How do knowledge workers work?

Posted by gminks in corporate_training | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

This blog post is courtesy @quinnovator and his latest post on Distributed Thinking and Learning. So if you are one of my school team mates, sorry but I had to get this out of my head before editing any more of our papers.

Clark’s post is about Distributed Cognition (and now there is yet another book on my winter break reading list..). Here’s a definition from Wikipedia:

Distributed cognition is a branch of cognitive science that proposes that human knowledge and cognition are not confined to the individual. Instead, it is distributed by placing memories, facts, or knowledge on the objects, individuals, and tools in our environment. Distributed cognition is a useful approach for (re)designing social aspects of cognition by putting emphasis on the individual and his/her environment. Distributed cognition views a system as a set of representations, and models the interchange of information between these representations. These representations can be either in the mental space of the participants or external representations available in the environment.

Clark talks about applying distributed thinking to learning this way:

The implication is that having kids solve problems with executive support, but without scaffolding that executive support and the gradual release of those executive skills to the learner, we’re not really developing appropriate problem-solving skills.

Of course I’m thinking how that transfers to corporate learning, in particular technical education. We struggle all the time with trying to figure out how to think people to think – to go beyond the break-fix mentality that you need to start with and get to the point where you can pull back and look at an entire system and anticipate how applying a fix in one place may affect a different area at a later time.

I can teach you how something works, but in there are a million ways to implement and support any one thing. How do I teach you to pull back and see the entire system?

Maybe some of it goes back to information-seeking behavior. Techies have their own language, history, culture. We have our own distributed memory, our own languages that invoke that memory. If a n00b doesn’t have the language to ask some 133t techie a question, they may dismissed as unimportant. I’ve taken to being very sarcastic with some of our younger folks. If I’m asked, why doesn’t it work? I say, “because it hates you”. Not because I’m being mean, but this is how I learned to start figuring things out on my own.

Did you look at the logs? Did you look at the application logs? Can it talk to the outside world? Can it talk to the default router? Did you google it?

I learned not to ask for help until I had gone down every single path I knew about. I learned to think about what could be affecting the problem I was troubleshooting.

I learned who I could ping with a quick IM for a hint. I can’t imagine how twitter would have changed things for  me back then! Those of us who have been around for a while understand inherently the language of twitter, we all still have our ICQ accounts with super low numbers. we’ve been talking in compressed chat speak for 10 years. Its part of our collective heritage.

So is multi-tasking. We know how to IM (or now tweet), respond to emails in a help queue, build a server, test a script, and take care of a problem with sick child all at the same time. We haven’t had the luxury of 8-hour days because people have depended on us to keep servers, emails, networks, etc up and available 24-7. Multi-tasking is a necessity for techies, and now anyone who calls herself a knowledge worker.

So how can we teach these skills? Can we teach this in a class, or does it have to happen OTJ? How do new workers learn the old language so they can have words to do a search for information? I think first and foremost, the folks doing the education part have to speak the language, and have to be part of the culture. Because its very obvious when you try to assert authority but you don’t have access to that small world.

I wonder if its possible to be an information impostor in the world of distributed cognition?

One Response to How do knowledge workers work?

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