Friday, April 2, 2010

Pragmatic Thinking and Learning vs. Knowledge Management

While reading Andy Hunt's excellent book Pragmatic Thinking & Learning: Refactor Your Wetware I couldn't help but return to a conclusion that I reached long ago: "knowledge management," as an enterprise practice and class of software, is a false promise. Furthermore, traditional corporate training programs are doomed to failure.

I was first struck by this realization around ten years ago when I was working on a project for a department of the federal government. The premise of the project was to "capture the knowledge" from a generation of experienced staff that were on the cusp of retirement. This department was structured so that knowledge was concentrated in minority of senior employees. Underneath them there was a thin layer of mid-level staff; then a large group of juniors. The strategy was to video pre-retirees reminiscing about their experiences and the department could somehow do something with that "knowledge." The idea was dead on arrival and the prime contractor (that originally pitched it) knew it. I remember suggesting an alternative strategy of setting up an apprentice program where people could learn by doing rather than watching TV; but I was laughed out of the room. They had no interest in "capturing knowledge." Their primary business was hiring retirees and staffing them as consultants at the department. Failure was more profitable than success.

Ever since that experience, I have been keenly interested in the process of learning. As a technologist and a consultant, I am always learning so I have developed tactics that work for me. What surprised me in reading Pragmatic Thinking & Learning is that there is actual scientific theory that supports many of the tactics that I employ. What I like most about the book is that it talks about thinking and learning as a personal process that you have to do yourself. The most a teacher or a computer can do for you is provide information — data. To turn that information into knowledge, you have to internalize it into something that is meaningful to you. You need to put the information into context with other things you know.

Most corporate professional development programs ignore this truth about learning. They practice what the book calls "sheep-dip" training programs where training classes "dip" employees in information that quickly wears off. The only way that you learn from these classes is to apply what you heard right away. The learning happens after the class. This is why I like the idea of "drop-in labs" so much. I think the industry is starting to accept this "learn by doing" philosophy. Knowledge management experts are talking less about repositories and more about communities and workspaces. Emphasis seems to be shifting from the assets to the learning process.

On a personal level, being more conscious of these ideas is helping me be more deliberate about how I learn. The book advises setting SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, and relevant) objectives and using techniques like SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite (summarize), Review). But most importantly, learning has to be fun because we learn best through play. Yet another reason to work in a field that you love.

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning lives up to the high standards set by the The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master and other books on the Pragmatic Bookshelf. It will be required reading for anyone that I hire.