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In Defense of Apprentices October 5, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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My recent post on knowledge capture generated all sorts of outstanding comments and feedback. Repeatedly, one thing stood out: the idea that apprenticeships, often seen as an “old school” training tool, may be one of the most important ways to transfer real knowledge in an organization.

For hundreds of years, the preferred (even required) way to learn a trade was to become an apprentice to a master.  Over a period of years, the deep knowledge of the master was transferred to the apprentice, until a new master had been created.

We have little patience these days for anything that might take years.  Instead, we seek ways to accelerate the learning process, capture the salient details, and transfer them in days and weeks, if not a few hours.

My original post contended that the knowledge could not be captured in some handy electronic format.  The comments extended this to point out that knowledge, even if captured, could not be quickly transferred.  Instead, it takes time and a deeper relationship to cement the deep concepts in any field.

Apprenticeships were created long ago, when the skills to be transferred were part of a formal, physical trade.  The idea, however, works just as well in the intangible world of management and leadership.  In some ways, we still embrace the idea, although in a reduced fashion over a shorter time frame, with labels like “mentoring” and “coaching.”

Why the name game?  Is there some shame in being an apprentice?  Why not call it what it is?  Perhaps we need more “apprentice CIOs.”

While I have never carried a title that included the word “apprentice,” my deepest learning occurred when I was acting in that role.  I learned the most about operations when I was essentially apprenticed to a great operations director.  My first true CIO role was preceded by a period of apprenticing to a COO who had once been a CIO; he was able to show me the ropes in a most productive fashion.  My current position began with me reporting to the then-current CIO, who took his role as a teacher very seriously.  He helped me understand the culture of our company, so that when he moved on I was positioned to extend his successful track record.

Are you in an apprentice position right now?  Do you need to be?  Perhaps you are and don’t realize it, or think of it that way.  Conversely, is someone apprenticed to you?  Should they be?  Are you even thinking about the relationship that way?

I think we have wrongly relegated the concept of apprenticeship to another era.  Perhaps we need it now, more than ever. Let’s reconsider the need for apprentices in our organizations, and restore the role to the position of honor that it deserves.

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1. Susan Mazza - October 5, 2009

Seems to me the modern day concept of mentoring has a similar intent but I think apprenticeship is a far richer model and it would serve organizations well to find ways to cultivate those kinds of relationships.

I think consulting firms use this model more readily whether they call it that or not. It can be challenging however when a consultant has absorbed the knowledge as their own – one clear marker of mastery – and they want to move on. Many battles have been waged over intellectual property as a result of what could otherwise be construed as a successful apprenticeship.

2. Reigneer Nabong - October 5, 2009

Happy Monday. This is my favorite post, so far. I am proud to say that I will forever be an apprentice. I just feel like you can never learn too much. I am also always willing to impart what I have learned to anyone asking for it. So, as an apprentice, I am able to mentor and hope that whomever I am mentoring will someday do the same.

3. Mike Bader - October 7, 2009

Totally agee with the above post. What really defines an “apprentice”? To your question “Are you even thinking about the relationship that way?”, if we work in an environment that encourages people to be open to new ideas and we are willing to share what we know, in the simplest measure, we have many opportunities to be an apprentice or apprentice someone else at any given time. Is there such a concept as “virtual” apprenticeships?

4. Wally Bock - October 7, 2009

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.


Wally Bock

5. Wally Bock - October 7, 2009

I think it’s important to make a distinction between apprenticeship programs, which involve a structured course of learning and specific standards that must be met for completion, with the apprentice concept, which describes situations where a person learns most about their work on the job and by watching the masters.

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