Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the University of Strathclyde's online course, Understanding Modern Business and Organisations. Join the course to learn more.
Dr Viktor Dorfler

Ask Viktor

Welcome back to the first instance of our interactive content. First of all, I am sorry for the delay in responding, I have been down with a virus - no, I don’t know yet whether it is the Covid-19. BTW: yes, we are going to talk about that as well, but not right now.

I am happy that was much interest in various topics during the last week - as some of you have guessed, knowledge is one of my favourite topics, and it is one of my two big research areas, the other being artificial intelligence (AI). So, let’s see how we can discuss a few topics you have raised.

If we had some sort of awards for the most active participants, this week it would definitely go to Ainsley Gomez. I have even asked him to bring over here a few things he raised before. I start with one of his topics; this is about whether people who work for you are resources or costs – noting that they are often managed as costs. This is one of those topics that I sometimes respond to starting with “don’t even let me start on…” In my view, people are just that, people. I refuse to be a resource. And, of course, treating people as a cost is even worse. So, what this all means? Considering people as cost is a general inheritance of the manual worker consideration. The job is designed that anyone can do it with minimal training, so the only thing that matters, if you own the business, is to get the cheapest people and train them as quickly and cheaply as you possibly can. In comparison, considering people as a resource is certainly a step up, in this view people can be as important for you as some machinery, as the power you consume, as your infrastructure. Do you feel lifted in spirits when I say that? Probably not. We want to be human beings. If we are resources, only our work matters, otherwise we are like objects, our feelings, families, and so forth, don’t matter. The notion of knowledge worker brings a major step up – and, in some ways, for reasons that are not about knowledge at all. How can you get a great achievement from your creative team? You want them to not simply treat their job as a boring intellectual exercise, you want them to find it interesting, to engage with it, to love it. In other words, you also want their emotions, passions, intuitions, and so on. Well, the prices is that you need to treat them as human beings. Don’t misunderstand me, this is not simply about philanthropy – this is good management. This is how you can get, as Ainsley says:

Engaged employees, who are allowed to chip away at ideas may stumble on an accidental discovery.

He goes on to assert, rightly, that unless you make use of your employees’ creativity (btw: it is the mind rather than the brain that matters here), you could replace them with AI. Correct. In any field. Arthur C Clark suggested once, if I recall correctly, that: “Any teacher who can be replaced by a machine should be.” I have delivered over the last 30 months 20 talks all over the globe about AI and the Human Mind – here is the most recent one: AI & the Human Mind: Exploring Synergies In many of these talks, and in the breaks following them, I explored, together with the audience, what we need to do in order to not be replaced by AI? It is actually quite simple. AI is better than data processing than we (humans) are; so we should focus on what we are better at: being intuitive, creative, social, caring, exercising our subjective judgements. Of course, not everyone’s intuition, creativity, judgement are equally good, we need to exercise these in areas in which we have a high level of expertise. This leads us to the next topic, which is about how a high level of expertise can be acquired. This needs what I like to call a master-apprentice relationship. Clare was asking about the same issue:

Should all organisations encourage mentorship, and what impact does this have on the business?

Let me start from the ancient times. In the Ancient Greece, Socrates was walking around the Agora, with a bunch of young people, teaching them. These young people are usually referred to as his disciples or his apprentices. It was the same in the medieval workshops of crafts as well as arts, talented young people signed up to work for a master (and often paid substantial feels for this privilege). This was known as the master-apprentice relationship. We don’t exactly know when and how the teaching happens in a master-apprentice relationship, the master teaches through examples, the apprentice learns by intelligent imitation. It is an incredibly asymmetric and therefore not politically correct relationship, which is why it was superseded by the mentor-protégé relationship. It is clear from the names that the mentor protects the protégé and offers advantages that others don’t get, therefore notion of the protégé was replaced by the mentee. However, it is still clear that the mentor and the mentee are not exactly at the same level, therefore they have introduced the supervisor-supervisee notion (which does not even sound like proper English, but it is politically correct), which is defined as a relationship of equals. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t have any problems with being equal. The master is not more important in the master-apprentice relationship than the apprentice – both are necessary for the master-apprentice relationship. The problem is that we are often confusing equality with sameness. Of course they are not the same. The master is more knowledgeable in the field, at least, at the beginning of the process.

So mentoring is a slightly watered-down version of the master-apprentice relationship. And as such, it is indispensable in knowledge-oriented organisations. As part of my research into the human mind, I tried to understand how the smartest people think. Therefore, I have conducted a series of interviews with 20 of the best scientists in the world, 17 of them Nobel Laureates. If you want to learn a bit more on this topic, read the paper I have written about this: Understanding “Expert” Scientists: Implications for Management and Organization Research.

You will probably find it interesting, that it was by studying the master-apprentice relationship that Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger came up with the idea of the communities of practice (CoPs), in their book: Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Now CoPs are all about knowledge sharing. It is in our nature. If we know something, we are happy to share it, to help other as well as to show off a little bit. Or we simply care about a topic so much, that we want people to understand it well. (As a personal example, why otherwise would anyone create a MOOC?) Of course, this is true only as long as we don’t feel tricked out of it, cheated, or feel that it is unfair. As Kevin says:

Because I as a worker, find it hard to share my knowledge to others, because I feel I have to worked hard to get the knowledge.

To which Ainsley replied:

I hear your point, that others can take advantage of your hard work!

Surely, that is not all right, is it? If you worked hard to master something, why make it possible for someone else to get it more quickly? Well, there could be good reasons for that. For instance, if you enjoy learning, you may prefer learning something new, so you teach someone something you already know, so that you don’t have to do it anymore, and you can move on. Or, you enjoy teaching, and there is a great demand for something you know, and if you teach many people do it, then many times more will be done than what you could do on your own. It is easy to see why this is good for the organisation you work for, but, perhaps, not so trivial for yourself. And what if you are rewarded for it? That happens as well. If the organisation is oriented towards knowledge sharing, it will reward both those who share their knowledge as well as the learners.

Now, before we get to the performance management issues, let’s turn this argument upside down. So what we were talking about until now, was about learning something outside the organisation and then sharing it with those within the organisation. That was, at least, clearly good for the organisation. But what happens if you learn something within the organisation and then share it outside the organisation? This leads us to see the real value of CoPs; I have written two papers about this with my colleagues, the first one is called Thinking Together: What Makes Communities of Practice Work?, and the second Communities of practice in landscapes of practice.

We argue that CoPs (and thus thinking together and knowledge sharing more generally) are worth even if you lose control over knowledge. This is in the essence of the CoP concept as thus of the knowledge sharing process. CoPs are trans-organisational. This means that they not only may cross the organisational boundaries but they must cross them. The underlying reason is the sticky and leaky nature of knowledge; i.e. it sticks to the practice and leaks through the organisational boundaries. This also means that sometimes knowledge leaks out but it also leaks into the organisation. Of course, this leads to a dilemma for the managers: support CoPs and loose some knowledge or control knowledge and loose what can flow in? The dilemma is actually more complex. If we don’t support knowledge sharing, we don’t only loose knowledge that would flow inwards but also knowledge that is created in the knowledge sharing process. There is a famous example of Xerox, who invented the personal computers, and their engineers told about this to IBM engineers who manufactured it first. So the sad end, for those who are for knowledge control, is that we should prevent knowledge leaks – and by implication CoPs. I disagree. I think that they are missing the bigger picture: Xerox is an exceptionally successful company. I always argue for giving up the control, accept that some knowledge will leak out, and benefit from intensive thinking together and knowledge creation. As I like attaching new names to things that I find important, I call this Learning Organisation 2.0. I think this is the future.

Unfortunately, Kevin, Ainsley, and Anthony, I cannot answer your question about ‘better’ performance indicators for knowledge work and knowledge workers. OF course, I must stress that you shouldn’t equate knowledge workers with ‘employees who have university degree’. It may say something about the organisation how many such people they hired, but it leads to a wrong direction if you want to evaluate the performance of your employees. As I often say, a car mechanic is a knowledge worker, even though (s)he works with her/his hands, but the university graduate who copies numbers from one Excel table into another, is hardly. For the latter I have invented the category of ‘blue-collar knowledge workers’, as their work does not really require a university degree, or any knowledge that an average 7-year old does not have.

So, regarding the performance of knowledge workers, it is not simply that the measurements for knowledge work need to be different from those for the manual work, but they need to be different from each other as well. If you are an R&D (research and development) engineer, the number of innovations may make sense. If you are an accountant, this is unlikely. Of course, there are very serious problems about KPIs (key performance indicators). If you e.g. invented the mobile phone, and someone else invented a new shade of yellow that you use on packaging and a dysfunctional plastic bag (such as the one a few years ago at Sainsbury’s), is that person a greater innovator than you are as (s)he had 2 innovations and you only one? I don’t think so. So should we take into account the quality of the innovation as well? If yes, how do we measure it? Particularly, how do we measure it at the time of the invention, rather than 20 years later? And, further on, how do we measure the performance of the inventor if the innovation was not a success? These are extremely difficult questions, and I don’t think it is possible to find satisfactory answers to them. If you want to go down this route, I suggest Tom Davenport’s book: Thinking for Living: How to Get Better Performance and Results from Knowledge Workers However, my view is different: don’t measure. Are we really not smart enough to figure out how to work and value knowledge and learning without measuring them? Of course, such approach will require highly personalised considerations… Clotilda, I hope this partly answers your question as well.

For the end, here is the easiest to answer question I have ever got in my MOOCs (yes, I have another one as well, but we’ll talk about that later), from Elena:

Are there any practices to stop being distracted by the phone during training?

Yes. Turn it off.

Thank you very much for coming back to this page again – this is how much we could fit in this time. I will be back in a couple of weeks for the next ‘Ask Viktor’ session.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Understanding Modern Business and Organisations

University of Strathclyde