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, 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’s 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 favored 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, work books, 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, its a pale shadow of the real thing, atomistic not social in nature and often paternalistic in practice. OK its valuable, doesn’t have to be paternalistic and can help people but it is very very different. So lets look at some of the essential features of an apprenticeship model:
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, on 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 its time we stopped treating management as something that can be taught and then practiced, 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 centers, 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 machine, we cannot be engineered, but out evolution can be stifled by inauthentic attempts to make it so.
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