This post is the second part of an excerpt from a talk Colleen Wheeler, Gina Siesing, and I gave at NERCOMP 2012. (See Part A for lots of context and links to professional development events, surveys, and road shows).
Top Ten Lessons of Learning Organization Research (continued)
5. Space and safety matter
Space plays a big role in learning. On the one hand, you need what Amy Edmondson calls “psychologically safe” places to learn: places you can be vulnerable, where it’s ok to be wrong as you work your way through challenging information, where the feedback is appropriate and not threatening. Only in such a space will you feel comfortable surfacing and retooling your guiding assumptions and processing all the wonderful points of tension between yourself and your environment.
But space can also as it were train you in how to interact with the world; in one influential school of thought, the Reggio Emilia model, space is known as the “Third Teacher.” On a simple level, clearly you will do better in an office with good lighting, no ear-splitting machinery whirling nearby, and a comfortable chair than you would do in a kind of smoke-filled, physically dangerous Dickensian sublime. We can go beyond that and point to the kind of activities an atelier-like, art studio might inspire as compared to the classic 1980s-era cubicle farm. In short, if the person designing the space expects you to basically write emails all day, you’ll get a chair and a fixed computer and not much else. If the designer isn’t sure what you’ll be doing, but is inspired by your potential, you’ll get freedom to mix and match various possible components of your work, and work in different phases, in different ways, with different tools, sometimes collaboratively, sometimes alone. The first, proscriptive design boxes you in to a way of thinking and being. The second one is a space that teaches you to be the author of your surroundings and reinforces your engagement in what you’ll do and how you do it.
4. Classroom learning theory and design apply to work, too
Many of us spend a lot of time (rightfully) understanding how people learn best in formal settings; what we seem to sometimes forget is that all the lessons about learning in classrooms can also apply to the workplace. Probably because basic laws of human learning are behind both. That is to say, if intrinsic motivation, active learning, experiential learning, and so forth, are important for adults in one setting, they probably are in other settings, too.
The supervisory relationship is a great example of one aspect of the workplace that is ripe for revision–just as the sage-on-the-sage has lately come under the scrutinizing eye of the progressive pedagogue. If extrinsic motivation, as Alfie Kohn has convincingly argued, effectively kills learning, what does it mean that in the workplace bosses generally tell their reports what to do, even unto the tiniest minutiae? If rewards and punishments don’t work (as Kohn also argues), what is left for the supervisor to actually do in those individual meetings required by the HR department? The same line of questioning may in part explain the surprising results of Google’s internal study on successful management, which found that staff wanted managers who were not subject experts (!), and who didn’t tell them what to do (!), but basically talked to them about themselves as people (!), and asked helpful questions (!), without the ever-present proscription (!).
3. Collaboration helps you learn more than cooperation
In a previous post I discuss at a little more length the distinction in the educational literature between collaborative and cooperative learning and what that means to the workplace. In short, we think this distinction is crucially relevant.
To summarize, collaboration is how people work together when they have to figure out during the work what the goals and roles are. Communication, feedback, adjustments, and learning are intense. It can only happen for relatively short periods, but it is nonetheless the necessary style of working together used during times of change or when new work teams come together; during collaboration you are building and rebuilding your assumptions about the world. It’s transformational.
Cooperation, on the other hand, is when everyone knows the goals and their roles, and interactions are less intense and more predictable. It’s used during periods of stability, when the nature of the work is relatively static; it reinforces existing assumptions about how the world works and so doesn’t tax the mind or the social dynamic. It reinforces and comforts. It’s transactional.
We think the workplace will need to increasingly encourage open collaboration if it is to constantly rethink itself. But we recognize much of work will remain cooperative, even in a learning organization; so what we expect is an increased sophistication in the workplace in thoughtfully adopting and supporting the right approach in the particular context.
2. Individual and team learning are linked
Have you ever experienced that common phenomenon where you go to a great external learning event of some kind, you feel yourself evolve new skills and a new outlook, you return to work ready and excited to be a different and better person, it all fizzles, and you’re dragged back down by the culture into the way things always were, just like Al Pacino in Godfather III? Or the reverse phenomenon, also common, where the team decides it wants to do something wonderful, but the individuals resist, effectively continuing in their moment-to-moment actions their routine behaviors, and nothing happens?
If, as we suggest above, individuals and teams operate according to hidden programs that are formed and exert control on a subconscious level, and if these programs essentially interlock when we’re at work, then this makes sense. You can try to change your program, but your colleagues and your team are invested in doing things the same old way, and part of that investment is in you being the same.
For this reason, we think the most effective learning organizations will find ways for teams and individuals to change simultaneously: for the team to serve as the safe place for all its members to work on their improvements, while at the same time, the improving individual members of the team work collectively on improving how they interact and perform as a unit. Easier for me to let you explore a different way of being if you’re letting me do the same, etc.
1. We need to invest in learning. And view learning as an ecosystem.
If you’ve made it this far in the blog post, you’ve probably sensed our main idea: that we should increasingly cultivate the learning in our organizations—individual and team—as we might a beautiful garden, the growth of weird worms on deep-sea sulfurous vents, or other complex ecosystems. As if it were a system as complex as our computer networks or library circulation systems. The Kellogg Foundation developed a famous “Logic Model:” a way to visually represent your organization as a kind of machine of production—we think we’ll soon be developing logical learning models or other similar attempts to represent visually the sophisticated learning and development in our organizations, looking for ways to connect the various little dots and dashes of learning here and there into a coordinated and healthy whole. The learning dashboard, if you will.
This will require us to think differently—to put the system of our learning up on the boardroom wall along with the other systems we manage. To dedicate people to the development and management of the learning, to set new kinds of metrics, to design and implement changes and assess their effect, and so forth, just as we currently use a variety of systems engineers and wiring staff and supervisors and external auditors to maintain and grow and improve our digital connections to each other.
Which means we need to be ready to invest. Schein notes that a learning culture requires that part of the culture look at the culture, which is to say that there needs to be at a macro-level a new kind of feedback loop that we currently do not have. Google is famous for allowing its staff one day a week to explore their own interests: such a 20% investment of the resources of the organization, we think, might just be about right.
If that seems like too much, compare the resources we give to the development of a student in formal education. Take one semester in college and add up the dedicated teachers, the carefully constructed curriculum that connects modularly with all sorts of other curricular pieces, the support staff working to help the teachers be more efficient, the carefully maintained physical spaces, the psychologically-safe learning group, the supporting course materials, the variety of advisory staff ready to help the individual learner, the multitudinous levels of feedback available to the student, the surrounding culture and expectations of learning, and so on. By comparison the average staff member might get say .01% of that–a 2-day conference per year and a book.
Which is not to say that we should retool work to be just like formal education. But we should expect the investment of our resources in work-based learning to begin to come closer to what society invests in formal learning. For the things we will need people to learn on the job in a continuously-adapting organization that is proactively engaged in an environment of constant and complex change will perhaps be even more difficult to learn than the things students generally learn in the classroom.