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Old Skills and New Know-How

June 24, 2008

After reading Michele Martin’s post, Knowledge Workers as Craft Workers, I began to think of other crafts and skills that have been changed by technology.

My grandmother grew her own vegetables, collected eggs from her chickens, and knew how to produce and preserve much of the food she prepared for her family. She baked on a wood stove, knowing what kind of wood to use for what kind of baking, and when to start it burning so the right level of heat was available at the right time to get hot food on the table. My Mom grew some of her vegetables, collected recipes, canned some fruits, and cooked on an electric stove with an oven where she could set the temperature. I use a microwave, prepared food, and eat out a lot;>

Office work, knowledge work, has been going through the same kind of transitions as new technology has created conveniences, and allowed “outdated” skills to be dropped. Imagine someone used to cooking on a wood stove trying to find their way around a microwave, a gas stove, and a modern grocery store. The skills gap would be debilitating, even though the modern technology makes everything “easier”. Without the pressure of needing to eat regularly in this new environment, going back to, or sticking with, the old ways would be very attractive.

How would my grandmother have learned to use the new food-preparing skills? She would have needed to learn them the same way she learned the old skills, by, in the words of Robert Frost speaking of getting an education, “hanging around until she caught on”. She would have needed to do the work with an expert to guide her, a mentor.

The same style of learning is needed for knowledge workers, but the digital natives don’t know the stages of preparation that the older workers learned by seeing each step of the production and talking to all the different craft workers who helped supply each step of the process, as described by Jim McGee.

I started consulting before the advent of the PC. When you had a final presentation to prepare for the client, you started with a pad of paper and a pencil and roughed out a set of slides. You could see that it was a draft and the erasures and cross outs and arrows made that even more obvious. This might be two weeks before the final deadline. Then, you took it to Evelyn in the graphics department down on the eighth floor. After she yelled at you for how little lead time you had given her, she handed your incomprehensible draft to one of the commercial artists in her group. They spent several days hand-lettering your draft and building the graphs and charts. They sent you back a copy of their work.

Then you started another iterative process of correcting and amending this product. Copies got circulated and marked up by the manager and the partner on the project. At the end, the client got to see it and you hoped you’d gotten it right.

All along the way in this old style process, the work was visible. That meant that the more junior members of the team could learn how the process unfolded and how the final product grew over time. You, as a consultant, could see how the different editors and commentators reacted to different parts of the product.

The digital native, who can use the new tools, have experienced the creation of a project differently.

While today’s tools have made the journey from germ of an idea to finished product so much easier, they have also made it harder by making it less visible. It’s my sense that most of us don’t even see what we’ve inadvertently given up. It takes a conscious act of will to think about how to use today’s tools in ways can give us both the productivity of the new and the process value hidden in the old accidental visibility.

Let me give you a personal example. In the 1980s I, through stubborn determination and being positioned in (though I didn’t know the term then) a community of practice, learned how to use word-processing but I used it as though it were a type-writer. I had no idea about the impact of design on readers; I wasn’t even aware of the layout skills a good typist knew tacitly, let alone what graphic designers knew. Luckily a student alerted me to those skills by mentioning Robin Williams’ The Non-Designers’ Design Book, which allowed me to know what I didn’t know, and learn some of it.

When I watch people learn how to use word-processing, what I see them doing is learning how to push the buttons, but I don’t see them learning about the basics of designing for readers. I also see web masters in love with Flash and apparently unaware of Jakob Nielsen‘s reader-friendly information on scannable text. People are often learning only the technological buttons, and not the art that makes the information effective and powerful.

So knowledge workers have two problems in learning to use the new technology. One problem is learning the technology itself. The other is the invisible problem; it’s learning how to go through the stages and what other craftspeople, now removed from the process, knew.

So those who have the old skills need to work with those with the new know-how, and those with the new know-how need to listen to and learn from the pre-digital workers. I didn’t learn how to use a wood stove from my grandmother, but I did learn what a good meal was, even if part of it was heated in the microwave;>

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2008 5:06 am

    Great post, Joan and so true. This is where I think that the idea of cognitive apprenticeships could pay off. I also think it’s why we have such a fascination with “lifehacks”–understanding how other people are using these tools to accomplish various daily tasks. It’s a way of making these skills more visible and transparent.

  2. June 25, 2008 7:17 am

    Hi Michele,
    I think cognitive apprenticeships are a great idea, and am thinking about how we can use people’s fascination with “lifehacks”.

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