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March 2015
Dean Andy Boynton

Reading list

By Dean Andy Boynton


Some years ago, the famed investor Charlie Munger told new graduates of the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, “Without lifetime learning, you people are not going to do very well. You are not going to get very far in life based on what you already know.” Those 2007 commencement remarks came to mind recently as I read Liz Wiseman’s new book, Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work (HarperBusiness, 2014).

Most of us tend to speak of learning and knowledge in the same breath. But they are very different. For one thing, “learning” is a verb; it describes the process of acquiring information or skill. “Knowledge” is a noun that refers to our current reservoir of knowledge, but not how we obtain and plumb it, continually expanding what we know. I use the verb far more often than the noun.

Wiseman’s book takes Munger’s observation about learning—that you won’t get far with “what you already know”—to another level. As she sees it, the best and most productive learners in the workplace are rookies and other newcomers. Those with more experience possess knowledge but are usually less driven to learn. For that reason, she argues, rookies are often more valuable to organizations that want to develop new ideas and innovate.

In Wiseman’s definition, rookies may be freshly minted graduates or experienced professionals who are new to an organization or a particular enterprise. Not having much knowledge to fall back on, they seek it out, Wiseman says. A well-known executive advisor formerly with Oracle (who is also the author of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter), Wiseman has led research studies that found that rookies are far more likely to seek guidance from others and tap networks of experts.

Her advice to managers and executives: Put a rookie on the job. “With one expert, you’ll get one expert; with a newcomer, you get access to many more,” she says.

While I am keen on learning, I am less on board with the notion that rookies are generally the best learners while most others stick to what they already know. I’ve known plenty of curious experts and enough incurious rookies.

To her credit, Wiseman does point out that seasoned professionals can develop rookie smarts. And she has some good, practical advice for those who want to do so, such as taking on what she terms a “stretch challenge,” a job or role at least one size too “big” for you and your current qualifications. Her book should serve as a red flag to those of us who fall into familiar traps of expertise, which include sticking to our success formulas (a good way to become obsolete).

At the Carroll School, we try to employ rookie smarts often, looking at everything we do with fresh eyes. Experience and expertise might tell us one thing about how to structure a core course, for example. But our curiosity and innovative instincts might steer us in another direction.

A case in point is Computers in Management, a required course for freshmen, typically taught in eight sections each semester. Like most courses of its kind at colleges and universities, this one has devoted much classroom time to learning the basics of Excel, the ubiquitous business application. We, like other experts, have emphasized the pointing and clicking that every student needs to learn.

Recently, we took a fresh look at Computers in Management. Information systems professors Mary Cronin and George Wyner developed and are co-leading a pilot version of the course this year. From the start, students in the pilot apply Excel skills to real business problems, such as what kind of data would be most illuminating to investors choosing between Apple and Samsung.

A key part of the pedagogical approach is to move some of the course’s functional learning out of the classroom. In the pilot, students learn how to use Excel on their own, partly with the help of interactive video tutorials. They arrive in class ready to learn how Excel can help drive business decision-making.

Cronin and Wyner are experts in their field but also newcomers to this particular course. Speaking of the still-developing pilot, Cronin told me the other day: “We definitely aspire to keep learning.”