ShowWorkWe all remember teachers in  early school years insisting that we show our work. Especially in math classes, teachers expected us to show how we solved problems, not just arrive at correct answers. Did they want to see that we were actually applying the concepts being taught? Or were they making sure we actually did the work and not copy answers from the back of the book? Regardless the purpose, there’s no doubt some students hated the practice, especially after reaching a level of fluency. We mostly complied, however. The alternative was poor grades and disappointed parents.

Showing work certainly continued long after those early years, and protests about having to do so mostly subsided, but it’s purpose evolved. In science and math, showing work was a disciplined way to solve complex problems. In many other subjects, term papers were effectively show-your-work products that described a train of thought, taking the reader from preliminary premises to the conclusion. Those who continued onto graduate work had at least one significant show-your-work product: a dissertation or thesis. Many of us had others in the form of research papers or journal articles.

disconnectThe Workplace Disconnect

Something happened along the way. In early school days, our work was shown fully as we did it; that rough format was often the final submitted product with the answer circled. As we progressed, our work products became more and more polished, more refined, and less “as we did it.” We agonized over term papers and essays. We wrote reports that sometimes summarized what we did, how we did it, and we had learned.

In the workplace, this trend continues for many. Reports of one form or another are a part of work life, an obligation. The quality of submitted products, regardless what form they take, is expected to be high. Whether a technical report, an expense report, a white paper, a slide presentation, or any of thousands of other reporting formats, we are judged by our work, which is reflected in those final products.

What got lost was showing others how we are doing a task or project, preferably as we are doing it. Are we afraid to share rough drafts and work in progress, or are we just too busy? In organizations comprised largely of knowledge workers, each with unique responsibilities, tasks may not follow reproducible processes, just as every artist’s creation is unique. Still, every worker’s current activity uses skills developed through past experience, draws upon his or her whole knowledge base, and has some relationship with past and future work of the organization. There’s no question that there is tremendous benefit for employers to have insight into how work actually gets done, as well as coworkers.

“We need to do better, not at documenting what people do, but how they get things done. This will help our organizations, our coworkers, and others who engage in our practice.”
~ Jane Bozarth1

Unfortunately, there’s simply no obligation for workers to share their work in progress or even document how the work was actually done. The deliverable product, the final report or presentations, is frequently all that’s incentivized.

The Danger of Knowledge Hoarding

Perhaps worse is the knowledge hoarding practiced by some workers (or silo-building by some organizations). These people keep their secret recipes to themselves to develop what they feel is an advantage over others inside their workplace. They are incentivized by a sense of importance and job security. For reasons given above, it’s unlikely any organization specifically encourages hoarding knowledge, yet they foster it nonetheless by rewarding its practitioners with promotions, awards, or other recognition.

Knowledge hoarding seemed to be a fairly common practice as recently as ten years ago. It now seems to be less and less common by most accounts. Just as silos are subverted by networks, so too may be the practice of knowledge hoarding. Whatever the reason, eliminating the practice benefits many in the workplace.

“If knowledge is power, shared knowledge is even more powerful.”
~ Kaiser Permanante television commercial2

I Believe in the Value of Working Out Loud.

Working out loud is a personal, disciplined practice of documenting work as it progresses. It creates a trail of breadcrumbs that can help others understand what we did, how we did it, and even why we made the decisions we did along the way. The result is a record of work that is invaluable. It helps others, it helps the organization, and it helps each of us.

Just as Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) benefits the individual, so too does a willful practice of working out loud. Sharing our work in progress exposes others to how and why we do things, and our processes can then be improved. Our work products improve as well, if we consider suggestions with an open mind. And, at times, knowing that our work processes will be openly shared and causes us to put a just a little more effort into the planning and execution.

Likewise, just as PKM is a personalized set of processes an individual puts in place to manage his or her knowledge, meeting personal needs and work style, we must each develop our own working out loud processes to improve our work products. They must work for us and fit into the way we work. We need to think of them not as additional work, but an integral part of our work. In my experience, the time I invest in sharing what I do, as I do it, pays tremendous dividends.

Thanks for reading!

  1. Bozarth, Jane. “Nuts and Bolts: How (and Why) to Show Your Work.” Learning Solutions Magazine. The ELearning Guild, 6 May 2014. Web. 09 Jan. 2015.
  2. Connected – Kaiser Permanente Thrive TV Ad.” YouTube. Kaiser Permanente, 27 Aug. 2009. Web. 09 Jan. 2015.

Author’s Note and Acknowledgement

There are many more benefits to individuals, colleagues, and organizations than I can list here. There are also many ways to practice working out loud. I highly recommend Jane Bozarth’s book, Show Your Work: The Payoffs and How-To’s of Working Out Loud, for all of this and more.


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