Monday, 20 October 2008

New Work and New Work Skills

My recent Survey - Do You Know What These Are? really was all about new work skills - skills we should be learning. Actually, it's also about the fact that there's not really new work as much as there is new work skills. More on this below. I showed these two pictures:

and asked survey takers to answer the following questions:
1) What's your age
* Under 18
* 18 - 26
* 27 - 42
* 43+

2) What is in picture 1
# Not sure
# Know the name of this
# Know how it's organized
# Have used it

3) What is in picture 2
# Not sure
# Know it's name
# Know how it's used
# Have used one

The results are no surprise and were fully anticipated with comments such as:
I haven't used either for several years now.

I don't think I've used one of those since I was at college for the first go-round (80-82)!

I'm under 25 and have used both... assuming by "used" you mean converting the first into shelving for my CDs.

Who still uses CD's? ;)
While I would not claim the survey is scientific, I think the results were quite predictable. I received over 350 responses with only 16 being people under 18 and 48 from people age 18-26.

For the Card Catalog - the percentage of people saying they were "not sure" -
  • Under 18 – 71%
  • 18 – 26 – 12%
  • 27 – 42 – 3.5%
  • 43+ - 2%
For the Microfiche Reader - the percentage of people saying they were "not sure" -
  • Under 18 – 44%
  • 18 – 26 – 30%
  • 27 – 42 – 7%
  • 43+ - 4%
Note: 43+ Baby Boomer (or older), 27-42 - Gen X, Under 27 - Millennial (Gen Y).

I'm actually think that many of the under 27 people who said they knew what it was - thought it was an old computer.

Work Skills Changing

Most of us who used to use these things know somewhat know that they really aren't in use anymore. When I did a presentation in Cincinnati, someone in the audience was from OCLC. He told me that they used to ship truck loads of cards to libraries every day. Now, they can print them using one laser printer. It was quite a while ago when libraries began to put signs on card catalogs telling patrons that they are no longer updating them.

We all know this right?

But are we thinking about the implications?

In presentations, I often will cite this as an example of the kinds of changes in work skills that have occurred and are constantly occurring. A big part of education is learning how to do research and really that's where you learn the foundations of knowledge work.

If you attended college and used a card catalog and microfiche reader, then you very likely were basically taught how to operate when it was hard to find information. Finding content was the biggest challenge. If you were assigned a paper and could choose among some specific topics, you often chose the topic based on what you could find information on. I remember often changing topics when I couldn't find enough detail on it in the library.

Do you remember that feeling of euphoria when you found some content?

For me, this makes me think of my senior year of college. I was part of a team that was working on building a computer player for the game of Othello. Because it was a competition (each team's algorithm would play at the end of the year), I wanted to make sure that my algorithm was really good. I happened to be going on a trip to Washington DC to some kind of meeting for Tau Beta Pi (the engineering honor society). On that trip, while other engineers were over at the Smithsonian, I visited the Library of Congress and found this incredible book that had some great descriptions of strategies to win in Othello.

By the way, while this story may implicate me as a complete and total nerd on several levels, I must say in my defense that I also was part of a small group that managed to get help from a local fraternity to fill a bathtub full of beer to share with my fellow engineers as well as was able to get to Georgetown for Halloween.

Still, the point here is that many of us were taught how scarce and precious information was.

Contrast this with a A Fourth Grader Wikipedia Update. My kids face the problem of having too much information and having to learn how to filter.

And, it's not just access to information that's changed. You were also taught or learned:
  • Taking notes on paper
  • Optimizing use of the library copy machine (actually I believe we called it a Xerox machine at the time) to make copies of pages of books that you would take with you. This cost significant dollars and time. So you definitely figured out what worked here.
and many other things that were artifacts of the time.

Think about how much has changed:
  • PC
  • Laptop
  • PDA
  • Cell Phone
  • Wireless
  • 3G
  • Access to Trillions of Pages of content
  • Access to Millions (Billions) of People
  • Access to Tens of Thousands of Information Services

Are Our Work Skills Keeping Up?

Most people I know have not participated in formal learning since college on foundational knowledge work skills. That's really the last time that someone (a teacher) taught you how to do these things. But, if you learned using card catalogs, microfiche readers, Xerox machines, libraries, etc. then what has taught you new skills?
and the list goes on.

Of course, if you are reading this post (and it's still roughly Oct/Nov 2008), then likely you are a bit ahead of the average knowledge worker. So, maybe you are okay? Well consider the following:
  • I effectively use the Google filetype operator?
  • I know what does the Google "~" operator does?
  • I'm effective at reaching out to get help from people I don't already know
  • I'm good at keeping, organizing my documents, web pages that I've encountered in ways that allow me to find it again when I need it and remind me that it exists when I'm not sure what I'm looking for.
  • I'm good at filtering information.
  • I'm good at collaboratively working with virtual work teams and use Google Docs or a Wiki as appropriate in these situations
My strong belief is that the foundations of knowledge work are changing fairly quickly and most of us learn completely through ad hoc mechanisms that are not likely to yield good coverage. If you could have an expert look over your shoulder at how you do things on a day-to-day basis, you likely could find many improvements. Virtually every one of us would be somewhat embarrassed to have that expert sitting there because we know (in our guts) that we could stand to do things better.

But most of us are not going to have that expert come in to help us. So, instead we are left to our own devices to learn these things. And because this information is horribly scattered and because it's hard to keep up with the pace of change -
Every knowledge worker could use help to improve their foundational knowledge work skills.
Part of the reason that this new work has snuck up on us is that much appears the same. I discussed this back in Have Work and Learning Changed or the Way We Do Work and Learning? My conclusion out of those discussions is that there's not really new work. However, the environment is quite different and this is the reason that these changes have somewhat snuck up on us.

All of this is the foundation of our work on Work Literacy.

I look forward to your thoughts.

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