If you do knowledge work, you need to become a ‘pracademic’

Loyola’s Quinlan School has just launched a new Next Generation MBA. Project Management is a required course in the curriculum and I was asked to take the lead in designing that course. We’re now halfway through the first iteration of the course. I had an opportunity this past weekend to speak at PMI Chicagoland’s Career Development Conference and opted to use the course design and rollout effort to reflect on what larger, emerging, lessons I saw.

During the course design process, I learned a new label to describe me. It turns out that I am a “pracademic”; someone who brings a practitioner’s perspective to an academic environment. While it turns out that the label isn’t terribly new, I just stumbled across it.

I assert that if you are a knowledge worker, you need to become a pracademic as well.

What is a pracademic?

A quick glance at Google’s ngram viewer suggests that the term, “Pracademic” traces back to the mid-1970s and saw a significant uptick in the early 2000s. There’s a seminal 2009 academic paper on the term by Paul Posner, “The Pracademic: An Agenda for Re‐Engaging Practitioners and Academics that’s a good entry point.

The primary focus seems to have been on the notion of bringing relevant practitioner experience back into the academic environment. Like all good portmanteaus, however, pracademic elicits a constellation of reactions.

Among those is the more general notion of blending practical and theoretical knowledge. An admirable and long sought goal but one that, probably unsurprisingly, is more difficult to put into practice than it is to describe in theory.

It’s hard enough to be competent on either side of the divide. Working both sides effectively is harder still. With the continuing and accelerating explosion of knowledge, the need to do precisely that has become simultaneously more challenging and more necessary. This is a topic that has drawn my attention before:

Living in exponential times means this explosion has always been underway. It’s important to accept that this is an explosion that doesn’t end; there is no point at which the curve is likely to level off. Waiting for things to settle down is a fool’s errand.

If you opt for the role of a pracademic it is a matter of accepting that this is a path you will be walking for as long as you wish or are able. Whatever credentials or experience you might collect, there is no marker for being done.

Why does this matter for knowledge work?

Knowledge work is perhaps the purest expression of this notion. Your capacity to deliver effective results is a function of how well you can assess the practical situations you face and then apply the most pertinent and relevant aspects of your cumulative knowledge base.

While the origins of the term pracademic are anchored in carrying practitioner knowledge back into the academy, knowledge work in the environment we’ve been talking about works the other direction. What does it mean to take theory back into practice?

Knowledge work demands leveraging theory. As a knowledge worker, you are rarely granted the luxury of time off to fully study and integrate the latest and greatest developments in your field of expertise. At the same time, if you don’t continue to add to your expertise, your ability to contribute and make a difference diminishes.

How does this change the shape of practice?

The late Donald Schön of MIT addressed this line of thought with his notion of “reflective practice“. Fundamental to the notion of reflective practice is building and testing a robust theory of action.

My particular interests are in action that occurs in organizational environments; action that calls for coordinating the efforts of multiple actors. Practice takes place within those social and organizational environments. Applying theory within this practice environment benefits from understanding key aspects of how thinking connects to action there.

There is a persistent mythology about organizations that rationality should prevail and that anything other than rational decision making represents some level of pathology. This is an area where academic research and theory is especially illuminating.

There are two aspects of thinking relevant to navigating this environment. The first relates to a distinction between oral and literate thinking. This distinction was mapped out by Walter Ong, a Jesuit historian and philosopher. Ong examined the impact of the invention of writing on culture and institutions. At root, his argument is that literacy enables us to get thinking outside of our heads and that this transition is an essential, prerequisite, step in enabling the rise of rational thought.

While complex rational thought is rooted in literate modes of thinking, organizations are environments that predate literacy. They blend oral and literate modes of thought. Most particularly, organizational power dynamics are rooted in oral modes of thought. Arguments do not carry the day simply by being the most logical and rational. This is puzzling and confusing to those who’ve made the effort to become adept at literate thought.

One rule of literate thought, fortunately, is that you do not simply accept someone else’s word, you go and see for yourself. This leads to the second aspect of accepting the assumption that organizations behave rationally; the discoveries of those who went and looked. There is a growing evidence base about the limits of rationality in organizations.

Herb Simon advanced organizational understanding significantly when he pointed out that our desire for rationality was bounded by innate limitations in our ability. “Bounded rationality” meant that however much we might strive to make rational decisions, there were always limits of time and capacity. Real decision makers in real organizations “satisfice;” they settle for “good enough” answers.

Simon’s observation that theoretical rationality was bounded sparked a stream of research starting with Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman that gradually articulated the extent of the various failure modes of rational thought and established the field of behavioral economics. Kahneman’s 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, provides an excellent entry point into this realm.

Where do you start?

Suppose I’ve made a good enough case. You’d like to begin operating in a more intentional “pracademic” mode. What do you do next? Based on my own travels along this path I can suggest a 2-part reading list and some new practices to adopt.

The reading list contains some core theory and introductions to a starter set of practices.

Core Theory Readings

Starter Practices

There are three foundational practices that should be part of your repertoire.

The first is one you likely already possess; a systematic reading habit. Actually, any reading addiction is a good starting point (cereal boxes were my gateway drug). Over time, you’ll likely find it worthwhile to put some support systems around your habits. There’s a reason your professors wanted you to produce bibliographies to accompany your work. Unfortunately, they sometimes forget to explain the why behind the what. Why and how to keep track of what you read is a subject of its own. We’ll save that for another day. For now, if you don’t have a tool to manage this practice, I suggest you take a look at Zotero | Your personal research assistant.

Reading is the fuel for your own thinking. The second core practice you want to invest in here is better note-taking. That’s covered excellently in Sönke Ahrens How to Take Smart Notes in the core reading list. I’ve got a review of his book here – Unexpected Aha Moments – Review – How to Take Smart Notes. I would also suggest taking a look at Getting Outside Your Head.

Over time your note-taking will evolve into note-making as you become more practiced in using your reading to engage in asynchronous conversations with writers. You’re going to want to start engaging in conversations with yourself, which is the third core practice. There are multiple approaches to developing a journaling habit. While journaling is often associated with doing emotional reflection and work, it’s also a tool for doing intellectual reflection and work.

What comes next?

You are now on a lifelong learning path. Perhaps you were already on it and now have some new tools to work with. You will discover that you’re walking this path with others on similar journeys. Strike up a conversation and share your discoveries.

Learning to See-Improving Knowledge Work Capabilities

My wife is a photographer. Quite a good one, in fact. One sure way to annoy her is to ask what kind of camera she uses after admiring one of her photos.. It’s her eye, not the camera, that recognizes the perfect shot. The tool may well be the least important element in the mix.

My own photography has gotten better courtesy of time spent in apprentice mode by her side. Photography is also an example of a knowledge work capability that can shed light on performance improvement in a knowledge context. The primary performance metric is whether you can capture the image you envision. Secondary metrics might include meeting time, budget, and other constraints on the image. In some settings, you may also need to be able to articulate the logic for why the image you eventually capture meets the criteria set.

If your goal, for example, is to capture a simple selfie to demonstrate that you were there at Mt. Rushmore, anything with both you and the mountain in frame and in focus will suffice. As you goals evolve, you also acquire new concepts and vocabulary; composition, depth of field, light conditions, focal length. exposure.

Meeting those goals may lead you to exploring and adopting new tools. A better camera might well enable you to capture images that weren’t possible with starter tools. But the functions and features of more sophisticated tools might just as well not exist if you don’t have the corresponding concepts to work with.

These concepts and the tools all need to be in service to creating the images you imagine. You don’t learn them in theory or in isolation. You learn them by doing the work and getting feedback. Over time, you also learn to give yourself better feedback.

Ira Glass has an excellent series of short videos on storytelling that fit here and fit knowledge work in general. The whole series is worth your time and attention–Ira Glass on Storytelling – This American Life. The nut graf, however, is something to keep close at hand as you work at your craft:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

There is craft behind all knowledge work. You get better at craft work by being intentional about getting better. And by accepting that craft lies in the mix of tools, techniques, practices, mentors, and peers. It’s a mistake to remain wed to the first tool you pick up, It’s equally a mistake to confuse changing tools with improving your craft.

Learning to plan

I often find that I give myself pretty good advice as long as I remember to revisit what that advice was.

Two years ago I read Peter Morville’s Planning for Everything: The Design of Paths and Goals and managed to post a review here—Review: Planning for Everything: The Design of Paths and Goals.

My advice then was that this was a book worth rereading. It is and I just have.

There’s a separate discussion to be had about whether there are better strategies than rereading. I’ll save that for another day.

Morville observes that “while a plan may be defined as a series of steps, planning itself is nonlinear.” This is something that you come to understand over time, but is easily overlooked. You can forget it as an experienced planner because it is down at the level of muscle memory; it happens too fast to be noticeable. It can be harder to discern when you are learning how to plan.

We tend to focus on the artifacts of planning; project charters, statements of work, work plans, schedules, Gantt charts. We gloss over the complexities of developing those artifacts as our understanding of a problem evolves.

This is akin to when we are learning to write complex arguments. How many of us wrote the outlines to our papers after the fact? That’s because we didn’t recognize then that the struggle to find and impose order on our notes and research  or the multiple iterations of our opening paragraphs were essential to the creative process. We were inclined to see them as accidental complexities that threatened to reveal our ineptness when, in fact, they were essential to the creative process.

Perhaps this simply reveals my naïveté, but for many years it never occurred to me that books weren’t written in the order that we read them. How did Orwell dream up “it was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” out of thin air?

Our first encounters with plans are much like our first encounters with writing; we see the finished product neatly ordered and polished. The iterations, false starts, and multiple revisions don’t show up in the final product, but they are essential to getting there. Learning to plan, like learning to write, requires rolling around in the messiness. We need to acknowledge and accept that.

Becoming adept at planning is as much about attitude and expectations as it is about technique.

Ritual by design

My first experience with ritual was as an altar boy when being a boy was a prerequisite and you had to memorize the responses in Latin. Others may have thought about the ritual aspects; I was mostly concerned with not tripping on my alb.

Ritual, and superstition, was a major component of life in the theater. Learning to say “break a leg” instead of “good luck” as an actor took the stage. Discovering what the “Scottish Play” was. Remembering to leave the ghost light on when you were the last one out at the end of the night.

As a techie, I did these things because that was what you did even if they seemed silly to my fiercely rational side. Fitting in and being part of the company was far more important than pointing out the essential illogic of these rituals.

Despite my fundamental skepticism I found myself drawn to organizations and settings that valued rituals. I started my professional career at Arthur Andersen & Co, part of what was once the Big 8 accounting firms. Gray suits and white shirts were the uniform of most days. Andersen was one of the professional service firms that invested heavily in training. I spent many days at their training center outside of Chicago as both student and faculty.

The activities that happened after classes wrapped up each day gradually chipped away at my skepticism. Andersen’s training facility had previously been a small Catholic college campus. It was far outside of Chicago proper. We were pretty much prisoners during the week but Andersen was shrewd enough to invest in its own liquor license to keep the natives from rioting. Classes were filled with practical lessons. Evenings were devoted to knitting people into the culture.

Smack me over the head enough times and I eventually catch on. Perhaps the “soft side” of organization is worth paying attention to. An MBA and a Ph.D. later and I finally grasp that it’s more effective to look at organizations as socio-technical systems. Which is an ornate way to say that both the people and the machines matter.

At the outset I viewed this through the lens of an anthropologist. Organizational culture and the methods and rituals that bound people together were objects of study. They were aspects of the organizational environment and had come into existence through the passage of time. You could nudge things at the margins if you worked hard enough at change management.

I had an odd lesson on organizational stability and flexibility early in my career. The theater group that occupied all of my free time and a good bit of my class time in college was about 90 years old at the time. Shortly after I graduated I was asked to serve as a trustee of the group. Instead of the four years that most people spent connected, I spent an additional ten. I saw a curious thing about history vs. tradition. For students, whatever had happened during their few years in the club was all of history. Traditions just sort of existed; they were only loosely connected to the longer history in students minds.

That came back into play when I was part of the founding group of a consulting firm. We had no history but came from places where history and tradition was a key element of success. We understood that we were not simply growing a new business, we were laying down the experiences and stories that would become our traditions and our rituals. We could be intentional about what stories we chose to celebrate or to ignore.

One example comes to mind. We spent most of our time on the road at client sites. We had virtually no infrastructure of offices to hang out in between assignments. Fortunately for our economics, we also had little down time between assignments. You worked with your team during the week and you went out with your team after work in whatever city you happened to be in. But you might not meet your colleagues on other teams for months. They would only be an email address or a disembodied voice on a conference call.

We were smart enough to invest in monthly All Hands Meetings where we flew everyone into Chicago for a meeting to talk about the business and our work. While there was always a formal agenda, we were more interested in providing space for conversations between and after the official meeting. And we were always on the look out for stories to share.

But the clever thing that happened was an end of the day ritual that took place after work at client sites. There was an online trivia game available in many sports bars at the time. It had a leader board that showed who doing well and it showed the leaders across all the bars and restaurants playing the game that night. The game allowed six characters for a name. Our project teams would agree on a time to play (adjusting for multiple timezones) and they would choose a team name that was “GEM” (short for Diamond, which was the firm’s name) plus the airport code for the client city. So the team working in Wichita would be GEMICT and the team on Wall Street would be GEMLGA. We had pretty smart people on our teams and the goal was to see how many slots on the leader board would belong to GEMXXX teams. If your team grabbed the top spot for the night, we picked up the bar tab. Small outlay, but important bragging rights for the next All Hands Meeting.

The final observation I would make is that we learned not to force these things. Instead, we looked for ideas from the field that we could amplify. Learning to discern what could be amplified versus what would be rejected took time.

Not knowing is an ok place to start

My early theater experience involved staging original productions. We started with a scheduled opening night months in the future and possibly a general concept for what the show would be. More often than not we began without a script. But it was the theater after all and we all believed that “the show must go on.”

Turns out that is enough. Creation is messy and chaotic. There’s always a lot you don’t know. What you learn is that collectively you know something and, with some luck and improvisation in the moment, you can take another step toward opening night. Repeat that loop multiple times, opening night arrives, and there is a show.

Essential to making that work is that everyone needs to be clear about what they do know and what they don’t know. Not knowing is accepted and expected. What is not acceptable, often dangerous, and occasionally life threatening is trying to conceal ignorance.

I didn’t appreciate how important those lessons were while I was learning them. Who does?

There was another set of lessons on offer at the same time. They’re still widely available in lots of environments. These are the lessons about celebrating what you think you know and concealing your limitations.

I believe those have always been dangerous lessons despite their prevalence. The organizational environment that we now inhabit makes those old lessons obsolete. I am most troubled by those who cling to those lessons even as they disintegrate.

Ignorance is a correctable problem; willful ignorance is not.

Figuring out who to listen to

It took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t being heard because I wasn’t taking the stage. I confused doing well in classrooms with having something to say worth hearing. It didn’t occur to me that getting called on was a teacher’s decision, not mine.

As I began to work in the theater, I was content to stay in the wings. For that matter, the actors might have been visible and their lines reached the back of the house. But actors’s lines are someone else’s words.

Having something worth saying and discerning the moments when it can be shared in a way that it will be heard is a much more subtle evolution. One of the steps on that journey for me occurred while I was stage managing a small production in college.

Remember, “drama queen” is a pejorative rooted in the theater. The two leads in this show had not been well cast. Their chemistry was virtually non-existent. For reasons long lost, the director had a poor rapport with the leads and couldn’t fix the problem. While all the technical aspects of the production were humming along nicely, an opening night disaster was the most likely outcome.

The leads didn’t trust each other and they didn’t trust the director. But they did trust me. I spent an inordinate number of hours before and after rehearsals listening to each of the leads pour out their anxieties and fears. They had to give voice to their nightmares and that called for someone to hear them. That got added to my job description.

We did make it to opening night and we ended up with a decent production. For me it was a lesson in what “the show must go on” can entail. Mostly, I filed that lesson away with the other ones about real people in real settings that didn’t fit into my preferred reality of technical rationality.

Some seeds take longer than others to germinate. One particular benefit of working in the live theater is that all the moving parts are readily observable. What I slowly came to appreciate is how it takes all the parts working together to create results to celebrate. That, and the value of human ingenuity to tackle the unexpected when it inevitably happens.

In more complex settings, it can be tempting to just focus on your little piece. This is the technocratic impulse that wants to believe there can be a policy and a procedure for every contingency. If you can step back far enough to see the whole picture, then this technocratic impulse is revealed as the fantasy that it actually is.

The more complex the environment, the more important it is to remember and promote the role of human adaptability and ingenuity. The voices of those ingenious people are often distant from the corridors of power. It is always worth finding them and listening to their perspective and insight.

Learning in a tool saturated world

Before my father became an engineer, he worked as a carpenter. When he worked on project around the house, it was a natural step to enlist his eldest as a helper. I was generally comfortable with basic tools by the time I left for college.

That offered an initial edge when I joined the tech crew in college. The interesting thing about tech crew in a university environment was that you couldn’t make any assumptions about prior knowledge. You had plenty of smart people but most equated learning with what went on in classrooms. What happened while you were helping to build or paint a set was work and was a break from class time. There were no teachers, just a handful of fellow students who got there before you did.

What you had was a classic blue collar apprentice environment hiding inside a competitive academic environment. After key safety lessons about working around power tools, you were expected to watch and learn from fellow students. You learned how to do the work by doing the work.

This, of course, was the way that most of humanity routinely learns. But it was out of sync with what most of us had practiced and absorbed as students up to that point.

That small initial edge my dad gave me led to important side effects. I was an apprentice, but an apprentice who could quickly be handed responsibilities to shepherd other apprentices. I was both teacher and student long before I appreciated that teaching was the fastest, and often best, way to learn. I learned how to protect myself from disaster before trying a new technique. Perhaps most fundamentally, I learned that not knowing was a temporary and correctable condition.

This last lesson might be most relevant in the technology saturated world we live in. The flow of new tools and technologies is continual. Learning to use what is new becomes a three step process. Protect yourself from disaster. Run the experiment. Incorporate the successful experiments into your routine. Repeat

From old expertise to new expertise

When my family moved back to St. Louis in 1964, our family of seven kids was reunited with another 24 first cousins. The 31 of us were spread across four families and separated by only a few miles. We saw a good bit of each other over the years. My uncles were bricklayers and electricians. My aunts had been nurses before they became mothers and housewives. Family and church and community were core.

Not only am I going to the top Catholic school in the city, I am planning on going to college and am about to leave for Princeton, a school so fancy and rarified that we all knew of it. My cousins were mystified that I would pursue such an exotic path. Why go to college at all when you could get a good job now? If you insisted on continuing with school, why not go to St. Louis University? It was a good Jesuit school and then you could become a teacher and get on with the important work of raising a family.

Maybe theirs was the better plan.

I stayed with the student route. That strategy was about doing well and going deep. Each lesson completed led to another of more subtlety and complexity. There’s a logic to this path just as there’s a logic to the path my cousins were on. But that logic is implicit. Whatever path you are on, there is an assumption that you’re absorbed the essential features of the path by osmosis from the environment you grew up in.

My environment contained nothing to osmose. I had no role models to look to, other than what I could glean from my teachers. They knew little of my background. All they could see was that I did well within the walls of their disciplines. My parents knew little of what went on inside my classes. My grades were just fine; no problems meant no need to intervene.

The structure of schools and education was organized into silos–it generally still is. Everyone stayed in their lane. Progress was a function of racing ahead as far and as fast within a given lane as possible. But the notion of staying in your lane was largely an implicit assumption. You knew that was what to do because you had already absorbed it from those who had gone before you.

I didn’t know that.

I didn’t know that the game was to crank through the syllabus and only the syllabus. I didn’t know that exploring connections and linkages between and across courses and disciplines was an activity reserved to designated specialists. I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to pick up books that weren’t on the syllabus and wonder what they had to say about what you were learning elsewhere.

Doing these things upsets the power balance. You aren’t supposed to peek behind the curtain to see how the show is put together. You aren’t supposed to recognize that the curtain is even there.

All of those restrictions on what you are supposed to do make sense in a stable world. If the road is straight and clear, then staying in your lane is the fastest way to get to your destination.

We don’t live in that universe anymore. Deep expertise and specialization lose their power if you have to start building new lanes and new roads. If you’ve got power in the current environment, this kind of change is a potentially existential threat. The specifics of your expertise and specialization have been challenged and potentially undermined. Survival now depends on how readily your old expertise lets you build the expertise you need now. We all have to learn to look behind the curtain and build a new base.

Building systems intuitions

Heroes always need a Sancho Panza. Not for comic relief but for essential logistical support.

In high school I found my way into the theater, not onstage but in the wings. I had a friend who persuaded me to audition with her for her school’s upcoming production. I was horrible. That disaster became a path to working on the tech crew where I learned how much work went into creating the magic.

Even a one-person show has a multitude working out of sight. There are directors, producers, set designers, lighting designers, carpenters, electricians, stage hands, ushers, ticket takers, publicity managers, and the list goes on. I financed a chunk of my college education working in those roles. I met my wife working backstage in community theater.

The role I gravitated to was stage manager, which sits at the intersection of several streams. It is where the design work, preparation work, and backstage efforts come together to support the performance on stage. The insight I gained from that perspective was that excellence depended on blending all of the elements in play. You could get acceptable results from focusing on any one to two elements. But the best outcomes depended on taking advantage of all the components interacting.

They way I would explain that today is that excellence flows from systemic performance. For all that we talk of systems in today’s organizations, developing a true systems perspective runs counter to most of our intuitions. Russell Ackoff remains a source for replacing those intuitions with more principled understanding. The following video is longish but more than worth the time to work with and understand:

Keeping not knowing in mind

The tag line for this blog is a quote from Dorothy Parker, “the cure for boredom is curiosity, there is no cure for curiosity.” I chose it on a whim when I started this experiment while I was teaching at the Kellogg School.

Curiosity is not a popular trait in many circles. Serious professionals are expected to keep curiosity in check, on a short leash in pursuit of clear, focused, objectives. That’s an expectation that has fallen out of sync with the environment we live in. We need to be more curious, not less, in the world we inhabit.

One consequence of cultivating curiosity is that we need to become comfortable with not knowing. This can be surprisingly difficult. Most of the settings we operate in reward the appearance of knowing. In school, we are evaluated and rewarded for demonstrating our knowledge not our ignorance. So too in the world of work. “I don’t know” is seen as an admission of weakness, when it ought to be celebrated as a sign of strength.

To be an effective leader in this world we need to keep not knowing in mind. For all the knowledge and answers we accumulate, we need to stay familiar with not knowing. This is an active process not a passive one. It is not enough to acknowledge that there are things we don’t know and then stay comfortably within the boundaries of what we do know. We need to seek out the edges and wander across them.