Shopkeeper to Engineer

I saw a tweet by Nick Ribeiro the other day which prompted this blog post. I realised that I’ve been saying moving from shopkeeper to engineer this for a few years but haven’t necessarily explained it fully or my thinking behind it.

I first thought about the relationship between retail and learning a few years ago when I described a visit to a car parts store and hypothesised the alternative forms of service you might be interested in.

I then saw the concept described by Paul Matthews in his excellent book Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times. In it, he provides a thought experiment where you’re asked to think about what your mechanic would do if he knew you were driving 300 miles with a sub-standard car. The mechanic wouldn’t just let you go without warning you of potential issues with your car. This story with my blog post melded together to create the phrase shopkeeper to engineer.

L&D is comfortable as a shopkeeper, providing a bespoke service, on demand, to a personal need. Thinking of Nick’s video, I’ve seen lots of local shop L&D departments. They’re sustainable at a local level because they stock the essentials, in small quantities which they can turn around very quickly. Occasionally they’ll have something a bit more fancy and the person seeking something different will pick on it as an option. They have a breadth of stock but no depth. For anything in bulk, a purchaser has to go to a larger store with that extra quantity. Over time, people become comfortable in going to the larger store and the smaller local shop loses its appeal. Even the larger supermarket struggles now; people order online and have it delivered to them at home.

My Dad was a shopkeeper with a local shop which opened every day providing the service I describe above. He diversified into videos, then computer games, then DVDs. He sold a little of lots of things and lots of cigarettes, alcohol and sweets. He was put under pressure as a larger supermarket opened nearby and, after time, sold the business. Ironically the move to delivered groceries means the local shop has been reinvigorated a little; people forget things from their online order and have to visit the local shop to collect the things they’ve forgotten.

An engineer is not a mechanic; fundamentally engineering is a field devoted to understanding how things work, whereas mechanics is a field devoted to getting things to work. The difference is subtle in the context of learning but important. I see L&D needing to be engineers. This means having whole system understanding, an appreciation of how parts work together, and the final outcome. This approach to learning is a challenge though. Organisations are rarely ready for an engineer L&D. The conspiracy of convenience limits thought and innovation in learning. If L&D is perceived as a shopkeeper and stops handing over courses and classes, won’t the business shop elsewhere.

This is where the tactical approach I highlighted recently is essential. If you want to be taken seriously as an engineer, stop operationalising everything, take time to consider the whole system – the aims, relationships, processes, culture AND skills. Show your org that L&D isn’t a cost centre but is a value centre, focused on the final performance outcome.

Have a look at the quote below:

Swap the word engineering out and put L&D instead – isn’t that a profession your business would value? Let me know in the comments.

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