The aging workforce (part 4)

January 22, 2011

Last time (and too long ago) I talked about some general principles, many of them society based, which presented possible solutions to issues of knowledge retention. Now some of those were idealistic, i.e. they depended on a major shift in government policy, while others represented ways of thinking. In the three final posts in this series, I will move from apprentice models to methods to software.

I have long argued that apprentice models were (and to a degree still are) the most effective model of knowledge creation and transfer that the human race has ever developed. The fact that the models seem more or less universal to all societies argues for their evolutionary success. Unfortunately over the last few decades, we have increasingly talked about skills, competence and individuals as if people and their capabilities were widgets in a machine. The engineering metaphors which have dominated management thinking since the 80s failed to understand the cognitive, temporal and social aspects of apprentice models.  Instead, they favoured a series of nonsenses: psychometric tests were held to measure innate qualities; competence mapping assumed you could explicitly design and measure abstract capabilities; eLearning and a host of other information models removed the social process of knowledge creation and development.

Interestingly the professions never fully abandoned the model. Education, indenture, mutual commitment, workbooks, peer recognition, partnership models and a host of other evolved practices continue to this day. Some of the personnel practices that prevail in general management may be achieving some penetration in these areas but experienced partners in law firms, accountancy groups and others resist them. Ironically so do real engineers who have to work in the field.

I made this point in my keynote at KM Asia last year and was disturbed when the following speaker said something along the lines that he was pleased I had talked about apprentice models as he had long been an advocate of mentoring. Now to be very very clear mentoring is not the same thing as apprenticeship, it’s a pale shadow of the real thing, atomistic, not social in nature and often paternalistic in practice. OK, it’s valuable, doesn’t have to be paternalistic and can help people but it is very very different. So let’s look at some of the essential features of an apprenticeship model:

  • Indenture, which formed a contract with mutual obligations on both parties, obligations that are institutionalised to the craft and to society. In medieval times the document passed parental authority to the master in return for food, lodging and teaching. The normal term was substantial, measured in years not months. The parent took responsibility for the diligence of their child and for any loss. The contract was torn in half, with one side being held by either party. The word indenture comes from this tear with its indents.
  • Progression from the near servitude of apprenticeship to the status of a journeyman who was allowed to produce and sell goods in their own right and also to teach the apprentices. During that time they would execute their masterwork which proved their right of admittance to the guild. All masters had served their time, interestingly something which has been retained within the British Police in which all entrants enter as a constable which remains their office for life. The same was true of the British Navy even within the officer class with all joining as midshipmen and progressing to lieutenant by examination and higher ranks by success.
  • Ritual was a critical part of each entry and exit between the stages. When an apprentice was made up into a journeyman the individual would walk the tables of the guildhall, a physical representation of the much longer time spent in preparation for that moment. The ritual changed the way they thought of themselves, their change of dress and duties ensured that the change was realised. No gradual shift, no becoming a supervisor while staying at the same desk in the same clothes. Humans need transitional boundaries to realise that change has happened, both for the individual and their colleagues.
  • Time in the role was essential, learning was not just a question of absorbing information, but also of training muscles and acquiring multiple experiences of both failure and success. We now know that it takes around two years for real knowledge acquisition in humans as consciousness is an extended function of the brain, the nervous system, the hormonal system, the muscles etc. etc. Also time is required to acquire the social understanding of the obligations of the craft, and for the craft to perceive that the individual is worthy. The modern HR nonsense of a one-day assessment centre with its artificiality and susceptibility to game playing is no substitute for proof over time, in the field, under fire.
  • The co-evolution of knowledge is an essential feature of an apprenticeship model. Knowledge is not transferred from master to apprentice in the manager envisaged in most knowledge management programmes. Rather the apprentice observes the master, they imitate not only the master but also journeymen and apprentices of other masters in the craft hall. As they do so changes creep in, modifications happen, and the craft moves on and develops it is not static. This vital aspect is one of the main failures of what I have called the Nonaka period of knowledge management with its emphasis on tacit to explicit conversion and learning through a combination of explicit sources. Something by the way I don’t think Nonaka intended, but which he has failed to condemn.

Now compare that with modern management development. A business degree is followed by an MBA and a stint in a major consulting firm. Throughout this period the emphasis is on the explicit, abstracted cases, or reproducing and reuse. Then with no practical experience, the consultant takes a senior management position. All they can do is manage by numbers to the detriment not only of their employer but of society as a whole. Critically with an apprentice model in place, the masters can retire without additional process or concern.

Of course, this nonsense would not be tolerated in the professions. Think of doctors, lawyers, accountants and many others where the five stages I have outlined above are all still present. OK, they may not be with the same employer, but a minimum of seven years applies to all professions.

Maybe it’s time we stopped treating management as something that can be taught and then practised, and instead, focus on creating a professional model of management education which is based on praxis. Of course, that would mean HR giving up their cult-like toys; competence models, assessment centres, psychometric tests and the like. It would mean KM people starting to create long-term projects rather than information management with a candy coating of communities of practice. Physical presence can be augmented by virtual connectivity but it can never be fully replaced. Above all, we should be authentic to humans as humans, and to the social ecology of their interaction. We are not cogs in machines, we cannot be engineered, but our evolution can be stifled by inauthentic attempts to make it so.

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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