Simon Terry

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What are the Ethics of Work?

A great discussion on the ethics of working out loud broke out yesterday across my social streams prompted by a thoughtful blog post by Kandy Woodfield. The post and the many discussions it prompted have been insightful and a few key points have arisen for clarification in my strong advocacy of the benefits of working out loud:

  • While I have not been explicit on this, like other forms of social collaboration, working out loud is in my view a voluntary practice. It is not meaningful to describe an activity that involves forcing someone to work out loud as a learning experience or as social collaboration.  
  • Kandy’s call for support for learners through the vulnerability of the learning experience is critical. The objective is to better realise people’s potential and that takes a supportive culture, the right systems and the focus of leadership.

This last point for me was the clue to a broader issue that began to be discussed with many colleagues: 

What are the ethics of work?

If we are right to subject working out loud to an ethical investigation, then perhaps we should extend the same challenge to work. Many of the risks and vulnerabilities that occur in learning experiences are magnified in daily work, but occur with little consideration of the impact on the individual. Worse still work experiences are often designed by managers to exaggerate these vulnerabilities in the name of motivation or performance.

Culture creates an Environment of Support or of Risk

As young children we learn and we make mistakes freely and publicly. It is our approach to the world. As children, we mostly laugh as we learn. At times this process may be frustrating for child and parent.  Either might experience the odd temper tantrum but this learning process is expected of children. As a result, they are supported and encouraged in learning by a family and social environment. Their pace of learning is phenomenal becuse they are free to make sense, to experiment, to observe, to ask questions, to get into new environments and to try.

By the time we reach the workplace, things are not always as supportive. Mistakes are frowned on. Questions can be discouraged. Experimentation is dangerous. People have a status, a job and a place. Failure to learn adequately fast and accurately is treated a performance issue. Public sharing of shortcomings is common with leader boards, rankings, status and accreditation levels, gamification, etc. None of this has anything to do with working out loud or even learning. These practices are widely adopted as best practices from our traditional industrial management model. It is how we work.

Many of the dangers that Kandy raises for working out loud arise not because of the work is out loud, but because it is work. Traditional workplaces using industrial management thinking are often unsupportive of learning and the learner. 

To extend the argument of the blogpost, the way we work presents ethical issues. The danger comes not because of the visibility of working out loud. Mistakes will always happen. People will always be vulnerable if they are doing. The danger comes from the lack of a supportive work environment that encourages learning.

When the majority of learning is unstructured and on the job, this is a much more dangerous situation.  Everyday on the job individuals are trying to improve their performance by learning to work better.  The organisation must be hoping to see the growing benefits of an employee’s work. If we don’t support learning, all of this is at risk.  

Professional learning managers are ensuring that the 10% and the 20% of learning is managed ethically. Who is responsible for the 70% on-the-job learning? 

Leadership is the Technology of Human Potential

We need to ensure our approaches to learning and the development of the potential of people are effective and ethical wherever they occur.  Leaders at all levels in organisations need to work to create an environment that supports learning and supports learners.

We don’t need more of empty platitudes of declaring a learning organisation. The leadership hard work is considering how all the systems in the organisation support or encourage learners, learning, the sharing of knowledge and the development of personal & community potential. That is a great and highly rewarding ethical challenge for leaders in organisations everywhere.

We can start simply:

  • we can support people to learn and discuss the value of learning
  • we can coach people through the challenges of learning
  • we can encourage people to experiment with new and better ways of working
  • we create a voluntary community that shares the vulnerability of the learning experience and supports the learner with peers
  • we can support all of this with fun

A key to the rapidly changing environment of our networked economy is that organisations need to get better at learning and leveraging the potential of our people.  If we take Kandy’s query to heart in respect of on-the-job learning & the very nature of our work, organisations will be better at managing this challenge.

Our organisations will be more responsive.


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