The work literacy gap

Yes, there is a work literacy gap.

My experience shows that in North America, where I have done most of my work, a significant portion of the workforce has not been able to develop the skills to learn for themselves. This does not mean that they lack basic learning skills. What they lack are tools, methods and practices to learn and to take action. They also face significant barriers to being autonomous learners on the job. Richard Florida has noted that one of our great challenges will be to enable everyone to become part of the creative class, including the millions of currently low-paid workers in service industries.

We are trained early in life to look to authority for direction in learning and work. The idea that there is a right answer or an expert with the right answer begins in our schools. John Taylor Gatto describes this in the seven-lesson schoolteacher.

The fifth lesson I teach is intellectual dependency. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices; only I, the teacher, can determine what you must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions which I then enforce. If I’m told that evolution is a fact instead of a theory, I transmit that as ordered, punishing deviants who resist what I have been told to tell them to think. This power to control what children will think lets me separate successful students from failures very easily.

Good employees wait for their supervisor to tell them what to do. The industrial workplace is not much different from the military – “you’re not paid to think”.

The Internet has changed the way we communicate and has given each of us with a computer and Net access more power than the Press barons. However, our organisations (schools, businesses, bureaucracies) have not changed yet.

The basic problem is that workers need to be adaptive, innovative, and collaborative but most work in organisations that have tremendous barriers to critical thinking. Does the following describe any organisation that you have worked in?

a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on information, knowledge, trust and credibility, enabled by interconnected people and technology

Yes, individuals need to take control of their learning and skill development (AKA “work literacy”) but organisations have to give up some control. Michele Martin commented on my post on the dysfunctional workplace:

What strikes me is the fundamental sense of disempowerment in the workplace that suggests that people are essentially at the mercy of the companies they work for. While obviously there’s some truth to this, especially in an economic downturn, I still believe that people have far more control over these issues than they believe. One of my main goals in working with people on integrating social media and professional development is to point out how empowering it is to take control of your own learning by starting a blog and pursuing DIY professional development. If the will is there, the means certainly exist.

Developing practical methods, like PKM and Skills 2.0 (PDF) can help, but at the same time we need to work on creating and supporting new models of work that are more democratic and human. This means that we need to think about and talk about work differently. For myself, I have found that not being a salaried employee has freed my mind in many ways. I know that this is not the answer for everyone, but it’s time to make slogans like, “our business is our people’, a reality.

So yes, there are skills, especially critical thinking, that are necessary for real knowledge work, but without changes to the structure of the workplace, these skills will not be enough.

Photo by dykstranet

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8 Responses to “The work literacy gap”

  1. Virginia Yonkers

    It is interesting that we posted within minutes of each other, and came up with almost the same thing. The only difference I see is that I think the organizational “structures” have changed, but those within the organization (policy makers and middle management especially) have not. Organizations want to have their cake and eat it to. Knowledge=content which is part of the money making center. Therefore, businesses want students to come out of colleges with that “knowledge” rather than having students come out of college able to “create” knowledge (as you mentioned, having a creative workforce at all levels of the organization). The reason is that a creative worker can go to a competitor and create knowledge for profit there.