What Happens if ‘Absorbing by Observation’ Disappears?

Reading Time: 7 min 



Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
More in this series

Over the years, I have witnessed many different ways of supporting young people as they learn about a job and a company culture and norms — to “absorb by observation.” But much about this is changing.

For instance, a couple of years ago, I was struck by the office configuration of a friend, an eminent London lawyer. His was the mandatory partner’s office — corner position, expansive city views, monumental desk. Yet along one wall were three smaller desks, each inhabited by a young trainee of the firm. Why, I asked, did they not have their own office cubicles?

My friend’s answer was succinct: “They are here to observe.” And observing was exactly what they did. They listened in on tough telephone conversations, they watched the hours and hours spent redrafting a complex document, they attended client visits to hear client challenges and concerns. Of course, their job was not simply to be watchers — the lawyer also chucked them topics to research and drafts to write. But fundamentally, they were absorbing by observation.

In spring 2021, the lawyer’s office had been dark for a year, with the lawyer working from his home office and the trainees from theirs.

I have another office memory, this time from Tokyo, where I was a guest of a large Japanese company. I recall talking with fellow guest Ikujiro Nonaka, the organizational theorist revered in Japanese corporate life, about why the employees of this company were working late every night. Was this really necessary?

Of course, replied Nonaka. This is a period, he said, when they really bonded with each other. And, more important, this was the period where the precious tacit knowledge flowed — those insights and ideas that are near impossible to read from the company manual. He pointed out that this is particularly crucial for the younger members of the team as they learned about the corporate norms and culture.

The company was Fujitsu, and in the course of just one week in March 2020, over 80,000 Fujitsu office workers began working from home, just like the trainee lawyers in London.

Is This the End of Tacit Knowledge?

We know that unspoken knowledge, which accumulates over time, needs trust and familiarity to flow and tends to follow well-worn paths. Experienced, older members of organizations like the London law firm and Fujitsu invariably have tons of tacit knowledge, and while working from home could erode it, they have reserves to draw on. But what about younger workers or those who have just joined organizations? How can they really understand what a place is about, how to navigate the business, where the real power lies behind the formal hierarchies and job titles?

This is a growing concern. Since the pandemic began, I have, through my Future of Work research consortium, conducted multiple surveys, focus groups, and in-depth conversations with executives from across the world. In the course of this research, one executive remarked to me, “My worry is that the new hires are not ‘in the room where it happens,’” echoing that famous Hamilton lyric.

Before we jump into fixing this problem, it is useful to first question how much of a problem it really is — step back a moment and consider our assumptions. Is it possible that the accumulated working habits that we believe nurture this precious knowledge were not simply an overly complex edifice? Do legal trainees really have to sit in a partner’s office? Do young Japanese executives really have to work deep into the evening every night? Are there elements to our ways of work that needed to be toppled?

New Approaches in Today’s Onboarding Experiment

It would have been nearly impossible 14 months ago to run an experiment to test these questions, but the pandemic has done just that. Over the course of the year, hundreds of thousands of young people have joined companies, and in this gigantic onboarding experiment, we have learned a great deal more about how we might create places and processes where the young can learn.

The past year has certainly alerted us to the real challenges ahead. Let’s imagine that the idea of hybrid work, where an employee is in the office only a few days a week, settles into being a long-term working structure. It is not hard to imagine that older, more experienced people (with their long commutes, comfortable home offices, and well-established networks) would choose to work from home as much as possible, while younger people (with crowded homes and a thirst for socializing) would come into the office more frequently. In this scenario, there would be many “observers” but few to observe.

What’s clear is that the way we work is changing, and the way knowledge is shared inside of companies will need to adjust. Here are two creative ways I have seen the induction of joiners playing out.

Innovate with technology. It’s a given that companies are now innovating with technology. Take, for example, consulting firm PwC, which has used platforms and virtual reality to help onboard the over 1,300 new hires that began working at its U.K. offices in the past year.

As PwC partner Peter Brown told me, new hires, starved of physical contact, are introduced to a “virtual world park.” There, they can choose to watch senior partners present at a virtual auditorium, interact with other rookies in the virtual coffee bar using VR headsets, and even go on a speedboat journey. “People feel that they can wander around and have private conversations, and they feel this was an intimate space where they can ask questions,” he said.

Curate interactions. I’ve been fascinated by how CEO Christy Johnson leads the Seattle-based virtual strategy consulting practice Artemis Connection — and no more so than how new members are introduced to the company. After years of honing the approach, Johnson says her real focus is on being deliberate about building connections and moments that matter. “When we onboard, we aim to get new joiners staffed on a project right away,” said Johnson. “During the project kickoff, they’re asked to talk about work style preferences, and they learn quickly how their colleagues work together as a team.”

When there are three or four new hires, Johnson and her staff activate what they call Artemis Academy, which has video sessions three or four days a week for an hour, followed by leaders sharing how they work, their problem-solving tactics, and descriptions of “a day in the life” of different roles. “We will crowdsource topics the team really wants to hear,” said Johnson, “and then we put them in circle groups of the three or four brand-new hires who meet weekly to talk about highs and lows. We give them some prompts so they can support each other.” Team members who have been with Artemis for one or two years run the sessions; they’re closer to the experience of being new in the company and can share how they acclimated.

On Fridays, everyone joins an end-of-week call. “They’ll share what they’re planning to do to not feel lonely and to make the weekends feel different from the weekdays,” Johnson explained.

It seems to me that we are only just beginning on our journey of creating practices and processes that help new joiners understand their organization’s culture and build tacit knowledge. The experiences of Brown and Johnson show what could be possible.

Here are my three takeaways. First, developing knowledge beyond what’s found in formal training is crucial for new joiners, and as we shift our ways of working, we need to keep sight of this. If face to face is less frequent, then it has to be actively replaced with something — perhaps the curated conversations of Artemis Connection or the virtual worlds created by PwC.

Second, the observed/observing metric is one worth measuring. My concern is that in hybrid working, the observers will be in the office and the observed will be working from home. I could be proved wrong, but this is another area to pay attention to.

Third, being in “the room where it happens” is a very valuable experience. Let’s treat it as such. Make sure that when valuable events are likely to take place, those who could best benefit from them are there. As Johnson said, it’s all about being deliberate.



Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
More in this series

More Like This

Add a comment

You must to post a comment.

First time here? Sign up for a free account: Comment on articles and get access to many more articles.