I don’t think, therefore I am not…

… able to do my job? …able to stay employed?

I’m increasingly encountering computer users who want me to help them learn how to do exactly one thing. It’s the thing they need to know at the given moment. The problem with helping them is, two weeks later, they’re back wanting to know how to do exactly one more thing. Usually it’s because these people lack the understanding of a core concept.

There is a minor and major problem to giving these people exactly what they request. First, I won’t be around as their consultant forever. After a favor or two, I realize I’m being used as a crutch. I refuse to give fish, so I switch to a different tactic and try to address the major issue: why they’re not able to think through the unexpected. These folks don’t understand the root problem behind their inability to continue working when the road forward hasn’t already been thoroughly marked with instructive signs. They’re slaves to hand-holding people, guides, tutorials, and job aids. As a result, they’re not fully self-sufficient and have drastically reduced productivity. Why?

Knowing a procedure isn’t the same as knowing why the procedure works, and computer use, as I say in my book, is inherently a thinking activity. Those thoughts must be based on something, and the best computer users I know base their problem solving on general principles and wholistic patterns, not specific procedural guides. How-tos and step-by-step instructions become obsolete relatively quickly. Core concepts rarely do. What happens for the user who knows only a step-by-step software process when a step in that process changes due to a software upgrade/update? I’ve witnessed the same result many times over. Every time such users encounter a break in the process — unfamiliar territory with no street signs in sight — they halt. They simply can’t continue. They’re lost. Unable to solve their own “problem,” productivity grinds to a halt.

Clark Quinn confirms in What is the Important Work:

Training people to do rote work is a dying enterprise.

I agree, based on personal observations within corporate settings. Memorizing and repeating processes isn’t what most modern business are looking for. They’re desperate for people who can analyze and solve, but especially adapt to new things quickly rather than need their hands held. There aren’t step-by-step guides for this.

Quinn adds:

Rote work isn’t how you add value, and create margins.

The same is true of technology use. Value isn’t often generated by users following the same old process. That kind of black and white automation is baked into the technology, and all have equal advantage. Real value is determined by how well we interpret and are able to use the technology in the gray space. It used to be that manuals and procedural guides were all that was needed because the interface to a technology didn’t change very fast.  Today, the concepts don’t change that fast but the exact implementations and interfaces do. Being a worker who can’t understand and leverage the underlying concepts is to be an underempowered worker, confused and stumbling with each encounter with a new application of technology.

the only way to do the important work is to enable the power of your people.

Empowering users to a baseline of self-sufficiency was the reason I undertook writing a comprehensive basic computer skills book. I once believed it was something needed only for retirees, but my observations — and Clark’s thoughts — now convince me the future of workplace productivity may also depend on users being equipped with a solid undertstanding of core concepts.

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