At rehearsal of Oliver Twist (Broadway, ca 1912). Bain News Service via Library of Congress.

The Oral Culture of the Professional Intellectuals: How Consultants Can Learn

Forrest ChristianOrganizations Leave a Comment

If professionals have this higher form of knowledge, how it is best transmitted? Most firms want training — “how to” lessons.

But what growing professionals need is learning opportunities.

My wife used to be a professor (before retiring early) and we still hang with young professors. We were at one’s house yesterday for lunch (roast chick with fresh bread: mmmmmm!) and started talking about the problems of the university. I started thinking about how the university is held up as a model for the new, knowledge-based company. But universities have a terrible track record for helping their staff to become teachers/professors. Most people who finish their PhDs have the research and writing part down pat. They don’t know how to teach, or how to encourage students to learn. The university is incredibly bad at helping these new profs learn the trade.

Mostly, they are simply thrown into the classroom and told not to fail.

Consulting firms, with their intensive, immersive learning environments for new consultants, may be a better model for the university. University professorss have the attitude after several years that they never needed anyone’s help, that they were always good at what they do. (This is the rescripting of one’s life that successful people often do, and why they are such pains in the ass in areas that are not their specialty. They continue to believe that they understand things better than other people do, even outside their own field.) When they first come in, they all seem to be terrified.

So, how does the professional learning happen? How can we develop a culture that encourages this high-knowledge to be transmitted?

John Seely Brown, Director of Xerox PARC in the 1990s, tells the story of how one of the PARC anthropologists worked as a service technician to discover how these people learn. It turns out that the training was the least important part. Most of the rich information (the knowledge) about how to handle certain problems was transmitted orally through stories told when they got together. These stories get refined to be pretty efficient and the better ones get retold by others throughout the firm.

Image credit: At rehearsal of Oliver Twist (Broadway, ca 1912). Bain News Service via Library of Congress.

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