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Monday, November 10, 2008

Concept Worker

Daniel Pink's book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future contains a description of new age - the Conceptual Age.

He describes how our society has gone from agricultural to industrial to the information age. But then he describes how we've really moved on past that to a new age where the dominant value for most organizations are created by high-end knowledge workers working on concepts. He calls them creators and empathizers. That is to make emphasis on his focus on the right-brain aspects. But, I actually think we should be focused on the emphasis on the type of knowledge work and the type of workers. In other words...

Concept Work

Concept Worker

I've often been a little bothered by the fact that we categorize the a person working in a call center handling customer service requests in the same category as an engineer working in R&D - they are both called knowledge workers. That's not as helpful as it should be. The person in the call center does quite a bit of routine knowledge work. They will occasionally encounter unusual situations and then need to do more conceptual knowledge work. To me it's all about how easy it is to obtain the answers. The harder it is, the more conceptual. Certainly our work around Work Literacy is all about concept work and concept workers.

I'm sure that if I went back and looked at Davenport's Thinking for a Living: How to Get Better Performances And Results from Knowledge Workers and the various categorizations of knowledge workers he would have several ways to describe the difference between someone in a call center and the engineer and the doctor. And while these are more granular, I'm not sure I hear much of it being discussed. That's why I'm liking the idea of referring to work that involves figuring out unknowns as concept work and the people doing this work as concept workers. This more succinctly and clearly differentiates the issue for me.


Anonymous said...

I think Dan Pink talks about the aptitude of Design in the book. It's an important one for me because it addresses the effects of the democratization of information. It also addresses how value can be created in an information economy. Nowadays, the info itself has low value unless it's applied to solve a problem or take advantage of an opportunity. In other words, it's not what workers know that matters, but how it is used and with whom it's shared.

Tony Karrer said...

Michael - fantastic comment.

Info is low value itself - plentiful.

Being able to access it in context of need, quickly and knowing that you are seeing accurate and relatively complete information is high.

You are taking it further - it's also sharing and packaging.

Good stuff!

Anonymous said...

Not to quibble about the terminology, but to stress the message: an old analogy holds that data is like hay: it's dry, and you find it in stacks. Information is like a needle: it's got a point, but it's hard to locate in a stack.

" easy it is to obtain the answers. The harder it is, the more conceptual..."

I think you're right in general, though at times answers are hard to find because the organization has buried them, can't figure out how to communicate them, or actively works against retrieving them.

(Consider, for example, how Facebook makes it virtually impossible to purge your personal data if you decide to leave. Ain't no R&D engineering behind that.)

The real key to concept work might be that a specific solution to a problem might not exist, and so has to be crafted. Related to that: would other exemplary performers agree that the solution you came up with is a good way to resolve the problem, even if it's not the one those exemplars themselves might have come up with?

Tony Karrer said...

Dave - your statement on how to judge the results of a concept workers output is very interesting!

There's a question of how you assess "exemplary" - but that's the net of your defense of any answer. Given the amount of time I had, I came up with an answer that is at least as good as another top performer would come up with.

To me, this emphasizes the need for conversation, because to CYA, you really need to talk to "other exemplary performers", experts and/or people with experience. They can help you assess a preliminary result and give you cover in case you are questioned.

Anonymous said...

Tony: much of that 'exemplary' definition I owe to my colleague John Howe. We worked together on a project for USAID, trying to uncover the tacit knowledge of seasoned people who oversee enormous foreign-aid projects.

To greatly oversimplify, we worked with exemplars identified by the department in question -- people recognized by their managers and peers as outstanding in their current jobs. (We didn't want people who used to do this stuff.) Part of that is accepting taht the organization, maybe with a little guidance, will decide for itself what "exemplary" means.

Then we'd get several of them together to discuss difficult challenges that they'd actually faced, especially when newer in the job. What were the dimensions of the difficulties? What were the solutions tried? What were the results?

Often we got "multiple right answers" -- one exemplar's approach would differ greatly from another's. We worked with them to analyze considerations and outcomes.

One thing this did was to bring forward nuance -- you might do this, you might do that, one thing to consider, another thing to have in mind.

Jason Willensky said...

During Work Literacy, I was thinking about how differently we can process and manage information and collected wisdom than we could 10 years ago—the use of Web 2.0 tools is a huge sea change. Last weekend, I was talking with some training colleagues about our not-too-successful experiences with critical thinking material. We were brainstorming about how to create something more contemporary, more tools-oriented, more intuitive, and (maybe) more easily measurable.

I’ve only skimmed Pink’s book (it’s in the self-replenishing “pile of 12” on my nightstand), but I’m thinking about how to integrate ideas like Pink’s six senses into a problem-solving model that could be used in level-appropriate training. I’d like to play around with a training model that takes a different metacognitive slant on critical thinking and also emphasizes how to approach and tap resources (like Web 2.0 tools, mentors, peers, etc.) to easily get answers and enhance problem-solving.

I agree that the quantity/frequency of conceptual knowledge work varies from job to job. My clients often have a model of worker development that involves giving high potential or recently promoted employees some kind of critical thinking training long after they’ve started with the company. Usually the training is brief, deterministic, and lacks significant cultural support or follow-up.

My thought (and I apologize for hijacking Tony’s point) is to modularize the whole thing and plant tools/problem-solving objectives earlier in the career path—even during new hire training for entry-level employees. As the worker gains experience and has to tackle more complex or ambiguous problems, the model could be re-applied with more challenging practice. Of course, the model has to be useful in the first place. That’s something for me to consider as I attempt my own move to off-the-shelf design.

Tony Karrer said...

Dave - something I've really wanted to do is to get more examples of how people perform that core knowledge work tasks. I think we can all learn from how we all do these things.

Jason - that sounds like an interesting take. I'm much more pedestrian in my thinking right now. Learn from what other people are already doing to extract good practices.