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Twelvetide 22:04 social rituals in work

December 28, 2022

06f1c8a9 fff5 0e9c 9d7e 29d57a6b27d6So I’ve now flagged up religion and narrative as distinct aspects of human systems, and note they are both collective in nature something that with the overall function of reducing energy costs will be a theme throughout this series.  Humans like most animals to varying degrees operate best in groups, social interaction is a part and parcel of what we are, Adapting John Donne’s Meditation XVII to a modern age  “No (wo)man is an Iland, intire of itselfe”.

One of the things I flagged up in yesterday’s post on narrative is its role in transferring knowledge and learning across the generations.  Narrative contains knowledge at a level of requisite ambiguity that it can adapt more readily than hard, codified written material.  A good story dances on the edge of our understanding to entice us to further learning.  Most religions teach through stories as well, the use of paradox and ambiguity is key to the validity of messages over time.

One of my rules of knowledge management, extending Polanyi is We always know more than we can say and we will always say more than we can write down.  I then expand that with the taxi driver and map illustration.  The Map is codified, if you understand the symbols then navigation is easy with minimal training and experience.  The London taxi driver on the other hand goes through a two-plus year process of learning as a part of a community and the nature of their knowledge is very different.  Narrative acts as a halfway house between the two.  In effect the process by which London taxi drivers acquire The Knowledge is a modern form of the ancient practice of apprenticeship; institutionalised, ritualised, social processes by which knowledge is transferred, generated and retained within human communities and more generally in society.

I’ve written on this several times and in 2010/11 (it should really have been a Christmas series) I  wrote a four-part series on the ageing workforce (links below).   I also used an identical title for a five-part series in 2016 with different materials.  I just spent a bit of time with the help of Grammarly proofreading and getting the categories right so you can scroll through them without too much difficulty or offence; I’m more than aware that my dyslexia means I don’t notice some very basic errors and that makes it difficult to read for many.  There is a lot of material in both series, although the first is a little dated given some of the changes in machine learning over the last decade.  Material from the second is hereby incorporated into the post in its entirety, the first is more patchy but the fourth post contained some key aspects of the way the apprentice model worked and I’m going to replicate that here (with some amendments).  I really need another name than master by the way but I can’t think of one so take it as gender-neutral for the moment,

Some of the essential features of an apprenticeship model:

  • Indenture
    This 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 indenture was written in two or more identical versions and then torn about on an indented line with each party retaining one version which could then be validated by matching the tone edges.  Endenter means to notch or dent hence the origin of the word.
  • Progression This followed the near servitude of apprenticeship to the status of a journey(wo)man 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 as apprentices and journey(wo)men.  Interestingly something which has been retained within the British Police in that all entrants enter the office of constable which remains their office for life regardless of the rank to which they progress. 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.  Unlike the Army where you could buy a commission,  in the Navy, it was a meritocracy and there are two cases of pressed men ending up as Admirals.
  • Ritual 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 Learning is 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.
  • Co-evolution of knowledge It is not just a matter of transferring on an as is basis. 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.  Teaching and competing both with colleagues and the field can go through both progressive and radical shifts and the tension between traditionalism and radical change is important.

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 reusing. 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. It is even worse in the Agile community with its scary belief in certification schemes.  They haven’t learnt to the lesson of the opening Gaping Void illustration …

I’ve run through the medieval model as it’s the most complete but that is not a recipe.  I remember being an expert witness when London was thinking of getting rid of the knowledge in favour of sat navs (this is before the Uber Age) and I pointed out that the socialisation of the acquisition of knowledge bound people into an ethical and professional standard, something that takes time and social processes.  I’ve also used the example of Matrons in British Hospitals, another prior post which is fully incorporated into this one.

Now you can agree and disagree with this in whole or in part, the individual examples may or may not work for you but the point is that a uniquely human capacity is the creation of ritualised social practices to pass and develop knowledge between generations.  So it is my third characteristic.


2010/11 series links (as scrolling looks to be a problem)


The Conjuror

Artist: Hieronymus Bosch  Netherlands, 1475-1480
This banner picture is cropped from the original

Opening semiotic from Gaping Void, good friends and partners

As a general theme for the Twelvetide series this year I am using Renaissance artists, ideally with a journey theme for the banner picture which may or may not relate to the ideas in the post. Then a Gaping Void image to open the text and make a point. Sometimes I will spell that out, sometimes I’ll leave it hanging.

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