Learning How To Learn

There was a recent post highlighted on GovLoop entitled “You’re So Dumb!”: The Next Generation” by Bill Brantley, which focuses on the ongoing generational demise as told by our forefathers (at any given time), and the continued lament that the knowledge and skills of which we are so proud are not being retained by the youth following us. Every generation has felt that the younger one is lazy or uninterested, disrespectful and blasphemous.

The Millenial generation, which is currently emerging in our workplaces, is no different. They are tagged as oblivious, flighty and self-indulgent. I disagree. I believe this generation, like every one before, is reinventing the worker and the workplace and bringing the demands of its social priorities into the realm of necessity – not because its members are lazy, selfish or egotistical, but because they have grown up with a focus on, and comfort with communities and personal interaction.

Gone are the days where a child sits quietly with hands folded, waiting to be spoken to. Nor are we likely to see kids hesitant to express themselves or show their emotions. This generation has resulted from the adjustments our own has made as we try to accomodate the learnings we had as children. The cycle perpetuates forever.

The point of the GovLoop article is to discuss knowledge transfer and retention. Once again we come to realise that knowledge management and retention is achieved largely through soft skills and healthy human relationships as opposed to rigid process and technologies (which, for the record, do help but don’t get us all the way there). I believe that on the part of the Millenials, there is a willingess to consider and learn existing skills and processes for the sake of constructive evaluation, but this is a generation that is not afraid to change and make change. However, it does leave this younger group at risk of bypassing the evaluation process entirely in favour of leaping to the change.

We can do our Millenials and future generations a great service by focusing efforts on the type of education they receive to arm them with the practical and human skills that will allow  them to traverse the culture of the generation before them, extract knowledge and value from this generation’s experience, and apply their own brand of efficiency or quality improvements. They need to learn how to learn.

I don’t worry so much about the curriculum that my son and daughter will absorb over the years that they will be in public education. I am more concerned that my children learn how to communicate, to relate to others, to listen and speak with passion and focus. My kids will grow up knowing how to connect to others that might know facts or fiction to help them along, and this will help them when they ultimately become contributing members of our workforce.

The newer generation of workers will likely reinvent themselves over and over again at an increasingly rapid pace. They will become more focused on their personal brands than on the brands of their organisation. If our employers want to retain workers that are productive and high-performing, they need to be able to appeal to individual interests, desires, demands, needs and ambitions. Human resource professionals will be managing a handful of individuals rather than an army of classified, categorised, faceless numbers. They will need to figure out how  to valuate a personal brand and attract workers that are driven by more than money or benefits.

Who is responsible, though, for protecting and perpetuating the knowledge that resides in the hearts and minds of the vastly retiring workforce? I argue it’s the upcoming generation of workers. They need to have exceptional skills to extract and recognise the value of what their senior peers pass down, but also how to keep abreast of upcoming trends, tools and policies that will affect how they evolve their craft.

Can we teach these skills or do they come ingrained? Should standard curriculum take a back seat to foundational life skills, or social capabilities?

Renaissance Workers – The Pragmatic Visionary

I was having a conversation with an associate/friend/public service advocate and we were talking about what it would take to make progress within his current work environment – how could his employer (or his fellow employees) help progress the vision and strategy of the organisation, when that progress kept getting caught up in black holes of policy, fear, empire-building and the great unknown?

I described to him what I felt was one piece of that puzzle – individuals with influence (whether at the top or the bottom) that were both pragmatic and visionary. Then I stopped for a second, looked at what I had written and laughed, thinking I had just created an oxymoron – “pragmatic visionary”. However, upon further thought I realised that this indeed what is required for progress and success in his particular environment, and in many others I encounter these days.

How does an individual become both pragmatic and visionary? Doesn’t one cancel the other? Can one person be both in the same role? Well, of course. We’re just not used to thinking that way. Typically, we associate “visionary” with blue sky, innovation, the future state. Conversely, pragmatism is rooted in strong operational foundations, association with the practical, steady-handed realism.

In reality, the twain do meet. I thought harder about it and realised that many of the folks I associated with the more successful change programs, informal or otherwise, were exactly this new breed of worker – pragmatic visionaries. Caught neither in the minutia of operations or the headiness of vision, these individuals have struck a chord of balance that resides somewhere in between, incorporating the grand ideas into routinized process, and injecting some reality into the wild blue yonder.

Just “thinking big” is not enough to be successful. Just delivering on schedule is also not enough.This is more than just a practical project manager that finds the recipe for implementation. This is a role that is savvy enough to cherry pick the business wins and understand the values of all interested parties to create a formula that strikes the right chord with everyone and threatens noone.

The mature skills that these individuals have in common include most, if not all of the social capabilities that we have discussed. They are all great communicators (and, paired with some experience in the field, great negotiators), they collaborate without fear, they constantly seek out new and innovative ways to approach a problem, they trust each other and their partners, they are actively engaged with each other and other communities of practice/clients/partners, and their own objectives are aligned with their peers and those of the organisation for which they work.

The pragmatic visionary is the ‘Renaissance Man’ of the workplace – skilled with an arsenal of tools and tactics to maneuver the soft side of any organisation, gluing together all the pieces whether they be floating above in lofty clouds, or firmly anchored in the ground by heavy chains. Given that these elements are reality for most organisations, these personalities are rapidly becoming the only link to an organisation becoming agile and flexible while figuring out how to remove those chains.

Have you met a pragmatic visionary? How were they able to achieve what others couldn’t? How did they reach this level of maturity? What was their role “on paper” in the organisation?