Workscaping, part 3 of n

Sources of knowhow

My class at Harvard Business School has the distinction of being the last not allowed to bring portable calculators to exams. (A Bomar 4-function calculator cost $99, a sum that kept many of us from acquiring one.) I got through by doing discounted cash now with a slide rule.

Everyone has several calculators today. They are giveaways. There’s probably one in your phone. All of which makes it irrelevant to learn long division, how to take cube roots, or logarithms. Why bother? That’s yesterday’s knowledge.

Robert Kelley at Carnegie Mellon discovered that whereas in 1986 we carried 75% of what we need to know to do our jobs in our heads, by 2006 our brains contained only about 8-10% of what we needed to know.

The rest is stored in our “outboard brains” — our laptops or, increasingly, our smart phones.

Once I had to learn most of the things required to do my job; now I need to know where to retrieve them. I search or ask people when I need to know. If I have a good network of savvy colleagues, I can ask them for advice (“social search”). “I store knowledge in my friends.” (6)

Instructional designers once only designed instruction. Now they must assess the tradeoff of putting knowledge in the worker’s head (learning) or putting it in an outboard brain (performance support). Among the options available to them:

Searching and asking questions work best with explicit information, things that could be written down.

The subtle information that cannot be pinned down in simple sentences, for example, the emotions and nuances that make or break a sale, is tougher to transfer because “’wisdom can’t be told.” (7) People acquire this implicit knowledge through observing others, collaboration, and lengthy trial and error. Like blindfolded zen archery, mastery sometimes takes years. (8)

Or course, many times we have already learned a skill through experience. Today experiential learning can be accelerated through simulation, virtual worlds, and role play.

In the increasingly complex world we inhabit, we often confront novel situations. This requires innovation, a new way of doing things. Innovation is often the result of a mash-up of ideas, for example a rule of thumb from one discipline being applied in a new context

So far, we’ve addressed motivation and content. Longer term, there’s more to it than that. In addition to learning about things, we need to become professionals.

More on the way

6 Karen Stephenson, as quoted by Downes post-44607

7 Harvard professor Charles I. Gregg. 1970. http://www.aacu.orgipeerreviewlpr-wiOSlprwi05realitycheck.cfm

8 Herrigel, E and Suzuki, D. 1953. Zen and the Art of Archery

Workscaping, part 1 of n

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