Work is learning; so what?

“Work is learning, learning work” – that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

(once again, apologies to Keats)

I rewrote the above lines a while back and they sum up how networks have changed the relationship between learning and working. They’re one and the same thing, as the ubiquitous network merges work and learning.


Networks – Our workplaces, economies and societies are becoming highly networked. The transmission of ideas can be instantaneous. There is little time to pause, go into the back room for a while and develop something to address our challenges. The problem may have changed by then.

Complexity – The Cynefin framework is one way to examine established practices at work. For example, most simple and complicated work today is being automated and outsourced. Higher paid work often involves solving complex problems where there are no established answers and we need to engage the problem and learn by probing. Complexity is the new norm in the modern workplace.

Life in Beta – Not just rapid change, but continual change, requires practices that evolve as they’re developed. In programming, this has meant a move from waterfall to agile methods. Beta releases are the norm for Web applications and as we do more on the Web, other practices are following.

The integration of learning and work is not some ideal, it is a necessity in a complex world.

Current models for managing people, training and knowledge-sharing are insufficient for a workplace that requires emergent practices to keep up with change. Looking back at best practices will only cause us to fall further behind. Formal training has only ever addressed about 20% of workplace learning and this was acceptable when the work environment was relatively stable. Knowledge workers today need to connect with others to learn and solve problems in real time.

Emergent practices can be developed collaboratively while solving problems for which there are no definitive answers. For instance, what’s the “best” Internet business model? Where once we could document knowledge and develop guidelines and practices to be followed by most workers, we now need to let workers develop their own practices, according to their particular context, which is constantly in flux. This is a very different approach from the way we designed jobs and training in the past.

So what?

Training, as a separate function from work, will become a luxury. It’s time to re-think your training strategies.

Supporting the development of emergent practices throughout the workforce will become critical to survival. Social media are tools that can help us develop emergent practices. They enable conversations between people separated by distance or time. Social media can facilitate the sharing of tacit knowledge through conversations to inform the collaborative development of emergent work practices. It’s time to master social media for your workplace.

With constant learning and unlearning required to do our work, the idea of a fixed job description and and core competencies becomes antiquated. Those who cannot adapt will be bypassed or ignored by the network. It’s time to rethink your “job”.

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3 Responses to “Work is learning; so what?”

  1. Richard Merrick

    It strikes me there’s an interesting collateral issue here. Your article succinctly describes the pressures and trends, and I agree that time for “offline” formal training is both a luxury, and increasingly pointless – accepting error through learning by doing seems far more productive.
    The collateral issue is one of creativity. Insight depends on making “weak connections” – rather than the default “this works” connections . We now have wonderful opportunities through networking to explore weak connections at an external p2p level, but for ourselves, it’s a different matter. Personal insight, the neural coonection of weal links, needs reflection (and often support – e.g. coaching) but time for reflection is scarce, and some of the “wondering” tools – e.g. search engines, are being more and more subverted by “automate search” – i.e. find what everybody else has found. Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows” touches on this, and is a good primer.
    Yes, perpetual beta is reshaping work boundaries and practise, but in here somewhere, we need to find a way of giving our biggest assets – our individual, unique take on things – the space to flourish so that when we are “doing”, we’re offering the best we can be. Otherwise, we face a danger of diminishing marginal returns on current knowledge and insight, rather than the developing on new thoughts.
    Great blog. Thankyou.


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