Understanding Context – the Key for 21st Century Knowledge Workers

Chris Browning
Written by
Chris Browning

Mentoring Programs Help You Put Ideas into Practice

TeamworkFor knowledge workers today, it is not enough to have access to the wealth of information available in one’s organization (it is not that this is unimportant, it is just not enough).  Employees must also be able to understand the context of their job and/or the issue at hand so that they can appropriately apply knowledge to the situation.  It used to be that many knowledge workers could simply follow an established methodology (e.g., input data from field X on the form into field Y in the application).  While this still holds true for some jobs, and we could get into a whole conversation on whether people who do such things can really be considered “knowledge workers,” the reality is that most people need to apply logic, reason, and judgment when doing their jobs.  Codified methodologies and theories provide content; people provide context.  It is the merging of the two that helps to ensure the success of the 21st century knowledge worker.

Take for example the new manager (i.e., the worker who had been an individual contributor and was just promoted to managing people, budgets, etc. for the first time).  It is very common for this individual to go through some type of training as a part of her new role.  For example, she might go away to the corporate university for a week of training on managerial concepts and techniques (e.g., how to give performance feedback).  She returns to her desk the following Monday and needs to start doing all the things she supposedly learned to do during her week offsite.  While she might have an understanding of the core concepts, the challenge is in figuring out how to apply those concepts within the context of her specific role with and particular issues that arise.

Continuing with the example of the new manager, on Wednesday, one of her employees comes to her with an issue.  He is having some problems at home with daycare and is interested in taking advantage of the organization’s Flexible Work Place policy.  The policy states that employees can use flex-place arrangements at the discretion of their managers.  While the new manager understands the policy at the core level, she does not have the experience to assess whether allowing the request is a good idea and if so, how many days of the week she could allow him to work remotely.  Understanding the content of the policy is easy; understanding the context and how to best apply it is something completely different.  What is the new manager to do?

Mentoring types and conceptsWell, if the organization is innovative in the way they run their new manager training program, they would have integrated mentoring into the process so that the new manager could have an advisor to turn to when presented with such issues.  An advisor who has walked the path that the new manager is now walking would likely not only understand the policy in question, but also have some context around how to apply it within the particular organization’s environment.  One of the primary reasons to leverage a mentor or advisor, regardless of the specific issue, is to gain insight into the context and reality of the problem.

To reiterate an earlier point, most organizations have a plethora of methodologies, policies, white papers, other documented best practices, etc.  Making that information available to knowledge workers is important but incomplete.  If the organization does not make those same knowledge workers available to one another, they are limiting the effectiveness and innovation of their workforce.  Organizations that do not provide ways for their employees to connect with one another and share contextualized experience will be left behind in the 20th century way of doing business.

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