The aging workforce (part 3)

December 12, 2010

In my two earlier posts on this subject, I started by challenging the knowledge management orthodoxy of codification and then proceeded to make some more sophisticated points about the nature of explicit knowledge.  I also suggested that we see intuition as compressed experience. In particular, I argued that explicit knowledge arises as a result of and complement to, tacit knowledge. It is not a conversion of tacit to explicit knowledge but an artefact that evokes modified and contextual forms of the original tacit knowledge and acts as a cognitive augmentation of human expertise.

Knowledge management orthodoxy then has not just damaged the tacit knowledge of an organisation but has abused the explicit through misuse and the setting of false expectations. In this I am at one with Polanyi (I still suspect that Nonaka did not read him) in Knowing and Being when he says:

While tacit knowledge can be possessed by itself, explicit knowledge must rely on being tacitly understood and applied Hence all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. A wholly explicit knowledge is unthinkable

In that second post, I also suggested that the storytelling approach (Journalists, Digital Story Telling etc.) while valuable in creating works of art was not valuable as a knowledge repository. I argued that those who like that type of approach make the mistake of producing the sort of products they have been trained to see as exemplars of their art, instead of enabling the more messy, fragmented and anecdotal material which comprises the day-to-day reality of knowledge flow in organisations. I would include in that category those consultants who focus on capturing complete stories, refining them etc. I am not saying that such practice does not have value but (1) it doesn’t scale and (2) it works at too high a level of aggregation to be of use as a sustainable knowledge asset.

Having said what I think was wrong, its now time to turn to what I think could be right! So here goes:

Principles & some practice

  • We need to blur the boundaries between employees, and prospective employees. Work experience options at University, aside from being financially attractive to students, allow for more effective graduate recruitment. By employing people from a cadre who have already worked for you interview error is reduced and there is a higher level of mutual understanding and expectation. It also means you can take more risks at the early stage, recruiting some people who don’t fit the norm at low risk. Attitude is determined in practice, not by specious and expensive psychometric tests. Oh and you can’t do this in those artificial assessment days either, they reward actors rather than those who can act
  • We also need to blur the boundary between existing and retired employees, in too many cases one day you are at work the next day you are out of it, often without any timepiece let alone a ceremony. We do need transitions in life, but just as there are staged transitions in joining the workforce so there need to be staged transitions in leaving it. Maybe a move into a mentoring or cross-silo role for the final year, mixed with charity work (for which the organisation can gain credit), partial secondment to Government/Industry and/or education. At a government level, pension and other benefits could be linked to this partial engagement/disengagement (a form of late-onset national service). Universities would benefit from more active engagement by older students in many a course.
  • We need to radically rethink Business Studies and MBAs which are currently focused on stuffing people with cases and analysis tools to no great effect. In most cases, it is material that has to be unlearnt if you want to make progress in the industry. Firstly there are some basics (accounting, legal principles etc.) which are needed. I class these as “understanding the professions”. I remember when I was moving to industry from Charity work I got a C.Dip.Acc.Fin by examination (that is important) in a year. It covered the full accountancy field in a year rather than five and was designed to give a general manager an appreciation of language. In the first year of my MBA, we did something similar in respect of commercial and contract law. For marketing and personnel, I can see a part case for the same, but I would also provide basic anthropology, cognitive science and the like which would provide a more generic education with more flexibility. At the moment we are training tight specialists in past practice rather than creating adaptive capability. Such a programme would allow MBA programmes leading to practice PhDs which extended over a decade or more and could be easily converted to teaching or other practice as people approached retirement.
  • Sabbaticals and secondments need to be the norm rather than the exception. Missed a promotion? Take a year out teaching and come back refreshed. Want to progress to general management? OK teach in a university for a year and spend another somewhere in Government learning how it works and providing commercial expertise.
  • We need to reinvent the apprentice-journeyman-mastercraftsman cycle that was so effective in medieval times and reinvent it for the modern age. I’ll expand on that in the next post.

OK, end of the first stage of solutions. Next up I’ll expand on apprentice models, then move on to a list of practices and finish up with on a post on the use of SenseMaker® for this function. All bar the final one are open-source material

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