Closed Competence

I have an uneasy relationship with electricity: last time the main fuse blew in my house, i fixed it, tentatively, but turned it back on at arms length, with a wooden spoon, hiding behind a cushion. World class protection from electrocution, i’m sure you will agree. But i’m nothing if not enthusiastic, so when my parents broke their paper shredder, i thought “i’ll give it a go”. After all, how complicated can a shredder be? And i unplugged it first…

Closed Competence

I was rather taken by a book i read last year, exploring our evolved relationship with trades: mechanics, electricians, plumbers, reduced from the level of artisan, through principles of scientific management, to mere operators. Crawford argues that there is an art, a craft, to diagnostics and repair and, ever the optimist, i believed him.

Shortly thereafter, surrounded by the toolkit of the incompetent, scissors, knives, and a few incorrect screwdrivers, i had the thing in pieces. This was something of a surprise to me, as so much technology today is shielded, hidden: the craft is hidden behind smooth curves and recessed rivets. Not so our cheap shredder: it succumbed to my ministrations with a deceptive ease.

The kicker of repair is that, at some point, the hidden world is revealed, the curtain drawn aside, revealing not glossy beauty, but dusty and frankly dubious soldering. Steve Jobs may have made his engineers sign the inside of the first Mac, thing of wonder as it was, but had he signed this thing, it would have long ago faded and disappeared into the murk. But i set to work with my knitting needle, clearing out paper, gleefully prodding things that looked prod-able, and generally mucking about.

Having fleetingly flirted with the notion of testing it without the cover on, i remember the churning, crunching sound it had made, and opted to cover the gnashing teeth before bringing it back to life. Eighteen screws later, and we stood ready to go. Such was my confidence that i forsook the cushion and wooden spoon, and flicked the switch.

A faint whir, the smell of burning paper, and that was that: consigned to the tip.

It turns out that my competence is still unconscious or, simply, absent. But here’s a thing: we hide higher knowledge away in many ways. We secrete it, make it un-permitted, forbidden. We dramatise the danger, make it arcane, shield it in faux complexity.

We do that in organisations too: creating domains, jargon, and hierarchy, all of which can forbid curiosity. Sometimes, we all need to take the cover off and have a good poke around. We may not fix it, but it’s remarkably empowering to fail.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Complexity and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Closed Competence

  1. Tess says:

    It’s so true, and even of the simplest things. Took me weeks to get my “act” (belongings, supplies, schedule, courage, commitment, etc.) together enough to resume lap-swimming, which I’ve done off and on for years. But I was paralyzed by the idea of just one thing going missing that I needed, or some sense of embarrassment by showing up somewhere new to try and fit myself into socially and logistically. And especially true of the organizational / social constructs — sort of like the mystery of fences which you’re not sure are meant to keep things in or keep things out. 🙂

  2. Maruja Romero says:

    It is true. In some organizations, some people of power hide higher knowledge away like they do in some churches. For my own experience, I can say that to fix that condition is almost impossible, but I can see now some change, It is as if a new paradigm is trying to emerge and people cannot stop it.

  3. Pingback: Domain Specificity into a Generalised Specificity | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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