Rookie Smarts by Liz WisemanBook Review: Rookie Smarts by Liz Wiseman

A few weeks ago, I attended ISA’s 2015 Annual Business Retreat, a summit for executives in the training industry. The keynote was Sparking Brilliant Work, by Liz Wiseman, President of the Wiseman Group, a high-profile leadership consulting firm. Wiseman started her talk by acknowledging that the modern business landscape is constantly evolving, and moved on to discuss how leaders can get the most out of their teams by embracing fresh ideas. I found myself asking, “How do I encourage my team members to learn like rookies?” I thought Wiseman’s talk was very inspiring, so I decided to check out her new book, Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work.

Rookie Smarts is essentially an argument for and celebration of lifelong learning. The book was inspired by the author’s early experiences at Oracle Corporation, where, barely out of college, she was tasked with building Oracle’s human resource development program from the ground up. An under-qualified rookie, she had no idea how to set up a corporate university, but she took the job anyway, thinking it unwise to turn down her first promotion. So she and her team (also rookies) got to work: they secured a location for the university and decided on a logo and motto. They set up interviews with resident experts throughout the company to learn who needed to learn what, and by what time. The next year, the program went international, and Wiseman took her first flight to Europe. She continued to lead Oracle University for the next fifteen years. After that, she decided she wanted to be a rookie again, so she changed fields and became a researcher, author, and consultant.

The main premise of the book is that rookies are often more valuable to a company than veterans. This seems counterintuitive at first. How can someone who’s only been on the job a month or two outperform someone who’s been there ten years? Well, of course it depends on the person and the job. But the basic idea is that the longer you stay in a job after you’ve “mastered” it, the more likely you are to stop innovating and apply the same solution to every problem, and maybe even to become complacent and only do the minimum amount of work necessary to get by.

Conversely, rookies have certain things going for them that can enable them to outperform veterans under the right circumstances. They are eager to prove themselves, so they tend to work harder. They don’t have any preconceived notions about the way things should be done, so they are more likely to propose innovative, out-of-the-box solutions. Most importantly, they know they have a lot of catching up to do, so they learn ravenously, often reaching out to large networks of more experienced peers. Wiseman describes four “rookie modes”: the backpacker, the hunter-gatherer, the firewalker, and the pioneer. Each mode has a particular mindset, and Wiseman contends that more experienced professionals can adopt these mindsets to stay competitive and continuously perform at the outer edge of their ability.

A recurring theme in the book, and one that really resonated with me, is that the world of work is constantly changing and evolving (she characterizes it as “vast, fast, and fleeting”), and this is what makes rookies’ willingness to learn such a huge advantage. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been in the learning technology industry for 30 years, and I’ve had to keep learning as different technologies have come and gone. I remember spending hours at the bookstore learning how to create CD-ROMs; now most professional learning is done on the Internet. A more recent example: a few years ago most interactive learning objects used Flash technology; now HTML5 is the new standard.

E-learning managers: Are you encouraging an environment of rookie smarts? It’s mandatory in this business. If you need some more convincing, or you’re wondering how and when to think like a rookie, check out Rookie Smarts by Liz Wiseman. I highly recommend it.