Lessons learned and learned lessons

Dave Snowden, with whom I share a general dislike (maybe distrust is a better word) for lessons learned / best practices, has a post from about a year ago on the difference between lessons learned and learning lessons. I’m revisiting these ideas after sharing my thoughts about knowledge work as craft and the growth and development of young knowledge workers as craftsmen with the Work Literacy group.

Before someone can start working in a craft, they must first learn the basics of the craft. Part of this learning is traditional learning of the facts, procedures, and techniques that have been learned and passed along by those who have gone before. While not “lessons learned” in the usual sense, this type of lessons learned (or best practice) can be of value.

In fact, I think that assimilation of this knowledge, obtained from lessons learned by others, is a key early step in helping people become able to learn their own lessons later on in their career. Without a solid foundation of what has already been learned, the apprentice is destined to “reinvent the wheel” more than is necessary. (Note the “more than necessary” caveat: I believe that it is important for the novice to attempt some reinvention of their own; this gives them an understanding of the importance of those early lessons.)

The journey of an apprentice to the realm of the master is, in many ways, a journey from knowledge consumption to knowledge creation. As an apprentice, the reliance on existing knowledge is very high. The journeyman learns to understand the knowledge in use and apply it in creative, new ways. The master, while grounded in the existing knowledge of the craft, is not constrained by that knowledge as he creates new knowledge for use by the next wave of apprentices.

The same progression can be seen in many aspects of knowledge work. Most will start off in college, accumulating that basic information they need for their chosen field, then move on to a “journeyman” stage in a company (or their own company) where they will learn how to apply that accumulated knowledge. For most, this is the stage they will remain at for most of their career.

If they are lucky, and of course diligent in continuing to develop their own work literacy, they will progress to the “master” stage where they can re-write what is taught to students in college.

4 thoughts on “Lessons learned and learned lessons

  1. I’m not sure I’m buying that all of this needs to be apprentice, craft growth. Looking forward to hear more from you about it.


  2. Tony, to be honest I’m not sure if I buy it all or not either. I actually wrote the bulk of this post in draft nearly a year ago, it has been my discovery of Work Literacy ideas that got me looking at it all again.

    Though I started working in KM at the organizational level, over the years this has become more an interest at the PKM level. More recently this has taken on a focus on the ideas of personal mastery. My influences in this have come mainly from the trades, the martial arts (specifically Aikido), and other athletics.

    I am also looking at this from a very personal perspective. Though I used to work in the “KM Field”, now I am interested in KM, PKM, Work Literacy (WL?) on a more practical personal level. I’m just a knowledge worker who enjoys what he does and wants to learn how to do it better.


  3. Brett – great to hear you say this. I’m very much looking forward to continued conversation. I’ve been reading your posts with great interest.

    A big part of the goal at WL is to help figure out how to help early majority knowledge workers to be able to take advantage of PKM kind of ideas where it will help THEM as an individual. I believe there are lots of people roughly working on this idea, but there’s not a good place to get help if you are one of the early majority.


  4. I like this angle of looking at learning, however I believe a radical disruption has occurred with the introduction of new technology – the old(er) masters know the theory and concepts but not the new technology, while the journeymen know the software but not necessarily the theory and concepts. Sometimes the masters in certain areas are simply displaced, leaving people performing tasks in areas where they don’t even have the apprentice level of know-how – as I discussed in http://joanvinallcox.wordpress.com/2008/06/24/old-skills-new-know-how/


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