industrial/service/information workplace you’re not paid to think, but to do the bidding of someone else. I know this is changing in many places, but a job is still a JOB.

Today, more of our learning is on the job so that formal training is an increasingly smaller percentage of what we need to get things done. Our informal learning needs will continue to grow, as Robert Kelley showed over a 20-year CMU study of knowledge workers. He asked:

“What percentage of the knowledge you need to do your job is stored in your own mind?”

1986 ~ 75%.
1997 ~ 20%
2006 ~ 10%

Workers need to take control of their learning, just at a time when the great majority (especially baby boomers) have been educated by the system that Gatto describes above and have endured countless hours of training measured by hours in a classroom. The crows have been culled from many flocks of turkeys.

Here’s a quote from Peter Drucker’s 2005 article Managing Oneself, in HBR (Slideshare Synopsis of Managing Oneself):

The challenges of managing oneself may seem obvious, if not elementary. And the answers may seem self-evident to the point of appearing naïve. But managing oneself requires new and unprecedented things from the individual, and especially from the knowledge worker. In effect, managing oneself demands that each knowledge worker think and behave like a chief executive officer. Further, the shift from manual workers who do as they are told to knowledge workers who have to manage themselves profoundly challenges social structure. Every existing society, even the most individualistic one, takes two things for granted, if only subconsciously: that organizations outlive workers, and that most people stay put.

Tom Peters called this change in mindset, Brand You and predicted over a decade ago that “90+ percent of White Collar Jobs will be totally reinvented/reconceived in the next decade”. Has yours? I don’t think we’re there yet.

For years, I put forth practical methods, like Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) and Skills 2.0 as one part of the equation. The other part is changing organizational structures.

Dan Pink says we’re moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. Like artists, we need to see and learn for ourselves. The great challenge for knowledge workers is to become knowledge managers – managers of their own knowledge. It’s accepting life in perpetual Beta.

However, we don’t have to do this alone. We can become independent while embracing our interdependence. We just need to get over our dependence on others who “provide a job” or “give us an education”. It’s not theirs to give. It’s ours to co-create.

I’ve learned a lot working for myself these past eight years. I’ve had to figure many things out on my own. Freelancing started the day after I was laid-off. PKM was my way of dealing with the fact of no professional development budget. But I learned with the help of others, most recently my colleagues at the Internet Time Alliance.  

Taking control of our learning and our work isn’t really a revolution. It’s more like a reset to the proper default position for the conceptual age.

4 Responses to “Resetting learning and work”

  1. Brent MacKinnon

    The openness and readiness of workers to take over their learning on the job is a major barrier. When I ask knowledge workers to share their personal opinions about a work issue, even in a private platform (wiki) their anxiousness and resistance was profound. It was as you describe in your post, the skill to share their personal point of view just wasn’t there or it was buried deep.

    I’m dwelling on this issue quite a bit. After watching Etienne Wenger talk about “plug & play” models that can be used as needed for addressing particularly difficult behaviours, I thought something similiar could work to kick start the “managing oneself” process.

    The resiliency framework, used for identifying assets and building on strengths is one I think may be useful. I will have a post on this soon.

    I do like your title and theme of Reset. It’s far more natural and inviting than revolution.

    Thanks for another great post Harold,


  2. Paul Matthews

    I guess if you go back far enough in human history, there are people (tribal elders) who knew what worked when it came to survival. This concept of do as you are told or die is ingrained. We are still breaking free of the bonds. Move to the present day and we have vast swathes of information, and as many elders as we want, each with their own approach to what is ‘right’. And our needs for information are greater and far more diverse, and very unlikley to be satisfied by a handful of current day ‘elders’. These days we need to be able to tap into the vast information flow and the greater population of ‘elders’. I definitely find this in my own field of management support tools where the issue is usually about breaking the barriers between people and the information they need.

    So I am not entirely sure that I agree with the assertion that we need to revert to a ‘default’ position. We actually need to expand and broaden from what we have learned about learning from thousands of years of successful species survival.

    Very thought provoking. Thanks


  3. Jon Husband

    Taking control of our learning and our work isn’t really a revolution. It’s more like a reset to the proper default position for the conceptual age.

    Ta-da ! Yup !


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)