Learning how (a play in three acts)

It's all in there.  You just have to look it up.I’ve been thinking about manuals–you know, those bound, paper documents we received in the olden days along with installation diskettes (those are another anachronism from the time when a business application had fewer megabytes than Vermont has cows).

I’ve been thinking in particular how people use–or, most often, don’t use– manuals and similar support when they’re trying to get something done.  Dave Wilkins had recommended the minimal-instruction classic The Nurnberg Funnel, so I’ve been sneaking peeks at it while slogging through Ten Steps to Complex Learning.

I’ll have more on this in the future, but the plain truth is that even those who, like me, say they want and use manuals don’t use them for very long.  It’s just too punishing.  You’re either unable to frame a question in the way the manual does, or you have one specific thing you want and no easy way to home in on it.

In terms of getting things done on the job, different questions summarize the approaches used by people at different levels of skill:

  • How do I…?
  • How did I…?
  • How can I…?

“How do I?” is the novice’s question.  He doesn’t have much context; at best, he has a picture in his head of some finished product (a spreadsheet, a blog post, a new customer added to the sales system), and wants to know how to get there.

Millinocket, MaineAlas, searching through a traditional manual is much like the answer to the Bert & I question, Which Way to Millinocket? (wma) (Go on, click; it’s only 78 seconds.)

“How did I?” marks the apprentice stage.  Someone’s been working for a bit with the new information and has actually gotten somewhere.  Now she’s trying to recall just how that happened.  No longer completely at sea, but not yet a master of seamanship.

“How can I?” shows a third level of skill.  I see the individual as grasping underlying concepts and principles as he tries to apply them in settings unlike the ones he’s been in already.  This isn’t a matter of not recalling what’s known, but of testing the potential, exploring what could be.

Something like these three questions, it seems to me, is an important part of learning how to learn:

  • Expect to feel confused and even frustrated, especially at first.  (To minimize that, we’ve got these suggestions and this support…)
  • Take time as you’re learning to think about what you’ve accomplished, and how.  (To help with that, you can try these questions or use this form…)
  • Looks for ways to make yourself more productive.  (To give you ideas, here are some examples from others like you…)

I don’t mean these as exclusive.  Obviously you can help nurture learning through a supporting work environment, through communities of practice, through informal networks.

More!  More PowerPoint!  Nice binders, too.I do think, though, that it’s not just hidebound training departments and benighted management that keeps the Little Corporate Schoolhouse model chugging along.  Learning can be fun, but it’s also work.  More than a few people in the workplace have an expectation of being spoon-fed.

The smart organization creates effective environments for working.  Sometimes that means standardization.  No, you don’t get to choose which thermoformer we use in packaging pharmaceuticals.  That can even mean the organization has standardized on hardware/software combo X and doesn’t want to pay for competing packages Y or Z.

But the smart organization goes beyond mandating to helping people accomplish things of value with what’s been mandated.  Think of it as moving from fences to escalators: we expect you to learn all the time; we know what that can feel like; we’ve got ways to help you do that.

CC-licensed images:
IBM reference manuals by Marcin Wichary;
baby bird photo by audreyjm529.
Map of Maine from Google Maps.