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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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