Workplace distractions are preventing master craftsmen

2015-08-07 07:41

I’ll be covering the following:

Whatsapp, SMS, email, Facebook, Twitter and random cat videos… It’s no secret online media is interrupting our daily lives like never before. Just 20 years ago, the only mainstream media we had was the newspaper, radio, billboard advertising and TV.

Unfortunately these common distractions are also entering our workspace and diminishing our opportunities to become a master in a specific skill-set. I’ve touched on being a T-shaped Marketer in a previous blog post. The post alludes to the idea of mastery but the purpose of the article was to ensure that the message is that you still have a basic knowledge across several marketing disciplines. Holistically, this makes your core skill a lot stronger when you understand how it can be integrated across other disciplines.

These continuous distractions in the workplace are preventing us from being very good at anything.

After reading “The Shift” by Lynda Gratton, it dawned on me that our distractions at work (which is being accepted as the norm) is causing the tail of the “T” to not grow as it should, resulting in disastrous effects for our careers. In this post I want to bring to light the concern I (as well as Lynda) have around the lack of mastery creeping into digital and other industries. For the sake of this article, I’ll draw on digital marketing for my terminology. So what does it mean to become a master?

Serial mastery

the focus here is on detail, which describes the sort of career choices and competencies that are likely to be in the ascendant in the next two decades.


the focus here is on creating and crafting credentials, which consider some of the investments that will be necessary to ensure that you and those you care about become, and then stay, a member of the global talent pool.

If you can tick the above two boxes,you are well on your way to being really, really good. Not just good.

The rise of the generalist has been created by an increase in access to knowledge thanks to the web. As awesome as it is to have unprecedented access to the world’s knowledge base, it’s also becoming our achilles heel. We seem to sprint to the self acknowledgement that we are experts or gurus. In previous generations, it would’ve taken at least 20 years before someone would consider themselves an expert. Today, people seem quick to add the “expert” or “guru” tag next to their name after just four years of experience. It’s easy to be that smart guy at a party thanks to Wikipedia and Google. But how much detail of that subject do you really know? How much did you skim read? How much detailed knowledge have you missed out on…?

Lets take a simple thing called link building, if you know anything about SEO, you will know that a quality incoming link is the Holy Grail of SEO. However, with Google continuously moving the goal posts we need to know how to go after these links in 2015. An expert will tell you that a comprehensive content strategy will get you halfway there..

Arrghh… What’s that you say? I don’t have time to implement a content strategy… Does a content strategy just mean blogging? NO!

There is so much more that goes on behind the execution of a content marketing strategy i.e. the tools you use, website architecture, the right mix of UX, copy and imagery, internal linking, blog posts, PR outreach, competitor analysis, reporting, the list goes on… Hence, mastery is needed.

If the South African digital industry wants to compete on a global stage, we need to be focused on refining our skills. Continuously.

Imagine it’s the year 2025

Lets look into the future. Albeit, very fuzzy. What will our industry look like?

Our world will be interconnected like never before. Skills in Brazil, Kenya, India and China will be easily accessible through hologram meetings and collaborative document sharing.. i.e. Google docs on steroids. Language barriers won’t be a problem. For example someone in London listening to a work colleague speaking his mother tongue in China will receive an instant translation in English with just a one second delay. And vice versa. Everyday traffic jams force staff to work remotely, which means internet lines become even faster. Innovation for online collaboration improves but working in isolation becomes a societal dilemma… Who knows, in 2025 someone in Nairobi could be sitting in their lounge still wearing his pyjamas doing brain surgery on a patient in New York, all thanks to Robotics and super fast fibre optic lines… It’s possible.

It’s estimated that in 2020 40%of the US workforce will be freelancers. Source.

So what does that mean for us South Africans?

The irony is that we have serious skills shortage in the web industry but we also have roughly 50% youth unemployment rate. My guess is that this gap will widen if government doesn’t change the way we approach education… With a lack of skills in an industry it means that people will be job hopping (this already happens) for their next salary increase. Lack of focus (or care) at management level doesn’t allow time to invest in their staff so naturally staff don’t show any loyalty when they get an offer that is only R1000 more. Companies then wonder why they have a high staff turnover.

It’s proven that it takes a drastic increase in salary for someone to move if they feel that they are part of a collective vision within a company. Staff who are working towards a greater cause (or goal) are a lot more loyal than someone who doesn’t understand their employer’s vision.

If South African digital marketers don’t set themselves on a journey to become a master in the skill, they will most likely loose out on international competition. In 10 years time, we’ll no doubt be in a global village of competition so we need to be able to separate ourselves from the other developing countries.

The three positives for South Africans are that we are positioned in a favourable time zone to the first world economies of Europe and our written (and spoken) English is beyond good. The third is that with our weaker Rand it makes for an attractive outsourcing nation. We need to capitalise on this.

Suggested read: Remote (the same authors who wrote the bestseller - Rework)

Job hopping erodes mastery

Learning a company’s processes, client strategy and objectives takes time to grasp. A few months back I got chatting to a friend who is a business analyst for a multi-national corporate based in Cape Town. We got onto the topic of job hopping and the problems it causes for both the employer and the employee’s career path. He spoke about how the first year of an employee’s job is spent mostly learning the business processes.

The second year the employee implements what they’ve learnt from the previous year’s learnings.

In the third year they start formulating their own processes, which is an act of refinement… Ahh.. we are getting slightly closer to mastery… During these first few years of employment, the employer gets to ingrain the vision and culture of the company into their staff. If the employee leaves,it costs the company. Companies invest a lot of time and money getting staff fast tracked so they can quickly learn their systems and processes. Obviously the conundrum comes into play if senior management don’t invest in their staff and loyalty becomes questionable.

The complex world of digital industry staff deserves it’s own blog post but the point I’m making is that job hopping is not the way to build up mastery.

A few years back (and still today) it was believed to be a good career strategy to get exposed to many different job positions, I challenge that mindset – I don’t reckon it works for the mere fact that it shows that the person is easily distracted. When I look at CV’s that have 5 different jobs that haven’t gone the distance of 2 years, I quickly fast forward to the next CV.

So the problem with the low skills shortage we are experiencing means that there is less need to become a master at your skill.

I mentioned self-marketing as a key component to mastery. What does that mean in the digital industry? At it’s simplest level it means blogging. Open your thoughts and opinions to the public and be willing to take criticism. But don’t write regurgitated stuff (with no opinion) from another blogger or at least don’t let that be the end point. If you are starting out as a junior, rehashing other news is probably not the worst idea. It’s the easiest way to build up your confidence but don’t settle for this approach four years later. You wouldn’t have grown if you still had the same approach of rehashing someone else’s content.

Once you get to a place where you are confident enough to share advice, research, write how-tos, and insights; you will be known as a master of your skill by your peers or very close to becoming one. Challenge yourself.

What about in-house vs the agency online marketer?

An in-house online marketer will find it very difficult to write or talk about a case study because if their competitors got wind of a specific strategy that can also work for them, you will be fired (well, in South Africa you will get about five warnings before you get fired but you get my point..). However,someone working in a digital agency will be exposed to many different campaigns (some great and some not so great but all will teach you something). Someone working inside an agency will also have freedom to promote themselves alongside company news. This means free PR for the company, so your line manager will love it when you make the News24 or Memeburn home page.

By working in an environment with people more senior than you in your skill-set, you get to learn by observation. In an in-house environment, the likelihood of this happening is scarce.

I’m not saying you won’t ever become a master working in-house but it definitely becomes a lot more challenging. There are so many varying sentiments about mastery but this is my general opinion from what I’ve observed.

The concept of becoming a master craftsman

  When I think of achieving mastery, I look at the example of a medieval craftsman honing his skills over many years (sometimes spanning decades). The process of becoming a master craftsman was as follows:
An aspiring master would have to pass through the career chain from apprentice to journeyman before he could be elected to become a master craftsman (process was 10 to 15 years). He would then have to produce a sum of money and a masterpiece before he could actually join the guild. If the masterpiece was not accepted by the masters, he was not allowed to join the guild, possibly remaining a journeyman for the rest of his lifeSource.

The result was that the skilled craftsman’s marvellous objects remained perfect for many years and was admired for many generations after his death.

Perhaps the digital industry needs to consider a similar structure to ensure the quality of workmanship is maintained (obviously not as much time is needed as the advances in technology allow for faster learning)?

With the medieval analogies aside, the key to our career growth over the coming years will be to limit the workplace distractions and to be patient. As digital artisans, we’ll need to remain agile as the industry changes as well as continuously repeating the actions required to perfect our skill.

The bottom line is that our youth need to be patient and put time and effort into learning, life is long. The seeds we plant today may only bear fruit many years from now… But that’s ok.

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AB praises selfless skipper

2010-11-21 18:15

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