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“Yet I was blind and deaf until the day of awakening came as it had come in my childhood, when pictures, words, and letters sprang to life. Once more, my eyes were opened, and I woke as from my dream; my spirit welled up in its joy because I asked myself, “why?” The dread key to all true knowledge is “why?” It is mightier than the reed of Thoth, more potent than inscriptions in stone.” (Waltari, 1945, 37).

The quotation is from the Finnish novel, The Egyptian, written by Mika Waltari. This literary masterpiece describes the life in Egypt, more than a thousand years before Christ. It is told by Sinuhe, the physician to the Pharaoh, and is the story of his adventurous life. 

The pivotal storyline is Sinuhe’s tendency to question sacred social traditions and the ancient ideas of human nature. In this extract above, Sinuhe describes his medical apprenticeship in which he assumes inscriptions logged in stones in the guidance of experienced priests. 

Sinuhe is confused since he doesn’t get any reasonable answers to his questions, such as why the surgical operations are done in the way they are. The priests perceive the question “why” insane and merely argue: “So it has always been.

The historical change of work

The extract figuratively demonstrates incongruity between Sinuhe’s vital motive for knowing more deeply the ideas behind the medical actions to be learned, and, on the opposite, the tradition of authoritative learning through espousing instructions and practicing concrete work. In this sense, it is an illustrative example, how the ways and modes of learning are changing through history, as well as history is changing through learning action. Since the age of Pharaos, every technical revolution has created historically unique challenges and opportunities for learning and accumulating knowledge and passing it on.

Today working life is undergoing rapid and profound changes in social, economic, and technological domains. Many scholars describe the current economic paradigm shift, often called Industry 4.0, at least as revolutionary than the first industrial revolution in the late 18th to early 19th century. 

The rapid changes in the operational environments force organizations to continuously develop their production processes and business concepts, as well in the ways they gain and share knowledge. Advanced technological systems have made it relatively easy to collect and use almost unlimited data and information. 

Competitive edge emerges, therefore, from adding value to and creating new knowledge rather than merely exploiting existing knowledge resources — Sinuhe’s question of why is thus more vital than ever. 

Towards the more intellectual skills

In the light of learning, Sinuhe’s question of why refers to the higher-level cognitive processes called conceptual or theoretical reasoning. In this process, knowledge is created through analysis that establishes systemic functional relationships between externally different objects and the origin of such relationships rather than through classifying things of their external similarities and differences. 

Vygotsky (1986 ) defines this kind of theoretical reasoning as a move from the realm of everyday concepts (i.e. “which button to switch”) towards the use of more scientific concepts (i.e., “why to switch that button”). In this sense, “care why” could be seen as an essential step from the domain of practical skills towards more intellectual skills. 

These kinds of changes in intellectual thinking matter to economic changes. In the eighteenth century Europe, the key development involved was a movement of Enlightenment. Although the Enlightenment was composed of many diverse and often contradictory streams, most of its key figures shared a belief that economic progress could be achieved by studying natural phenomena and regularities, reducing them to general principles wherever possible, summarizing them in systematic and accessible forms so that they could be applied to “the useful arts,” that is in other words, production. 

This belief implied that the propositional knowledge we identify today primarily as “science” needed to be made accessible to people on the shop floor, the ship, the mine, and the farm. It also included the desire to generalize patterns and regularities at higher levels into systems and catalogs. 

Crisis on industrial mass production

The progression of modern science, rationalism, and theoretical thinking were the stepping stones for industrialization, the dominant form of work in our era. This form is called as mass-production, and its leading theory is scientific management made by Fredrick Taylor. The functional division of labor and strict allocation of different expertise are the legacies from Taylorism. Some are designing how the work should be done and those who are doing it.  

However, from the point of learning is significant that in traditional industrial mass production and functional organizational structure, the construction of this conceptual or theoretical knowledge is exclusively reserved to the level of executive managers and other higher-level experts such as consultants. They have the authorship to ask why (strategy) and how to (best practices). On the shop-floor, workers’ authorship is mainly restricted to adapting these ‘best practices.’ Even they are giving some agency to influence their work, and it is usually limited to designing their own work tasks or processes, not a deep purpose of their action.

Do you recognize this kind of incongruity in your work production? In the case of yes, feel free to contact me. Let’s make your people to ask why!

Kirsi Elina Kallio