Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Strategies for Knowledge Workers

Many of us, these days, are knowledge workers.  As knowledge workers, our knowledge is our stock in trade.  Adding to it, maintaining it, pruning it are critical for our ability to contribute to the organizations and causes we care about it.

As with any resource, our knowledge practice needs governance.  Knowledge governance is impacted by several characteristics that make it particularly problematic.

One is that knowledge has a definite shelf-life.  Some knowledge has a longer shelf life than others. For example, the knowledge of philosophy and history I gained during my university education is still about as useful now as it was when I acquired it.  But my knowledge of MS-DOS (a 1980s computer operating system) has lost all of its value.

The second concern with knowledge is the sheer vastness and availability of knowledge now available.  There are videos, podcasts, blogs, forums, and an ever increasing number of books in every domain.  The sheer number of these sources of knowledge seems destined to grow exponentially, and not all the sources are trustworthy.

That leaves the knowledge worker wanting to manage her knowledge resources with some very daunting challenges.

Which domains should she concentrate in going forward?  Which will be most relevant 2, 5, 10 years from now?  Which domains are faltering and should be no longer maintained?

Which data sources should she use?  Which are the most trustworthy now and going forward?  Which expert communities should she join and contribute to?

Once these strategic decisions have been made, there are then tactical ones -- how narrow or broad should she make her own knowledge resources?  Given that most "knowledge" can now be looked up, what are the critical pieces that should be learned, and which pieces can be digitally stored?  How should one structure your knowledge so that the pieces you have in memory can effectively point to where information can be discovered?

Again tactically, once we've decided on the knowledge, how do we mine for it?  Classes, books, videos, and communities might be the data sources, but how do you make the knowledge you come across stick? What tactics and methods will you use?

As with any other resource, knowledge resources must be deployed in the context of the goals of the organization or the individual -- how will your knowledge resources be deployed in delivered?  An accountant might deliver a balance sheet, a lawyer might deliver a contract, a doctor might deliver a prescription or recommendation. An IT professional might deliver recommendations for IT processes or IT systems.

Most organizations, while usually paying lip service to developing their knowledge workers, fail to ask these questions.  But given that the "product" of more and more organizations is knowledge, organizations would be well rewarded if they treated these questions as carefully as they treat questions about where to gain resources in coal, or oil, or steel, now and in the future.  It might be good for individuals to ask themselves the same questions!



Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Career management in the modern economy

There's a difference between being good at your job, and being good at managing your career.  This is what Cal Newton called in a recent post the difference between career knowledge and career metaknowledge.

How do you gather career metaknowledge -- knowledge about how you can advance your career?  This is not something you can learn in a class. This knowledge will be unique to organizations and industries and circumstances.

A first strategy might be to ask questions of others who are further along your career path than you.  This seems intuitively correct.  But as the ancient Greek philosopher Plato noticed many years ago, practitioners often can't articulate what they know.  An artist may be able to produce magnificent paintings, but he can't tell you his  process.  He has know-how, not know-that.

A second strategy to overcome this would be to work with a mentor.  Working as an apprentice, you can see and internalize the strategies of an accomplished person.  But while working on a career may be know-how, it is different from the work of the art and the craftsman in several ways.  The craftsman takes on one project after the other, honing his craft as she goes.  Progress and mastery is increased as each project is completed and then surpassed.  In the career metaknowledge arena, this is not true.  You only have one career, or at most, a few careers.   It is unlikely you will have enough careers in your lifetime to gain know-how in "careering". 

Of course, you have to be good at the tasks for the role you are currently in, but that is just table stakes.  To move ahead will require other skills as well as luck.  At the very least you need to have some emotional intelligence - to be able to detect how others see and feel about you, and to be able to act on that information -- in order to manage a career.

A third strategy is to observe the behaviour of successful people in your field, as if you were a journalist or scientist, and try to determine what acts led to their success.  But this strategy has two problems.  One, it may be difficult to figure out which behaviors tend toward success and which are irrelevant.   For example, wearing a Rolex or an expensive suit may be irrelevant to success;  but successful people often wear such things.  Secondly, randomness/luck/good timing may play a larger or smaller role in the success of some of your subjects; it will be difficult to say how much.

The very project of gathering career "meta-knowledge" presupposes that there is a more or less fixed career path that others have trod before, and that is stable enough to provide a guide for a future. Neither of these assumptions are valid in today's changing world.  Many of the important positions in today's economy did not exist ten years ago.  We have good reason to believe the same will be true to a greater extent ten years from now. 

(As a side note, I am often amused to see ads for jobs that require ten years' experience in a discipline that didn't exist ten years ago.)

An additional complication is that very few people spend their entire careers in one organization any more.  And, of course, career goals will change with the changing world.  New opportunities will open up, old ones will close.


So managing a career in today's flow has the character of a journey without a fixed direction.  One sets off in an interesting and promising direction, and depending on what one finds, you may alter that direction more or less frequently.   The most you can do is try to limit the risk involved by engaging with a set of fellow travelers following roughly the same road.  Of course, from time to time you may model the behaviour of another to get a little further down this road or that, but every traveler's journey is going to be unique.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Evolution and happiness

What is the evolutionary and biological basis for happiness?  It's easy to see the usefulness of being unhappy --  if you are unhappy, you seek to change your situation (if possible, and cases of clinical depression aside).  The new situation could confer survival benefits.

Unhappiness in a primal world might mean an environment with too many  predators, an environment without good odds for mating or social connections, or an environment without enough food.  Beings which were motivated to leave such environments would be more likely to survive and procreate.

So unhappiness guides us to change our situation if we don't like it.  But how do you  explain people who stay in unhappy situations (jobs, marriages) for years despite their unhappiness?

On another track, is happiness simply the lack of unhappiness? 


Should happiness be the driving force, and if so, whose happiness?

Friday, January 6, 2017

One life to live ...

Image result for questions

There are a number of approaches we can take to the question:  what should we do?  What acts should we take, given that we have only one life to live?  What should we focus our attention on? This question is broader than the question of what makes us happy. Here are some approaches.

Determine what makes humans generally happy and fulfilled.  Do that.

 Figure out what makes you happy and fulfilled.   Do  that.

Figure out what makes others happy and fulfilled. Do that.

Determine worthwhile goals.  Figure out how best to reach them.   Do that. 

Figure out what is best for your community, tribe, or world.  Do that.

Figure out what is expected of you.  Do that.


These approaches are not exclusive,  but they offer different starting points.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Experiments and innovation for 2017

The word "experiment" has at least two meanings.  On the one hand an experiment is an activity meant to support or disprove a theory;  it's more down-to-earth meaning is to simply try new things out, to see what happens.  So for example, sexual experimentation is not usually done to confirm a theory, but to find out what brings the most pleasure.  It's not usually guided by theory, but by some common sense hunches about what that might give the desired output.

Thomas Edison, with his hundreds of attempts to create a light bulb, is in the down-to-earth group; The teams that sought to test Einstein's theory by measuring how starlight is bent by the sun's gravitational field were in the first camp.

This dance between theory and practice, between scientists and inventors, has become all the more important in the modern world, where the growth of the economy seems tied to the speed of innovation and invention.  So IBM, and Google, and Microsoft, which depend on the output of the inventors, have also created teams of scientists to complement their teams of engineers.  

The inventors ask:  "how can I get the desired output from a system?"
The scientist asks:  "how does the system work?"
And in the end, they learn from each other.

In 2017, I plan to try several experiments, squarely in the first group of inventors and tinkerers.  I'll experiment in the areas of this blog, health-nutrition-exercise, relationships, and finances.  How about you?


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Goal Setting Headaches!

It'a the beginning of 2017 and that's got me thinking about goals.  There's a lot of content out there about goal setting.  HR departments around the world use SMART goals as a framework.  SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Time-Framed ( or something like that).

Apart from my mistrust of acronyms as anything other than a mnemonic device, this kind of puts the cart before the horse.  There are a host of questions around goal-setting that should be asked:


  1. Is goal setting an effective activity? A desirable activity?
  2. What considerations should drive goals? Happiness? Fulfillment? 
  3. What should the focus of goals be? Self, team, other, community?
  4. What goals, or kind of goals, or goal attributes, lead to a higher likelihood of success? For example, a goal one can get excited about seems more likely to generate appropriate activity than a less exciting goal.
  5. How specific should a goal be?
  6. How many goals can we cognitively hold at once for any given period?  How many goals should we pursue in parallel?
  7. What events should initiate a change in goals?

I don't suggest that we have to answer all these questions in order to set goals, but considering them should lend a context of humility to goal setting.  For me, this means that I'll set two or three exciting goals to reach this year, but be open to changing conditions and opportunities.