Work used to be simple — tasks were mechanical and things rarely changed, so initial lessons lasted a lifetime. But slowly that kind of work became automated and outsourced to places where workers earn very low wages.
Next came information work, which was often complicated, but it was linear, procedural and rote. Often information work came with mountains of details that were put into reference databases, procedure manuals and performance support systems. Workers could off-load memorization and processing to computers and their outboard brains. Information work has been commoditized; it no longer produces high value.
Today’s most rewarding work is conceptual. Workers deal with novel situations on the fly. These may be human interactions — service is replacing manufacturing as the driver in almost all the world’s economies — or dealing with uncertainty and surprises — complex environments are inherently unpredictable. Innovation has become more important than production. Doing the right things, often new things, trumps doing things right.
In a world of rapid change, learning can never stop. A worker cannot tackle new challenges, take advantage of new information or make judgment calls on novel situations without learning along the way. More than merely being embedded into work, learning has become integral to work. Social learning at work does not exist outside of that context. Likewise, informal learning can’t be isolated from work itself. Learning is work.
How did we ever think otherwise? Well, we unwisely used school as the mental model for how to structure workplace learning. The difficulty there is that education is generally isolated from the real world.
Schools erect walls to protect children from the dangers that lurk outside. When the children are old enough to fend for themselves, academics construct ivory towers to keep real-world noise from interfering with deep dives into artificial disciplines. But learning a particular discipline with the assumption that other things are equal is poor preparation for a messy world where those other things actually have great impact.
Schools encourage students to learn alone. Students are evaluated in isolation, and group activity is called cheating. Grades are awarded to individuals, not groups. And this is at the heart of why grades are totally unrelated to anything outside of the school system: they fail to measure what one can accomplish with others. Students chase after grades that do not correlate with income, happiness or power. Teachers should recognize that people respond better to group rewards than individual rewards.
There are only a few situations where it makes sense to separate learning from work — compliance is a prime example. Employees are expected to perform in the official way; not much thinking is involved. People learn boundaries: what not to do, what constitutes crossing the line and the detailed steps of procedures. Indoctrination is required instead of learning while working in this manner because regulatory compliance has not kept up with the way people work; compliance can’t handle the unforeseen.
Another situation where it makes sense to separate learning from work is when you’re looking for outside viewpoints. Innovation requires importing into the workplace patterns of thought from foreign sources that are often detached from learning regimes. For example, an executive who attends a six-week advanced management program at Harvard Business School re-enters the workplace with new frameworks and approaches to try. Employees should take a break from learning on the job to hear this employee’s review of the program. Those insights should be sought out by leaders and shared with others in the workplace.
Work is holistic. It encompasses everything it takes to get the job done and create value. Too often talking about learning delivery options such as informal learning, social learning and discovery learning is misleading because it suggests they can lead some sort of independent existence apart from work.
Better than talking about learning, we should talk about learning while working or learning the job while doing the job or simply working smarter. The focus should always be on getting the job done.ï¿½
By far the most important way employees learn to do their work is in the course of doing their jobs. As Picasso said, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” Workers learn through discovery borne of trying things out, mimicking others and engaging in conversation. They do this on the job, not in the classroom.
Jay Cross chairs the Internet Time Alliance and is a thought leader in informal learning and working smarter. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.