You can’t separate learning and doing

If I’m not careful when I introduce myself, “Jim McGee” gets heard as “Jimmy.” Curious as that was what I was called growing up. Outside of family and a few cousins, there were only two people who regularly called me “Jimmy” One was the director of the college theater group I was in. The other is a friend and colleague I worked with during my doctoral studies.

Although it’s a pretty common name, I take a certain perverse pride in laying claim to “jimmcgee” or “jmcgee” as a user name in places like gmail and twitter. It’s a marker of being an early adopter on multiple technology platforms.

You learn stuff by playing with it. But learning and play are suspect activities in most organizations. Outside of schools, the presumption is that you’ve learned what you need to know on someone else’s dime. Even in schools, you pay for the privilege of not knowing and being a learner.

This model works in a stable or slowly-evolving environment. There are places where you learn and places where you do. If you are in a doing place and the learning places are lagging, you might find it a good idea to create a private learning place to bridge the gap. But the idea of doing and learning remain separate.

I could argue that this is fundamentally wrong for all organizations and all times; that the separation of learning and doing is an artificial distinction that only works with the right confluence of factors and only for limited periods. We’re no longer in one of those periods.

We’ve been living through an extended period of accelerating change; it’s become an empty cliche. This is a cliche that you ignore at your peril. The half-life of what we know continues to shrink.

Half-life is a notion borrowed from nuclear physics. Radioactive elements and isotopes transform at a predictable rate; the transformation of Carbon-14 into Carbon-12, for example, is one of the facts that tell us that the world is more than 6,000 years old. The time it takes for half of the Carbon-14 in a sample to decay into Carbon-12 is the half-life and is a fixed and measurable rate.

Shifting back to knowledge and knowledge work, much of what we knew from our school days has decayed in similar fashion. By some estimates an engineering degree has a half-life of less than 10 years.

If you maintain the fiction that learning is something that occurs in learning places and is separate from doing, then you hire young computer scientists, move a handful into management, and replace the rest on a regular basis. A stupid management strategy, even it is appears to be a common one.

In work with a university research lab that was dealing with growing pains, I found the phrase “smart people doing smarter work” a helpful entry point toward a more effective response. There’s been a trend in knowledge intensive organizations toward hiring more people with Ph.D.s. At first glance, this can be viewed simply as seeking out people with more recent expert knowledge. The deeper truth is that a Ph.D. is someone who lives at the boundary of learning and doing; someone who understands that it is not, in fact, a boundary.

When I was a student, teachers were the people who had answers. If you had questions, you found the expert who had answers. When I was a consultant, I was an expert. When I reached the edge of what I knew, I looked for the next expert. Eventually, I reached a point where I ran out experts who knew. Since I was still operating from a learning and doing are separate things perspective, I went back to a learning place.

What I discovered was a community of fellow explorers who introduced me to a new practice, which was to say “I don’t know, let’s find out.” I was at the place with the half-life of knowledge problem was being created and attacked in parallel.

It’s certainly possible to treat this spot as just another place for experts. You can choose to be an expert at the edge, asking questions and passing answers back the chain to others who desire answers. What’s more interesting is to ask how to respond in a world where all of us operate closer to the edge of “I don’t know, let’s find out.” What if we looked to those already operating at the boundary between learning and doing as guides for traveling in this strange territory? What tools, practices, and habits of mind can we adopt to travel more effectively and safely in an environment where change is a feature not a bug?

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