Thursday, August 19, 2010

Complexity, knowledge work and why learning becomes difficult.

Most managers are knowledge workers. If you produce information of various
kinds—documents, analyses, reports, art etc - you’re almost certainly displaying the traits of a knowledge worker. If you use software to perform your work, then you acquire the label with little argument from most pundits.

If you use the Internet in your work for more than a couple minutes per workday, it’s highly likely that you’re classified as a knowledge worker. And you certainly are if you use your experience and education in financial services, human resources and hundreds of other service industries to get things done. However, defining knowledge work as information seeking and application of knowledge, solving problems and creating taxonomies of types of information - is probably wrong and simply wont take us to a deeper understanding of how we can make work better.

But first there is the question of just how complex our working world has become. If you believe that modern technology is complex and that we are using more of it in a knowledge economy which was already complex, then it could be that we are in an cycle of increasing complexity!
Modern technology can be complex, but complexity by itself is neither good nor bad: it is confusion that is bad. Forget the complaints against complexity; instead, complain about confusion. We should complain about anything that makes us feel helpless or powerless in the face of forces that take away control and understanding.

The stunning reality is that we, as knowledge workers, often spend more than half our time doing work that has no formal description, no standards for best practices and no appropriate metrics. What’s more, that work is not formally or explicitly connected to specific outcomes,
whether they are services or products. Complexity is part of the world, but it shouldn't be puzzling: we can accept it if we believe that this is the way things must be. Just as the owner of a cluttered desk sees order in its structure, we will see order and reason in complexity once
we come to understand the underlying principles. But when that complexity is random and arbitrary, then we have reason to be annoyed.

So what does it mean for learning?

Critical thinking skills will be our staple for most knowledge workers but knowledge workers will need to ask some basic questions of themselves:
  • Am I trying to cram or memorise everything without really thinking about it?
  • Am I understanding, using ideas, thinking about the relationships between new concepts and things I already know?
  • Can I think analytically?
  • Am I working regularly or in a haphazard way?
  • Can I organise my time effectively?
  • Am I motivated?
  • Do I work well with others?

We as educators and learning professionals need learning environments that let individuals answer these questions. Without them, we will continue to develop industrial age learning for information age knowledge workers and it can only end in a down right complex screw up! This will not be easy. At the heart of complex environments is industrial age hierarchies. But that is for another day.....

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