Pigs and Professionals in a Digital Age

No, I’m not talking the crumb-infested, corner-cubicle-coveting, pontificating bane on everyone’s existence from the IT department. I’m talking real pigs.

Let me explain. When I first moved to the Mid-West, I was a bit mystified to hear one of my colleagues extolling the local pigs. Seems she had just been to the state fair and reported back, “Them pigs! They were real professionals! They knew just where the oreos were and right how to get there!” On further investigation, turns out that pig racing is a big thing at the fair. It involves a little track and oreos at the end to entice the pigs to hustle around the corners, which they apparently do with some skill and enthusiasm.

An Extremely Brief History of Professionalism
Enquiry into the nature and practice of professionalism has longer legs than your average Mid-Western racing pig, reaching at least back to the Middle Ages and its system of professional guilds and apprenticeships. Even in our own, more proximate, middle ages, the 20th century, some folks were at great pains to draw distinctions between “the professions” such as medicine, clergy and law and the occupations of the rest of us wage slaves. Trying to untangle the nuances of those arguments is an exercise for a more bored and idle time.

However, as we cede more and more decision making to the Digital boxes, it’s probably worth taking a moment to consider what such a shift means for us as individuals and professionals.

Professionals and Digital Surrogates
Don’t get me wrong. I’m more than happy to have a chip monitoring the temperature in my house and making the call of too hot, too cold, or just right in best Goldilocks fashion. I’m glad, on those long interstate sprints, to turn the moment-by-moment decision making of faster, slower or maintain over to an engine control module. Frees me up so I can cast my focus elsewhere such as being amazed at the guy one car over who’s eating with one hand and texting with the other. Guess that’s why God invented knees.

There are whole volumes of decisions, once fraught with ambiguity and danger, which have become so well understood that no real on-the-fly judgment is required to balance out risks and desired outcomes. Hurrah for the science, technology, and industry, computer or otherwise!

Unfortunately, there is no commonly upheld, exhaustive list delineating which decisions fall in that bucket and which decisions still require someone with a body of training and experience to make a call. That’s where the conversation about being professional and our growing Digital reality collide.

Anatomy of a Digital Decision
From one vantage point, Digital is all about canned decision making. A bunch of “Is this a ‘0’ or a ‘1’?” decisions get munged together into ever expanding chains. Those nano-decisions collude to create all kinds of miracles from robotic surgery to the latest version of Angry Birds on my cell phone.

It is important to remember, though, that these miracles are completely dependent on the “canned” nature of both the nano-decisions and their answers. If you can’t predict the choices that need to be made or the appropriate answers, Digital need not apply. Digital isn’t the only the only thug out there beating the snot out of common sense, but it’s certainly at the party. Digital has a penchant for substituting data for direct experience and accelerating any decision process. Couple those two with suspect quality control and the result is not likely to pretty.

If you listen to the Lean Six Sigma priesthood, you can’t make good decisions with out good data which is true for a certain kind of decision. However, it seems to me that most of the really interesting decisions call for more than just data and established process, something not quite so susceptible to the lies, damn lies, and statistics of modern business and political discourse (with apologies to Twain, but not Fox News).

The trick, of course, is to know when a decision is ready to be canned, when we know enough and the boxes are savvy enough to permit the prediction and its reliable encoding into this system or that. Get it right and some new miracle of efficiency and precision is born. Get it wrong and you get the decisional equivalent of botulism.

Decisional Wheat, Digital Chaff
Real professionals, true leaders in their chosen fields, don’t earn their street cred by parroting back the same decisions described in the text books or reference manuals of their education and apprenticeships. True professionals make their mark, build their legacy, when a gap opens up between the present reality and the available data, information, and solutions. The better the professional, the quicker they see that gap and the more creative they are in filling it, whether they’re doctors, managers, programmers or plumbers.

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