During the last two years at work I have learned, and have had to learn, a tremendous amount on different topics: negotiation, company organization and processes, presentation skills, new product development etc. Based on this experience I agree with David DeLong´s notion that learning on the job is not only a requirement in many today’s jobs, but also complex and potentially overwhelming.
Mr. DeLong’s description of a chief nursing officer’s struggles in getting to know the newest IT systems sounds familiar. Defining what one needs to know in order to be competent, let alone acquiring the knowledge and skills, is not always easy. In my experience this does not only lead to the occasional feeling of incompetence or inadequateness, but may also lead to a kind of paralysis: you do not take action, because you have the feeling that you never have enough information or understanding on the topic. This is well illustrated in one of Mr DeLong’s replies to a comment on his post: You helped make my argument when you wrote “It mystifies me how someone can write a post about learning without referring to…the neuroscience of learning.” The field of learning theory is massive, and if I had tried to cover enough bases to satisfy critics, I’d still be trying learn enough to write something. The point of my short post wasn’t about theories of how people learn, but about the phenomenon of needing to learn too much to be competent.
I think that part of the solution is working increasingly in teams and also being honest and open about the knowledge and skill gaps (and the resulting mistakes). In addition to defining the knowledge required from individuals and helping them acquire that knowledge, company management should also identify the required knowledge on an organizational level. By this I mean that the total pool of required knowledge should be clear, not only the required knowledge of single employees. By identifying the total required knowledge pool and combining that with the different employee networks inside a company, it should be possible to identify two things. First, what competences is the company missing as a whole? Second, what teams or projects are missing certain skills and how to import those skills in to the project?
Knowledge of individual employees can be used more wide-spreadedly through teams and also be disseminated through team work. This way a organization can have individuals with varying skills sets and all, or at least most, of the required total skills. Furthermore, disseminating and using knowledge through teams and team work addresses the aspects of learning on the job and learning sustainably, a point I am going to discuss in my next post.
All in all, as individuals we should have the courage to say two things, the first being “I do not know.” and the second “Could you please help me?”. This way we can bring individuals with the required skills in to teams, identify our knowledge and skill gaps and also foster learning to improve ourselves and our work.