The following is a clip from an online conversation between Stowe Boyd and myself. I love the image that Stowe uses of us “sharpening our own shovel” – taking responsibility for engaging with our work.
SB: I’ve argued that the first step in engagement is that each person has to reengage in their *own* work, or as I say, to sharpen their own shovel and dig their own hole. Our first allegiance has to be to our long-term mastery of our discipline, what it is, and not to the job. What’s your take?
AMM: I’m with you all the way on that. And I think the opportunity, and need, for self-determined action goes way beyond technical mastery of our own disciplines, crucial though that it is. A key feature of the world that we’re heading into is its increasing complexity – organisationally, technically and socially. I hear a lot about how innovation happens at the edges. To my way of thinking, it’s the intersections and knowing how to breach boundaries that we need to gain mastery over.
If you’ve been reading my most recent posts, you’ll know that I’ve been writing about the feasibility of seeding an online business school where anyone who wants to can get a quality business education.
How might this help people engage with their own work?
Develop skills and capabilities
If the future-of-work trends are to be believed – and I think there’s enough evidence to show that they are – then work and knowledge are becoming more socially, technically and culturally complex. This means that skills and capabilities have to be up to the job of navigating increasingly complex work contexts.
As luck would have it, post-graduate level learning (in the UK at least) is about developing the skills and capabilities to be able to think critically, act effectively and socially interact within complex, political, uncertain and highly-dynamic contexts.
And as I’ve been reminded over the past week, that implies having to be able to deal with all sorts of tricky topics. Men and women in the workplace. Powerlessness. Abuse of power. That sounds like every organisation I’ve ever worked in. I’m thinking of a blog post about things we shy away from talking about. But I digress.
What post-graduate level skills and capabilities are supposed to look like is an open secret. They’re summarised in a publicly-available document that universities in England and Wales interpret and apply to their undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. So we know what standards to aspire to and exceed.
Learning as experience and conversation
I think the real strength of a university education has always been in the long-term social capital that people build through networks of friendships and relationships that they forge during their time at university. You might forget much of what you were taught formally but friendships can last a lifetime.
And in the time that people are at university, I think it’s in the informal conversations outside of formal lectures and tutorials that learning actually happens. While nothing beats face-to-face communication, social media now make it possible to have exploratory conversations and to develop friendships with people we’ve never met in person.
I realise I might be getting a bit repetitive and tedious now, but the approach to learning that I’m proposing is about doing something practical at work and learning from the experience – anticipating, reflecting, feeling and sensing as it happens:
- Start with a something practical that needs to be done.
- Who needs to be involved? Together with these people, scope a project, look at how different elements interact, assess risks, decide a way forward – who does what and when? Include desired learning outcomes as well as desired project outcomes in a very flexible project ‘plan’ – project outcomes are highly emergent.
Ongoing and diverse conversations are at the heart of this approach – conversations in the workplace with colleagues involved in the project, and conversations online within learning communities, as well as with learning support teams of mentors, coaches and learning facilitators. If not replicates, this focus on conversation at least seeks to emulate the best bits of a university education.
It’s through conversations on what people think has happened and what they’re going to do next that skills develop – like critical thinking, reflecting together, daring to disagree, learning to ask questions, spotting possible problems, and finding creative solutions and alternatives.
What are social technologies for if not connecting, chatting, sharing and learning? Entertainment of course, but surely we can make other use of these potentially democratising technologies?
Quality support available in abundance
The internet connects us to networks of experienced people who are both qualified and willing to provide quality service to learners. Formal learning support teams of learning facilitators, coaches and mentors can easily be put together to support online learning conversations.
Engaging with your own work (and learning)
It seems to me that re-engaging with our own work is about much, much more than developing our skills and capabilities. It’s about taking control – as far as we are able – of our own experience of work.
There’s somethin’ happenin’ here
In the words of the old Buffalo Springfield song, “there’s somethin’ happenin’ here, what it is ain’t exactly clear … everybody look what’s going down.” I’ve had conversations with several people in the past few weeks, all of whom indicated deep dissatisfaction with their current jobs. They are all looking for new opportunities. These people are experienced, thoughtful and full of integrity – the sort of people any business would be fortunate to employ.
Stowe is right about mastery and “sharpening our own shovels”. But mastery of what? Our own discipline as he suggests, and my suggestion of mastering the ability to have inter-disciplinary conversations.
It also seems to me that people are actively seeking meaning to what they do. And I think meaning and the quality of our workplace relationships are highly interconnected – so it seems to me that developing mastery in surviving workplace relationships has got to be another essential component of a business education.
The social tools are there for seeding an online business school that helps people to engage with their work and their colleagues. It’s up to us to grab the opportunity.