The workers who surf the zeitgeist – how can we help others learn what they know?

Sai Loo

Everyone knows the Ronseal advert. Like the product itself, it does what it says on the tin. Simple and clear, it has become part of our everyday language.

But producing an advert like that demands a great deal of complexity, flexibility and creative thinking, and a very wide breadth of knowledge. In my research on the relationships between the knowledge economy, learning and working, I have identified a particular type of person: creative knowledge workers (ckw). Their style of work involves creative application of knowledge using information, communication, and electronic technologies (ICET).

A paper I presented at BERA last month was drawn from interviews of practitioners and academics that are related to the two sectors in this new economy – advertising and information technology software – and from three developed countries of England, Japan and Singapore. Understanding how these workers apply their knowledge creatively to produce innovative products and services in this digital age has relevance not only to educationists and teaching institutions but also to business organisations and policy makers.

Creative directors make a good case study. Their role is to produce commercials, so accessing and acquiring ckw knowledge is crucial. Interviewees from this research used terms like “general sponge”, “zeitgeist” and “social chameleon” to describe how they had to be alert to possibilities and to use this knowledge to keep trying to be different, to push the boundaries and the limits of the medium. They also have to be curious and questioning. They need to capture the spirit of the time – zeitgeist – by the acquisition of ckw knowledge through reading, listening to music and accessing other forms of culture.

Last month, Business Secretary Vince Cable called for a long-term economic vision for Britain in order to improve its global competitiveness. He saw the knowledge industries as key, commenting: “universities are the most important mechanism .. for generating and preserving, disseminating, and transforming knowledge into the wider social and economic benefits.”

This is one reason why it’s important to study the relationships between the knowledge economy, learning and working. Creative knowledge workers may be defined as those who use advanced technologies and, depending on the nature of the jobs and contexts, carry out longstanding practices, ask new questions, come up with novel approaches, or create a variation or a vision, which are accepted by peers for a commercial purpose such as a new or improved product or service.

They may be producers or users working collaboratively or individually. The knowledge which is creatively applied may relate to the disciplines of science and technology or the creative/culture-related industries either singly or in combination. Knowledge can include previous job and life experiences.

Conducting this study has led to the observation that we need to re-examine the notions of learning and working. This is because:

  • CKW workers need knowledge of more than one discipline;
  • There is a trend towards collaborative working;
  • The integrated nature of learning and working in relation to the specificity of work contexts.

With these in mind, what are the educational implications for aspiring creative knowledge workers, teaching institutions, business organisations and policy makers? Learners should be given the opportunities to acquire knowledge and learn in an integrated – rather than the present compartmentalised – manner. Some higher education institutions are already providing their students with such opportunities through work placements, other disciplinary modules and collaborative project work.

Teaching institutions would need to re-examine their specifications, teaching strategies and assessments. Business organisations would need to re-examine their workplaces to support working and knowledge acquisition (with opportunities to acquire knowledge of other disciplines) in a collaborative manner. Policy makers would need to re-frame their policies from an individualistic to a collaborative approach with supportive frameworks for these workers to access advance technologies and to provide encouragement for science, technology and creative industries to flourish.

If you have any queries regarding this research, please contact Sai at s.loo@ioe.ac.uk

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Posted in Further higher and lifelong education

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