Technology and Organizations

The Role of the Individual in Sociotechnical Design

Tuesday morning I'm representing the sociotechnical view on a panel focused on virtual work. This panel is part of the 2009 Academy of Management meetings in Chicago and will be attended by both novice and expert virtual work researchers. The goal of the panel is to help the group think about important next steps for research and practice. My goal is to raise the issue of individual responsibility in work design. To prepare for this session I went back to early sociotechnical discussions of work design.

Example One of TOP Management: Technology, Organization, People, and Intelligent Medicine

TOP (Technology, Organization, People) management requires systems savvy -- the ability to grasp the capabilities of a technology and how that technology might be meshed with organizational practice.  People with systems savvy understand that technologies and practices are intertwined — and they know how to make adjustments to both the technology and the practice to effectively weave them togeth

Learner, Know Thyself: Face to Face, Online, or Both?

One thing the zillions of pilots attending AirVenture 2009 have in common is the need to grasp a great deal of disparate information, and then maintain that information for on-going testing. They are similar in this way to doctors, lawyers, and others who either have to prove their proficiency on some schedule, or whose knowledge base changes such that they must have on-going education. Personal computers and the Internet have changed the options for professional and most other learning. We can now often choose between face-to-face instructor-led, online, dvd-based, or a blend for our learning. When we have the luxury of making the choice ourselves, what's the best choice to make?


The Oracle of Apollo at Delphi is to have said "Know Thyself" in response to the question "What is best for man?" I have said something similar, though not in Greek, in terms of self-selecting formal (e.g., a formal class) versus informal learning (e.g., searching the internet) based on your level of competency (low competency: pick formal, high competency: informal). 

How do you use knowledge of your own learning style and context to effectively pick the best way to learn? For example, how do choose between face-to-face, online, dvd-based, or some combination for ground school?

Today I talked to representatives from two of the top pilot training materials providers: Gleim & King. Both companies provide the full range of topics and formats. I'll focus on Gleim as I had the greatest chance to chat at their booth. I asked Katie (Thanks, Katie) what the issues were in making the choice between an instructor-led face-to-face (my local flight school uses Gleim books) and the home-study options. She asked many good questions, including:

  • Do I have the ability to make a weekly course? In my case, not really: 10 Wed nights, I'd miss some for work.
  • Do I mind asking questions in front of others in the class? No, I probably ask too many for the instructor's comfort, though.
  • Would I be paying by the hour? No, so the overall cost of the course is not a determinant in my case.
  • Do I need a schedule to keep me going? Probably not, I'm pretty disciplined about some things -- and many of the home-study programs track you and will make contact if you seem to be slipping.

These points focus on schedule and discipline. She also covered topics that I'll call "learning style." Do you learn best when you read things over at your own pace? Do you learn best when you print things out to go back to? All the pilot education programs have options for computer-based instruction that includes videos, testing, and review. Here's where it is helpful to know your learning style.

Learning style speaks to how people take in and process information 

However, the learning style you are most comfortable with may not be the style where you will learn the most (pdf). Moallem provides an approach to evaluating learning style:

  • What type of information is best perceived? Concrete, practical, oriented toward facts and procedures; or conceptual, innovative, oriented toward theories and meanings?
  • What modality is most effective? Visual representations of presented material—pictures, diagrams, flow charts; or written and spoken explanations?
  • What organization of information is preferred? Presentations that proceed from the specific to the general; or presentations that go from the general to the specific?
  • How is information best processed? Learning by trying things out, working with others; or learning by thinking things through, working alone?
  • How does understanding generally progress? Linear, orderly, learning in small incremental steps; or holistic, system thinking, learning in large leaps?

Courses, instructors, and individual decisions about how to study can all be tailored to the above. I expect people reading this blog have enough educational experiences to draw upon to make judgments about the forms where they have been most successful.

Using these questions I can see that a self-study approach is likely to serve me best, especially when combined with my scheduling problems. I know myself enough to focus on the frameworks, visual presentation, and general to specific - this is possible in either instructor-led or self-study. Self-study, however, wins out in my case for learning by thinking things through, making mistakes on my own and in developing a holistic, systematic understanding of the material (rather than a more linear approach).

This last is hard in setting where a class agenda must be followed for a group of people. Generalizing back to more common settings: when organizational learning experts make decisions about how to provide training for the whole organization, they are doing it from the perspective of what is going to be best on-average. It is rare that they can focus on an individual's particular needs. That said, as individuals within organizations, we have the ability and responsibility to find the best way to maintain our own knowledge.

Many organizations do provide options in the forms of education they make available. We are all learning all the time, even if we don't have to prove it to maintain our professional standing or licensure. Given available options, we are all becoming learning system designers (just as we are all becoming systems designers of our work settings in other ways).  At the same time, knowledge is becoming more of a currency. Use your knowledge of your schedule, your learning style, and your own discipline to stock your account.

Gen Y and Baby Boomers Unite in the Sky: Light Sport Aircraft


Thursday at AirVenture 2009 was a wet day. As one person on Twitter noted, "No problem. Rain just makes the airplanes shinier." It also means that the crowds were a touch lighter and the exhibitors had more time to spend with each person. For me this meant talking with them about the growing Light Sport Aircraft market.

Light Sport Aircraft and the Sport Pilot certificate required to fly them are a innovative hope for a shrinking General Aviation market. Frances Fiorino interviewed Experimental Aircraft Assn. (EAA) President Tom Poberezny for the the July 27 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology (full post here). Their discussion covered many issues, including the ability to keep up the inflow of new pilots. “The enthusiasm is there, the passion is there, but the economy is limiting people’s ability to participate at a level they would like to. It’s not a question of interest or passion, but of economy and time,” says Poberezny." This brings us to the: Light Sport Aircraft/Sport Pilot (LSA/SP) certificate program. Again from Frances Fiorino's article:

The EAA campaigned 10 years for the program, designed to break down the barriers to aviation. The LSA/SP initiative simplified the regulation of manufacturing processes, enabling aircraft makers to build affordable, easy-to-fly aircraft that cut training time. The new category LSAs are one- or two-seat, single-engine, fixed-wing aircraft with a maximum gross weight of 1,320 lb. The aircraft have a stall speed of 45 kt. and fly at a maximum speed of 120 kt. Trainees aiming to secure a sport pilot certificate have limited flying privileges, but they can train in less time and at significantly lower cost—$3,000, compared to an average $8,000-10,000 to train for a private pilot certificate.

It seems we are seeing a market engendered by both Baby Boomers and Gen Y. Baby Boomers in that they may not be able to get or hold on to the stringent medical approval needed for a Private Pilot certificate -- Gen Y in that it costs about half as much to complete the training for a Sport Pilot certificate as it does for the Private Pilot one, something that will also be attractive to Baby Boomers on limited budgets. I saw several three-generation family groupings of aviation enthusiasts -- many in front of the LSA exhibits. generationsosh

I'm impressed by the creativity, innovation, and systems savvy shown by the general aviation industry partners: EAA, Aircraft Owner and Pilots Association, aircraft designers and builders, the Federal Aviation Agency, flight schools, etc. They saw a change in the market and have worked together for years to respond in a complex, federally regulated arena. This has required changes in regulations, new training courses, new aircraft designs, and new marketing. From the number of LSAs on display, interest is high. Quoting FAA head J. Randolph “Randy” Babbitt's speech today, "Bottom line: LSA is a healthy industry, and all indications are that it will continue to stay that way." I say, nice innovation.

Intrinsic Motivation, Oshkosh, and Aviation Innovation

At AirVenture 2009, held in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, innovation is in the air... and on the ground so you can take a look inside. This is the largest air show in the United States and will have a gate attendance of over 700K people this week - most of them enthusiasts and many of them active participants in the industry. I'll be at AirVenture for the next couple of days interviewing corporate, entrepreneurial, and amateur members of the aviation innovation community. I expect all the people I have a chance to talk with will be enthusiasts.

Enthusiasts are those people who participate, often intensely, for the love and interest of the topic. You can find enthusiasts for almost any field (e.g., Patricia Breen Christmas Ornaments), but my focus is on cases where innovation is likely to coexist with the deep interest. Last week I visited a model train convention. Yes, you can control your train wirelessly with your iPhone, this week Oshkosh.

Intrinsic motivation is critical to creativity and innovation (see Hennessey & Amabile, 1998). Creative work is hard work needing intense focus on the task and motivation to find a solution. Intrinsic motivation keeps the focus on the task without the distractions of wondering how you'll be paid, if the work is appreciated and the like. Yes, people can be paid and still be creative, if the monetary inducements don't take away from the mental focus required for creativity. Marissa Mayer (Google) touches on this point where she says "Give Ideas Credit, Not Credit for Ideas."


I am expecting the enthusiasm for aviation innovation to be palpable on the grounds of AirVenture 2009. I've already heard other passengers on this MD80 headed to Chicago gleefully announce that they're going to "Oshkosh." (yes, I've been doing the same thing all week.) It's this enthusiasm that makes it possible for someone to put in 4000 hours building a show-quality Wheeler Express (pictured here), or even the 2000 hours for more common "kit" planes. Hidden inside those thousands of hours are possibly an equal number of hours thinking about how to do it better than before, in terms of both process and design.

Sometimes we see this level of enthusiasm in formal work organizations. The key is to create organizational policies that do not detract from the task at hand -- innovation -- and to find and support intrinsic motivation for the task. Enthusiasts have self-selected into their roles. How can we build settings and teams to expand the opportunities more broadly? How can we find/create projects where our own enthusiasm runs high?

Additional Resources:

Subscribe to Quick Insights You Can Use

Syndicate content