Wednesday 10 May 2023

One More Cup of Coffee: A Few Thoughts on Knowledge Transfer and Lifelong Learning

Learning to drink a coffee and learning to code is the same thing. — Waren Gonzaga

This post was inspired by a conversation with a friend who works at my local coffee shop. It was a busy Saturday morning and she was on her own after a colleague had phoned in sick. In between customers we got talking about team working, staff turnover, and the challenges of bringing new team members up to speed. Despite never having worked in hospitality, I could relate to what she was saying. It got me thinking about my experience of training and being trained, the things I learn relatively easily, and those I struggle to master. Working in a busy coffee shop would definitely fall into the latter category!

KT in the Workplace

My friend was amused that I couldn’t immediately recall my job title, but Intermediate Information Technology Service Manager reveals little about what I actually do. I explained that I’m part of a team responsible for ensuring the computer systems we support are up when they should be up and doing what they should be doing.

Until roughly a year ago I led a small team. It had been pretty stable for a long time in terms of staff and responsibilities. We knew each other well. We knew our respective strengths and weaknesses. We understood the applications we supported, and what we needed to do to keep them working as they should. After several of these applications were retired, my team was merged into another so that members of that team could move on pursue other opportunities.

All this means I’ve experienced the “new people needing to learn stuff” dynamic from both sides. I’ve had to learn the technologies, techniques, and processes involved in supporting applications that were totally new to me. I then found myself sharing that newly acquired knowledge and experience with two new colleagues who joined us from outside the organisation. Terms vary, but in my workplace this is known as knowledge transfer, or KT. Some of it involves formal courses or online learning, but much is on-the-job training conducted face-to-face, either in person or via video calls.

Things I Learn Well

This approach works well for me. I’m better at picking up new skills when they’re demonstrated to me, rather than being presented with masses of reading material, or sent on courses that relate poorly to the work in hand. Having things demonstrated by people currently in the role allows me to ask questions, take notes, and then begin taking on the tasks myself.

Having specific goals motivates me to learn. Many years ago I taught myself HTML, CSS, Javascript, and other web technologies so I could design and build websites for myself and others. I learned Photoshop to a high standard in order to process my digital photographs. I used these skills to design a website and promotional leaflets for an animal rescue centre I supported.

For the past year and a half I’ve been teaching myself Teeline shorthand. I’ve always been fascinated by different modes of writing, including the Tengwar letter forms created by fantasy author JRR Tolkien. I use Teeline to capture personal notes and blogging ideas, although I’m not yet sufficiently proficient to use it for taking meeting minutes at work.

At work, I enjoy the creative challenge of application design and development. I had little such opportunity in recent years, because the applications I supported were nearing the end of their life. Moving to a new team has reawakened my interest in problem solving and coding. I’m currently teaching myself unix shell scripting. I’m using a mixture of resources. These include adapting scripts written by past members of the team, discussing ideas with colleagues who know more about scripting than I ever will, YouTube channels, online tutorials — and a lot of Google searches to troubleshoot and refine my code.

I’m also exploring generative AI applications such as chatGPT. I’m interested in chatGPT’s potential as a learning/teaching resource, as well as its writing capabilities. I recently published a blog post generated by chatGPT in response to a prompt regarding identity and mental health. The risks and benefits of AI are beyond the scope of this article, but I was intrigued by this quotation by Yejin Choi, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Washington, in her TED Talk Why AI Is Incredibly Smart — and Shockingly Stupid.

These language models do acquire a vast amount of knowledge, but they do so as a byproduct as opposed to [it being a] direct learning objective. Now in contrast, human learning is never about predicting which word comes next, but it’s really about making sense of the world and learning how the world works.

Making sense of the world and how it works may be beyond the current scope of AI (and many humans for that matter) but I believe it has immense potential in developing solutions to practical problems. This is already true in relation to programming. It might appear a lazy approach (witness a recent social media meme: “I’m a programmer” “Which programming languages do you use?” “ChatGPT.”) but AI does much more than spit out cut-and-paste code fragments. Formulating the prompts helps me clarify my understanding of the task in hand. ChatGPT fully comments and explains its solutions which helps me learn. Furthermore, I can ask it to refine its solutions or suggest alternatives. In a very real sense (and I use the term deliberately) it’s like having a human tutor sitting beside me.

Things I Don’t Find Easy to Learn

The skills I’ve talked about so far have been mostly technology and process-related. I’m much less proficient at what are called soft or people skills; anything to do with leading, organising, or managing groups or teams. I recently wrote a blog post about anxiety for Mental Health Awareness Week 2023. In doing so, I realised that one the reasons I get anxious is that I’m poor at organising things that involve other people. I relate well one-to-one or in (very) small groups, but I struggle with larger groups or teams. This is reflected in the kind of support network I have.

I discharged my team leader role well enough, but I had a small team of three or four people, all of whom were skilled at what they did and worked together well. I handled the team’s workload but had little need to manage them personally or to moderate between them. I led a group of fellow Mental Health First Aiders for a time. I loved the conversations and discussions, but became increasingly anxious as the monthly meetings came and went. I stepped back from the role, although I remain a Mental Health First Aider. At the time I felt I was failing my fellow MHFAs and myself, but in hindsight it was the right decision.

I’ve undertaken training over the years to improve my interpersonal skills, including courses in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and an online workshop led by Brene Brown. At work, I took the Living Leader training and was mentored for a time by my organisation’s CEO. NVC improved my one-to-one skills but otherwise these attempts have largely been unsuccessful. The main reason was that I had little idea what I wanted to be or achieve. I explored this in Connection, Creativity and Challenge: In Search of My First Best Destiny.

I have exasperated my workplace mentor (sorry, Loveday!), various bosses (apologies especially to you, Judith!), and colleagues, but I still have no sense of direction. A recent change of employer may open new opportunities, but only if I can figure out what I want.

Two years on, I still have little idea what I want to do or be. That said, moving to a new team — and relinquishing any managerial responsibilities — has given me the opportunity to focus on my technical skills. Accepting I’m not a natural leader (and have no desire to become one) has been liberating.

Mental Health Learning

I may not be cut out to lead a team of Mental Health First Aiders, but I value the MHFA training I’ve undertaken, including refresher training earlier this year. I’ve taken a number of other courses and workshops related to mental health, suicide awareness and prevention. If you’re interested, check our listing of Online Suicide Awareness Courses and Podcasts. My original MHFA and ASIST training was classroom based but in general I prefer online, self-paced courses, irrespective of the subject matter.

The best mental health awareness training of all, though, is talking with people with lived experience. It’s not their responsibility to educate me, but I’m hugely grateful to Fran and other friends who over the years have shared how their lives are impacted by mental and physical health conditions. To the extent I’ve learned anything, it’s down to their patience and trust. The benefits aren’t limited to mental health awareness, as I describe in our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.

I am a better person for knowing Fran. I have a greater understanding of my strengths, values, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities than ever before. I have learned more about mental and invisible illness, suicidal thinking, stigma, determination, courage, and responsibility since we became friends than in the fifty years before we met. [...] I have greatly expanded my circle of friends, met people who feel safe sharing their stories in response to mine, and learned how it feels to offer my skills and experience in the service of others. I have grown — and continue to grow — as a friend and as a man.

Those words are as true now as they were written. I grow and learn from each and every friendship and connection. These days I’m much better at navigating difficulties with people when they arise, as they inevitably do. I’m also far less insecure and clingy when friendships change, or even end.

Sharing the Wisdom

Fran and I have always been keen to share what we’ve learned about managing a mutually rewarding and supportive friendship where one person lives with mental illness. That was the motivation for writing our book and the reason we continue to share on our blog and social media. My friend Emma McDade expressed this beautifully in relation to her recent guest post on disassociation. “I’m still learning how to live as myself,” she told me. “I want to be able to help others learn about it all, too.”

In the workplace, knowledge transfer isn’t always straightforward. It requires a willingness to learn, and patience on the part of both trainer and trainee. It also needs time to be set aside, which can be a challenge when you’re short-staffed and need to keep the show on the road. That’s something I recognise in my working environment. Secondary tasks such as documentation and knowledge transfer often take second place to supporting the live service.

When circumstances permit, however, I enjoy the opportunity to share my skills and knowledge. As well as the satisfaction of helping a colleague learn something new, I almost always come away with a deeper understanding of whatever we were discussing. Fran and I learned a great deal in the process of writing our book. The same applies to our blog posts and other work in the mental health arena.

This is sometimes that’s often overlooked. Helping others learn takes time and effort, and it can seem a chore with little to commend it. It’s not uncommon to find people reluctant to share what they know, hoarding skills and knowledge to consolidate their perceived expert status. Learning is not a zero sum game, however. Approached in the right way, both teacher and student benefit.

Whether it’s unix scripting, mental health, Teeline shorthand, or something else entirely, I hope the urge to keep learning new things never leaves me. Who knows, maybe my friend will teach me how to make a proper cup of coffee!

Over to You

In this article I’ve described some things I find relatively easy to learn, and others I struggle to master. What do you find easy to learn? How do you learn best? Do you enjoy learning new skills, or find it hard work? Do you feel confident sharing your skills and knowledge with others? Do you find it a pleasure or a bind? Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Image by Gabriella Clare Marino at Unsplash.


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