Forget the knowledge worker; become a learning worker

Ramses Oudt • Reading time: 6 minutes

As the end of 2020 is getting in sight, our new reality seems to get more intense by the minute. For too long, society has collectively closed its eyes to complex problems, only to arrive at the shitshow we’re currently in.

Since entering the business side of IT, I’ve progressively become more of a systems thinker. While I naturally seek unknown variables for as long as I can remember, my need to think systemically has accelerated in recent years. And as existing systems start to show their shortcomings, I believe new systems should emerge.

Some of the systems I’ve been thinking about a lot are the ones with knowledge workers. While apprenticeships have created knowledge workers for millennia, they’ve gotten the label since Peter Drucker coined the term in his 1950s book The Landmarks of Tomorrow. In it, he talks about the office worker who doesn’t need his physical power to work, only his brainpower.

Since Drucker’s book, the world has accelerated, and so has our need for information. But information no longer is the constraint; the problem now is handling the fire hose of information so we can drink from it. But how?

In this article, I’ll give my vision of the new type of employee that works with information: the learning worker. While this idea isn’t mine, I’ve decided to run with it and see how I can help more people make the paradigm shift and lead more fulfilling (professional) lives.

Let’s start with a definition before moving on to the why and how of becoming a learning worker.

What is a learning worker?

For those familiar with the world of Human Resources: no, I don’t mean the learning workers you generally find in Learning and Development departments. While somewhat useful, they tend to create educational materials—often far removed from business reality—and aren’t avid learners themselves.

The learning worker I talk about is a new type of knowledge worker.

Whereas knowledge workers of the past could serve for decades in the same role, this is no longer the case. Problems are no longer simple or complicated. Nowadays, problems are complex, and we see them for the first time.

You can’t prepare for everything, but you can learn to adapt.

Learning workers have come to understand how they think and learn. This awareness of their cognitive abilities enables them to adapt more quickly to changing circumstances than their counterparts who rely on accumulated knowledge. Learning workers deliberately try to uncover their blind spots and use (mental) tools to do so.

But why would you want to become a learning worker? Isn’t life more comfortable if you stay in your lane and do what you know you’re good at? While that might be an attractive possibility for some, it’s also an illusion. The year 2020 has shown that we live in a hyperconnected and, therefore, a complex world.

Let’s dive into a few reasons why you should want to become a learning worker. The sooner you realize this, the more advantages your new behavior will bring to you.

Why become a learning worker?

In the age of the internet, it’s no longer necessary to have a lot of knowledge in your head. The so-called ‘second brainers’ have understood this, but most knowledge workers still rely on the things they put to memory. Many are catching up, though, looking at the popularity of note-taking tools.

So, is it still useful to learn?

Learning, especially learning how to learn, is an increasingly important skill. But I’m not talking about learning explicit knowledge that most schools and companies dump on our heads.

No, I’m talking about learning implicit and tacit knowledge: understanding how to interpret and use the available information. That’s the type of learning that has become crucial as organizational challenges have grown from simple to complicated to complex.

Because the problems that organizations face are overwhelmingly complex, many value innovation and collaboration more than ever. Innovation is vital because set ways of working no longer suffice; collaboration enables professionals to share perspectives and get to the root of problems by combining thinking power.

As we’re constantly confronted with new problems and new insights to solve those problems, learning has become the work. Harold Jarche describes this transition to the new world of working in his excellent article Work is learning and learning is the work.

When you become a learning worker and make an effort to learn and share new insights that are relevant to the complex problems at hand, you’ll be noticed in the organization you work in. Not only that, you’ll make sure you stay relevant in a changing job market and can adapt to the changing life outside of work as well.

How to become a learning worker

How to precisely make the shift from knowledge work to learning work is outside the scope of this article. Instead, I tried to show what it means to be a learning worker and why it’s important to make the shift.

Nevertheless, I want to leave you with some practical pointers. This is what helped me start making the transition to becoming a learning worker, much of what I learned as I worked in corporate HR.

Let’s face reality first: few organizations are making the push to become learning organizations. We’re still forced to sit through dry-ass company training and have little time to learn on our own.

Companies that are serious about reskilling workers to become lifelong learners need to provide the time and space for reading and reflection. This isn’t a half-hour slot somewhere jammed in-between; it should be a (recurring) large chunk of a day or even an entire day. At the same time, employees should be encouraged to discuss what they learn with others in their team, so there can emerge a clearer vision of what needs to be done.

But, the responsibility to become a learning worker is primarily your own. There’s no use in waiting for your organization; being a learning worker means you set out to learn enough about the challenges you’re facing so you can come up with solutions. As a learning worker, you’re exploring unknown territory, so no one will tell you how to solve things.

One tool that’s been useful for me is to keep in mind the seven principles of the future employee by Jacob Morgan. I like to exchange the term ‘future employee’ for ‘learning worker’ as 1) we need this type of worker now, and 2) learning is key to every one of these principles.

You can read more about the principles in in Jacob’s book The Future of Work, but I’ll paraphrase them here. The employee of the future learning worker:

  1. Has a flexible work environment. Knowledge workers were already starting to work more remotely, but now it has become the norm. Learning workers thrive in flexible environments, as they switch based on their work context.

  2. Can customize own work. Whereas knowledge workers are in their roles for long periods (sometimes decades), learning workers realize the single role career is dead and that they can choose how to do their work.

  3. Shares information. Knowledge workers don’t necessarily share their knowledge; they often keep things to themselves as they think that gives them power. Learning workers realize that sharing knowledge is crucial for organizations to gain a competitive advantage, sharing freely.

  4. Uses new ways to communicate and collaborate. Learning workers use the right tool for the job. They don’t default to tools prescribed by others and look for ways to share their knowledge with others best.

  5. Can become a leader. Technology has enabled employees to share knowledge at scale. By sharing your knowledge within your company, you can grow and become a de facto leader by your vision alone.

  6. Shifts from knowledge worker to learning worker. In my view, all of these principles are parts of a learning worker. Jacob Morgan takes a more narrow view of the learning worker and describes them as someone who knows how to search the internet and learn quickly so they can apply new knowledge to complex problems.

  7. Learns and teaches at will. Learning workers don’t rely on their companies to teach them the necessary skills. Instead, they deliberately learn from their colleagues and share their knowledge freely. Doing this will broaden their network, deeper their understanding, and help the organization forward in solving complex problems.

As there’s probably enough to ponder on, I leave you with this for now. In future articles, I’ll dive deeper into the steps involved in making the transition from a knowledge worker to a learning worker.

Do you want to share your thoughts with me? Drop me an email or shoot a tweet in my direction.