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Apprentice, Journeyman, Master

About four years ago I read a book Software Craftsmanship – The New Imperative. I wrote a blog entry/book review on it. One of the core concepts of the book has been coming back to me over the last several weeks as it relates to SharePoint and SharePoint development in particular. A few weeks ago now the Microsoft SharePoint Developer (http://mssharepointdeveloper.com) site went online complete with tons of content to get developers started with SharePoint. However, as much as I sincerely believe that we (Paul Andrew, Andrew Connell, and I) hit the mark with that content, I’m also aware that it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

This blog post has been rattling around for a while now. I’ve been trying to put my finger on just how to express the value of non-explicit knowledge. I’ve looked at the definition for tacit knowledge –A form of knowledge which is wholly or partly inexplicable (Wikipedia.org). I suppose that explains at least in part why I’m having trouble putting my finger on how to approach the topic.

I’ve seen a non-trivial difference in performance of staff when they’re exposed to mentoring and the support of others. I wrote an article "Use Your Star as a Catalyst for Productivity by Amplifying the Halo Effect" The focus of the article was essentially taking advantage of the high skill employees that you have to make the others around them more effective. It spoke of the influence of a "star" without clearly defining how a person got to be a star, how you might go about hiring them, or how to encourage the growth of a star. That’s where this blog post will focus.

In preparation for this blog post I tried to do some research on the topic — to verify that my perceptions and observations were correct and in the course of that research I realized that vocational training is much maligned. Most of the time vocational training is lumped in with adult education — the place where you’ll find GED programs and other programs for non-traditional learning. I realized that in our information economy we’ve developed an affinity for explicit knowledge to the point where we don’t value tacit knowledge nearly enough. Most of us when we think about tacit knowledge may remember the trades department of our high school with wood shop, auto shop, and home economics. Stereotypically these were classes filled with the less bright students. The classic movie "The Breakfast Club" played out our stereotypes on the big screen — including the stereotypical shop student. The interaction between "the nerd" and "the shop student" is an unforgettable scene.

The funny thing is that when I look at nearly every area where someone’s life is involved. Every profession and every endeavor where it truly matters — every one I looked at has a structured process for developing tacit knowledge. Don’t believe me, then let’s start with an example from my life. I’m a licensed private pilot. In other words, I fly planes. How did I learn? 40 hours of real life flight. The first 20 hours I sat with a flight instructor on my right who had a set of controls and could at any moment fix a mistake that I’d make that could quite candidly have cost me my life. Jim mostly coached me in the right way to fly. How to get the feel of the aircraft and how to know how much control was enough — and how much was too much.

I remember one lesson very well. It was straight and level flight. It’s easy enough now but when I was learning I had a tendency to over correct. I’d actually move the yolk to go up or go down. One of the things that Jim was able to teach me — because he had been there and because he had so many other students before me — was that I didn’t need to move the yolk, I simply needed to change the pressure I was applying. OK, I realize that this did indeed change the actual elevator making the plane more stable in its level flight, the trick was to make this change so small as to make it not seem like a change to me at all. I would have never been able to learn this from a book. It required someone seeing the challenge I was having and reacting to it.

You may remember the scene from the Karate Kid where Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) sees that Daniel (Ralph Macchio) was trying to learn Karate from a book. It’s another one of those movie moments that offers a glimpse at the discrepancy between our idea of the value of classically trained explicit knowledge and the possibilities offered by old school mentoring. Obviously, in the movie the karate skills dramatically improved with the assistance of a master.

Back to the pilot training, the training I went through, including episodes like that one, is something every pilot goes through — including the pilots that fly commercial aircraft who have literally hundreds of lives in their hands each day.

You’ve probably heard about residency for doctors. Doctors have more schooling than just about any other profession and yet they also have years of mentored training through residency. This is where newly degreed doctors are expected to work under the close supervision of licensed doctors before being officially licensed to practice medicine on their own.

Even professions that often forgotten about such as civil engineers — those who make our bridges that we all trust each day — have some experiential requirement before being licensed and allowed to practice on their own. Certainly the catastrophic failure of the bridge in Minneapolis, MN indicates that this method of education isn’t capable of preventing every problem — particularly those due to maintenance, however, it seems that we’ve developed a firm understanding that some sort of experience based program of training is necessary when lives are involved.

When I started my career I used to hate it when jobs would insist on experience. More recently I’ve found humor in job listings asking for impossible amounts of experience with SharePoint. I used to think that the ability to learn, the ability to think, a natural curiosity, and drive or tenacity was worth more than experience. What I didn’t realize is that it isn’t an either or proposition. You need all of these elements. You do need someone with experience but you also need someone with that drive, in order to create solutions. Experience teaches you what doesn’t work and a natural curiosity drives you to reevaluate those experiences.

One of the time honored approaches to learning a craft has been abandoned or at the very least neglected in recent times. We’ve decided that the old approaches are too slow, too dull, oppressive, and as a result have marginalized its value. The time honored approach I’m speaking of is the apprentice, journeyman, master model. In this model you don’t necessarily learn as quick as you might with a book, a university, or an Internet connection, but the way that you learn is completely.

1 reply
  1. Claire
    Claire says:

    I agree–a one-to-one learning experience results in a more holistic comprehension of the material. Makes me thing of this piece on professional applicability of personal coaches the surgeon Atul Gawande wrote for the New Yorker last month. He found that, twenty years into his profession, his knowledge and ability had stagnated, but once he got another surgeon to observe and instruct him in the surgery room, his abilities once again began to improve.

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