Does Vigorous Learning Need “Work Rules?”

April 26, 2010:

In a nutshell, yes. Just to function, every organization needs work rules and standard procedures. And we know some best practices of fast-learning organizations today:

  • Open to innovation from anywhere: sustain R&D; have playpens or spin-offs to experiment with new business models; structure to sprout new businesses while letting old ones die gracefully. (Kyocera calls this an “amoeba model.”)
  • To encourage process improvement, they structure operational visibility to trigger it everywhere (the purpose of “lean tools” is to expose problems, not hide them).
  • People train and mentor each other. Codifying and explaining processes to others forces “teachers” to frequently rethink what is being done and why.
  • Develop everyone to participate in problem solving using a common structured framework, like PDCA or DMAIC, which eases communication of problems.
  • Don’t shoot messengers bearing bad tidings – don’t hide problems to save face.
  • Create an “active knowledge base” – a system to quickly see what is known, or whether a problem has been addressed before, and what was done. Everyone is expected to contribute to it and to draw on it.

But learning in Compression has to dig deeper, faster than emulating best practices. Vigorous learning ventures into the unknown, off any “map” of prior best practice. Given this, can you think of more “work rules” for vigorous learning in Compression? Below is a quick starter on work rule history, but research it yourself to get ideas:

Pre-industrial, tribal “work rules” were embedded in “culture.” For example, Peruvian Inca villagers still clear irrigation channels each year as a festival, everyone from young to old joining the party in some way. Workers climb a mountain, clearing (and drinking) as they descend. They have no work organizations with job classifications, pay rates, regular work hours, contracts, or accounting. It’s a tight-relationship system in a “high-context culture.” People grow up aware of others and their local environment, learning by lore and observation. (How do neighborhood projects work where you now live?)

When agriculture increased in scale, agriculture-based empires formed. None escaped involuntary servitude. Some formed rigid class systems; others had slaves and slave markets. Somebody had to do hard labor. Abysmal status or coercion forced “somebody” to do it: working fields, erecting monuments – the dirty work that made Athens, Rome, and Imperial China what they were. Most slaves did dog work, but artifacts also testify to the ingenuity of crafts learned through tradition – not all by “free labor.” Industrial agriculture eventually ended large-scale slavery, but created a new problem: inability of small holders to stay on the land, a root cause of many social problems globally today.

Around the 13th century, influences like mechanical clocks, printing, and double-entry bookkeeping began the rise of industrial work. Division of labor separated social life from work life, with regular work hours and pay rates – and endless fairness disputes.

In the 20th century, mass production and Scientific Management sharpened divisions. Work became more complicated. Job descriptions, work standards, SOPs, quality standards, work schedules, and budgets became normal, from fast food to government agencies, not just manufacturing. Much work design assumed fragmented tasks possible for minimally educated people with minimal training.

Public elementary education began in colonial times, but years in school and outcomes expected steadily rose during the 20th century. However, employers must often “finish educating” employees. Public education continues to be inadequate – and controversial – just like developing people for work. This shift is fairly recent (ASTD is only 60 years old), while some note that many students educated for advanced work remain “children,” not entering adult work until age 30 or better. Something is amiss. Maybe our concepts trying to frame the problem are antiquated.

To weed out waste, many organizations have added “lean and quality” to the mix, and encourage employee participation. Nonetheless, work cultures seem to drift toward “low context,” less and less personal, more time and procedure driven; typified by phone mail and computer menus.

Today complex products and services intertwine with complex software systems, while complexity keeps segregating people into smaller slices of deep specialization. In Compression, vigorous learning organizations need participants constantly engaged in responsible, integrated, collective learning. What can be done?

However, today humans basically differ little from Inca villagers, while our challenges stress our existing industrial system of thought. Now what?

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