End of the Knowledge Worker?

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Knowledge work is dying. We all need to move up the ladder if we’re to keep our jobs.

Andy and I give a talk called “Herding Racehorses, Racing Sheep.” It’s about a theory called the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition, and about the impact of that theory on how we as an industry work.

Originally picked up by the nursing profession (and particularly in a book by Benner—From Novice to Expert: Excellence and Power in Clinical Nursing Practice), the Dreyfus model is a fascinating explanation of how we progress through levels of expertise in a particular area. We start as novices, and as novices we need rules, guidance, rapid feedback, and safe environments. As we serve our time as a novice we’re gaining experience. Because of this, a subtle thing happens. Our brains internalize the experiences and start building conceptual frameworks. In turn, these frameworks start guiding how we do the job. This in turn flavors the experience we get, and so a cycle develops.

The net effect is that we start developing intuition about what we’re doing. This isn’t anything magical or innate. It’s simply a manifestation of the existence of a fairly complex knowledge framework in our heads—we know what will happen when we do X because we have all the information stored somewhere in our heads, and our neurons are particularly good at parallel, associative lookup. The interesting thing is that because the response is fashioned in our brains from many sources by associative lookup, we can’t always say why we know what will happen. We just do, just as we know that an apple will fall if we release it from our hand.

So, high-quality experience turns us from a novice to something approaching an expert. We process information in a qualitatively different way in the two states: novices need rules, experts need concepts and contexts. Novices need external feedback, experts generate their own. Stuff that works when teaching a novice drives an expert up the wall, and vice-versa. Experts are often the worst teachers of novices.

So why is something from nursing the subject of a talk to programmers? Two reasons.

First, the nursing profession had a lot of problems in the 70’s. The Benner book, and the Dreyfus model, is often quoted as being instrumental in helping turn it around. And if you read the book, you’ll see that the problems faced by nursing back then have strong parallels to those faced by the software industry today.

But there’s a second reason it’s appropriate.

Novices need rules, but by the time you’re stepped a couple of rungs up the Dreyfus ladder you’re relying less on rules and more on interactions and contexts.

Now think about the current industry bogeyman: outsourcing. What can companies effectively outsource? Stuff that can be specified precisely. Stuff that has rules. This means that (in general) the jobs of novices will be more at risk from outsourcing that those of experts. Now, this is my no means a perfect model: companies outsource projects that shouldn’t be outsourced, and companies have a strange habit of firing their experienced people in bad times because their salaries are 50% higher than the novices (why does no one ever account for the cost of all that experience walking out the door?). But, ignoring all the exceptions, in general we need to move away from the low Dreyfus levels and start occupying the higher Dreyfus levels if we are to to make ourselves less vulnerable to job evaporation. And Dreyfus is all about the acquisition of skills through experience. The second part of the talk is all about strategies for gaining that experience.

We’re repeatedly told that in this brave new economy, we’ve all become knowledge workers. That’s not good enough. Knowledge on its own is just another commodity, and commodities tend to settle in places with low costs of production. If we want to save our jobs, if we want to be paid more for what we do, we have to be more than knowledge workers. We have to parlay that knowledge into meaningful experience. We have to be value workers.

To borrow a line from Jimi Hendrix, are you experienced?