Tenkasi is a small town located on the outskirts of Tamil Nadu. Located in the Western Ghats’ foothills, the town was in the news a few weeks back. Sridhar Vembu, Founder of Zoho, relocated to the town from the companies headquarters in Chennai.
Zoho Desk, the companies customer service software, was developed by a team of 150 engineers in Tenkasi. Most of whom were trained in Zoho’s own university. Sridhar has very strong views on education; he believes that our current education is context-free, making it difficult for us to retain the knowledge gained.
Sridhar’s speech delivered at IIT on the learning continuum inspired me to write this article. The speech beautifully synthesis how we learn and how it impacts our work as our career progresses. Most of us, irrespective of our educational background, will have a unique trajectory for learning and work.
Each of us has to traverse this learning continuum and make smarter career choices. The decisions we make along the way will help us progress further, whether it is your career or entrepreneurship.
Traversing the Learning Continuum
Imagine that the below circle contains all of the human knowledge. We have this humongous store of human knowledge, which is ever-expanding. Most of us start with this little core, which is this white circle in the center – your primary education. It is really the foundation for reading, writing, and arithmetic. By the time we reach the 7th and 8th standard, most of us are in decent shape.
Then you are in high school, which adds to a lot of it, but we tend to forget a lot of it. By the time you complete your bachelor’s degree, you have started specializing in a certain field or area. As you complete your post-graduation, you have expanded on your knowledge. That’s when you see a smaller bubble emerging in the graph. But still, in the vast store of human knowledge, it’s all tiny pieces.
You don’t get to choose what you want to learn. The faculty or the university determines the curriculum, but it is still a fraction of human knowledge. The job you are going to be hired for could be sitting anywhere in this circle. If you are lucky, your role might be aligned with your educational background.
It’s like your job is randomly distributed in this learning continuum. Most likely, what your job involves and what you have learned will have no relevance. The only thing that will help you to progress in your career is your ability to learn yourself. Which truth to be told, you don’t need a degree to learn. That’s something you would have figured out on your own once you completed your high school.
When you start working in your field of specialization or maybe do your Ph.D., you expand on this knowledge. As time progresses, you supposedly reach the far end of human knowledge. But when you start your career, you are randomly placed anywhere in this circle, depending on your career choices.
Even when your role aligns with your area of work, it will get outdated in three-four years or as the business evolves. You have to traverse within this circle constantly. Each of us will have a unique path within this circle.
Smarter Career Choices: Things Nobody Tells You
The amount of theory taught to us is disproportionate to the theory actually needed to do the work. Sometimes the only way to know how good you are at something is to try it. In Germany, school leavers have the option of choosing between a vocational apprenticeship or full-time education. The dual education system allows students to gain actual practical experience over theory. With the knowledge, you have gained how do you make smarter choices to progress further in your career.
1. Time ≠ Experience
A career means that your job, experience, and training programs should help you advance further. But time spent at work doesn’t always synthesize into work experience. As you progress further in your role, you start spending more time managing people, answering client emails, and doing routine program management. This takes away time from your schedule.
As the late Author, Chandramouli Venkatesan, says in his book Catalyst. Our ability to convert time and activity into experience needs a catalyst, which means that you will have to constantly target, measure, and review your learning at work and beyond. This means that you will have to spend time to reflect and see what you could have done differently at work.
2. Learning at Work & Beyond
Much of the learning that happens at work or outside once you start working is context-aware. If you were to go back to the learning continuum circle, much of the learning is randomly distributed within the circle. Yet, you see much value in it since it has a purpose linked and is contextually related to your work.
But the mistake that most of us make is we consider our jobs to be the only source of learning. Rather you should opt for the 70-20-10 model of learning. Gather 70% of the knowledge from job-related experiences, 20% from interaction with others, and 10% from formal education or self-paced learning. Now I wouldn’t obsess over the ratio’s exact break-up, but the model is a great starting point to plan your learning journey.
3. Generalist vs. Specialist
There is no right approach when it comes to deciding between being a generalist and a specialist. But most of us know that some point in our career we will have to become a generalist. It is always important to gather more knowledge around the adjacent areas related to your work.
If you are into marketing, learn more about sales, business, analytics and finance. The web has broken traditional jobs into silos. As your role progress you will find the knowledge of the adjacent areas will make you extremely valuable for the company.
4. Solve for Scale
It doesn’t matter how further down the path you are in the learning continuum. If you can’t solve real business problems with the knowledge you possess, you will not create value. In difficult situations, your problem-solving skills can be extremely valuable for any company.
It was an Indian brand that first thought of using sachets as an effective means to distribute FMCG products. Today almost every global brand has adopted the idea to reach people at the bottom of the pyramid.
5. Get Closer to Generating Revenue
The last people to laid-off any company are the ones who are closest to creating revenue. While this might seem inappropriate for a lot of roles but it holds true for most employees. As you move up the corporate ladder, you will be expected to drive business outcomes. The idea for Prime Membership from Amazon came from an employee who was inspired by Tesco’s membership. Prime has delivered billions of dollars in revenue for Amazon and has improved user retention.
6. Earn Trust, Respect & Loyalty
It doesn’t matter how much you know if the people you work with don’t trust you. Trust is usually earned over time by creating a culture of predictability. Once trust is established respect and loyalty follow. In every organization their two types of knowledge explicit and tacit.
Explicit knowledge can easily be passed down as it is documented and stored. Tacit knowledge is the knowledge we possess, and it is gained from personal experiences and context. It could be related to hierarchy, culture, or how work itself gets done. Tacit knowledge is unique to every business, and the faster you can absorb this knowledge, the easier it will be for you to earn trust.
There will be times in your lives when things will not go as planned. Too many meetings? E-mail inbox is constantly stuffed? A difficult relationship with colleague/boss? Basically, nothing is going as per your plan.
The first thing to do in such a situation to recognize you have a problem. Then be honest to yourself and reflect on what is causing the problem. Talk to people who can help you to come up with a solution.
If none of that helps, then cut your losses quickly and move on from the company. But never switch for money; only make the move for learning or role fitment.