Jay Cross is a champion of informal learning, web 2.0, and systems thinking. He has challenged conventional wisdom about how adults learn since designing the first business degree program offered by the University of Phoenix. Full Bio
Getting The Work Done
by Jay Cross
Workplace learning serves one purpose: getting the work done.
Work used to be simple. Tasks were mechanical. Things rarely changed. Initial lessons lasted a lifetime. This kind of work has largely been automated or outsourced to places where workers earn very low wages.
Next came information work. Information work was often complicated but it was linear. Procedural. Rote. Often information work came with mountains of details; these were put into reference databases, procedure manuals, and performance support systems. Workers could offload 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 conceptual worker cannot tackle new challenges, take advantage of new information, and 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 the work itself. Learning is the work.
How did we ever think otherwise? It’s in part because 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 them. 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. Neither of these strategies work very well. Children leave school unprepared for life in the real world. Learning a particular discipline with the assumption of “other things being equal” is poor preparation for a messy world where those “other things” have huge impact.
Schools encourage students to learn alone. Students are evaluated in isolation; 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, marital status, power, or anything else. If only teachers would wake up to the fact that people respond better to group rewards than individual rewards.
There are only a few situations where it makes sense to separate training from work. One is when the task is not so much learning how to do things as indoctrination.
Compliance is a prime example. You’re expected to perform in the official way; not much thinking involved in that. What people learn is boundaries: what not to do, what constitutes crossing the line, and the detail steps of procedures. The reason indoctrination is required instead of learning while working is that 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 patterns of thought from foreign sources into the workplace. For example, an executive who attends a six-week advanced management program at Harvard B-School re-enters the workplace with all manner of new frameworks and approaches to try.
Work is holistic. It encompasses everything it take to get the job done, i.e. to create value. Talking about informal learning, social learning, discovery learning, or any other kind of workplace learning is misleading, for it suggests that they 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 performing the job.
People learn to do their work in the course of doing their jobs. As Picasso said, “I do things I do not know how to do in order to learn how to do them.” 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. Learning is the new work.