10 Things MBA Students Can Do To Develop a Knowledge-Worker Mindset

The MyeEMBA article, “Do MBA Students have the Mind Set to be Knowledge Workers?” generated a sizable number of comments on LinkedIn. One comment by Augustine Mayomi (TopMBA) wanted me to suggest ways a new MBA graduate could develop a knowledge-worker mindset. This article addresses Augustine’s request by identifying 10 things MBA graduates can do on their own to develop the mindsets that is necessary for their becoming knowledge workers. I regard these 10 as a starting point and invite the MyeEMBA readers to add their own suggestions in the comments section below.

I think the key to developing a knowledge-worker mindset starts with the understanding that, as Drucker put it, “In knowledge work, the task is not given; it has to be determined.” and, perhaps more importantly, task or problem determination requires thinking. While MBA students are predisposed to action, they need to learn that thinking before doing is critical to developing a knowledge-worker mindset. Furthermore, learning to think about task clarity and determining the task is an acquired skill that requires a lot of individual time and effort to develop. From an MBA student’s or a new MBA graduate’s perspective, understanding and developing new ways of thinking is what helps develop a knowledge-worker mindset. With this thought in mind, I suggest the following:

1. Assume responsibility for your own, professional development. There is no one path that you must follow to develop a knowledge-worker mindset. MBA programs build a good foundation for developing the mindset; however, you will need additional skills, knowledge, and ongoing reinforcement to be a good knowledge worker. Self-assessment and self-development will be a necessity throughout your career.

2. Learn about and develop problem-solving and thinking skills. MBA programs usually assume that the curriculum develops problem-solving and thinking skills. Unfortunately, this theory is not the case. An excellent starting point for learning these skills is to find a good book that introduces problem-solving concepts and demonstrates their application. One that I recommend is Gerald F. Smith’s book, Quality Problem Solving. Even though the book was published in 1998, it provides an excellent entry into the world of problem solving and—more importantly—how to think about problems.

3. Practice developing multi-level task and problem statements. In this context, “multi-level” means industry-level, company-level, organizational-unit-level, work-unit-level, and individual-worker level. Determining a task for a company vs. determining a task for a work unit within a company requires different knowledge sets and understanding. Therefore, a good starting point is to ask the question, “How would this task differ if we were one level higher in the organization’s hierarchy?”

4. Read, read, and then read some more. There is much written about knowledge work and problem solving. Unfortunately, most undergraduate and graduate programs do not include the principles and practices of problem solving and knowledge work found in this body of literature. Accordingly, you must learn on your own. Reading is one way of learning new concepts and a good place to find knowledge work and problem solving articles and books is Harvard Business Publishing. A recent search of the Harvard Business Publishing academic website found 87 articles cross-referenced to 18 disciplines and 29 books or book chapters devoted to problem solving. For knowledge work, there were 141 articles and 59 books or book chapters.

5. Read outside of your discipline. While you will always need to keep current with your discipline, there is a risk of becoming insular in your thinking. If the only thinking skills you have relate to your discipline, then all tasks or problems look like discipline problems. Options for finding things to read outside of your discipline include Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review, Scientific America or picking a book from the Wall Street Journal’s list of Best-Selling Books.

6. Link or relate new concepts to concepts you know or to situations in which you are involved. In other words, take ownership of the new concept. When reading an article, book, or attending a workshop, you should try relating the subject to something that you are dealing with or will deal with in the near future.

7. Observe how others approach task definition and problem solving. Observation is powerful if done properly. For example, during a project meeting, observe how the project leader deals with an issue. Then, ask yourself, “Is this the way I would deal with this issue?” If not, compare and contrast the approaches for use as a learning opportunity. In some cases, you may want to have a private conversation with the project leader to discuss the differences in approach.

8. Take advantage of the learning programs offered by your organization. Most organizations provide employees access to professional-development programs. All too often, employees only look for opportunities that relate directly to their functional area. Instead, look at opportunities that provide development in disciplines or subjects that do not relate to your functional area. Doing so can aid your perspective.

9. Become a risk taker. Volunteer for assignments that will challenge you to think differently. Doing the same thing the same way day in and day out requires little thought and you can become stagnant in your thinking.

10. Become a teacher and mentor to someone at work. Helping others to learn or reason through a problem is an excellent way to enhance your thinking skills. The conversations, impromptu questions, and responses often create opportunities to learn from each other.

Determining the task or the problem takes time and effort. More often than not, adding clarity to either a task or problem requires a different lens, a different vocabulary, and a different way of thinking. While thinking is hard work, learning to think is even more difficult. However, while learning to think differently is difficult, I believe that it is the most important thing an MBA student or a new MBA graduate can accomplish. Moreover, thinking is the key to knowledge work.

Rodney G. Alsup, D.B.A., CPA, CITP
Founder, MyeEMBA.com

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2 comments for “10 Things MBA Students Can Do To Develop a Knowledge-Worker Mindset

  1. May 4, 2012 at 3:04 am

    Excellent advice for all young professionals Rodney. I teach mainly law students and a lot of them will benefit from this.

    • May 31, 2012 at 2:14 pm

      Thank you for your comment. Please feel free to share the article with your students.

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