Environment and Effective Knowledge Work

A long time ago when I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade–memory fades–I had an unfortunate encounter with the nun who was principal of my parochial school. I was dispatched to her presence when my classroom teacher discovered that I hadn’t bothered to do the work expected of me. Both teacher and principal were adherents of educational philosophies anchored in conformance and obedience. I’ve written about this before, but you can safely assume that corporal punishment was a core element of the solution.

Several years later, another nun helped push me into a private boys school. In this environment, being smart and clever was something to be nurtured rather than feared. I sometimes wonder what might have happened if I had stayed on the first path; boredom, drugs, running a gang to entertain myself. Fortunately, that dark path was avoided. 

Instead, I ended up on a path and in a series of environments built around a deeper and more positive theory of learning. Learning depends on taking risks and failing. A learning environment is effective to the extent that it allows you take those risks, fail, and not suffer horrible consequences. Think of flight simulators. Or watch new snowboarders on the bunny slopes. You have to learn how to fall first. Eventually, this path brought me to Roger Schank. Roger is an extreme advocate of the merits of learning by doing. Making that work depends as much on creating the right environment as it does on organizing the content; perhaps more so.

What differentiates knowledge work from turning out one more widget or Ford is that value depends on creating new things. New things implies that there is an essential learning component to all knowledge work. Which means there is also an essential element of risk. 

There are two levels to think about here. As a knowledge worker, you’d like to operate in an environment that offers some level of protection against failures and mistakes. If you can’t risk failure, there’s no chance of creating something new and valuable. As an individual knowledge worker, learning to fail takes practice in its own right. You need to find the bunny slopes in your environment.

There’s a second level here of how to develop an environment where this level of experimentation and failure can exist. If you’ve reached a level of influence and leadership within a knowledge intensive enterprise, how do you use that power to enable others to try those experiments?