Learning Organization Academy

16 Oct

I want to describe a new professional development opportunity I’m helping develop. Because it is going to be hard work and fun for 25 or so lucky people, and because you might fairly yearn to participate.

It’s called (at the moment) the Learning Organization Academy; and it’s being organized by Colleen Wheeler of Wheaton College, Gina Siesing of Tufts University, Daniel Wilson of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero research institute, and yours truly. NERCOMP has generously agreed to provide the seed money for our first year.

The genesis was a lively and creative focus group session we held at the NERCOMP 2010 annual conference, where participants–mostly library and I.T. staff in education–quite vociferously demanded (to our mild surprise but to our glee) a program to help them add to their sometimes drab (they reported this) work more opportunities for learning and fun (for me there’s no distinction there, I should point out).

The result is the Learning Organization Academy, a novel program designed to support–meaningfully support–an individual or team as they conceive of, develop, and implement a project specifically designed to increase learning at work.

It works like this: around 25 individuals (whom we’ll begin recruiting shortly) will join us, bringing with them a goal or an inquiry question or an inspirational idea related to learning–an idea that is both personally and deeply compelling (that they be intrinsically motivated is key, because the work will be hard) and that promises a cultural benefit for the organization if developed into a project and implemented (which is what they’ll do).

Participants will attend a one week summer institute in July 2012, where they will get a decent grounding in the workplace learning research (and there is a lot of it out there, and it’s quite accessible, and also quite empowering and fun); be led through a series of creative games and interactive activities to help them to instantiate or explore the key themes in the literature; and spend time developing and articulating their projects with a variety of influential and creative thinkers hanging around right there to give them feedback. They’ll then work to implement that project over the subsequent year, with the support of a coach, who will meet with them (virtually mostly likely) regularly, helping to prompt them and remove obstacles in their path, and in addition with quarterly, 1-day, re-energizing workshops, where the entire cohort collectively meets, shares their lessons learned, and troubleshoots projects.

At the end of the year the projects and their results to that point will be written up and published for the world to see and use as it sees fit.  Why not be part of open education?

Some of the things that are neat about this process (for me):

  • Since the projects emerge from both personal and organizational need, there’s a chance for people to address things they really care about; and that is motivating, as is being encouraged in general to change the conditions of your environment–thinking you can’t change the world is the most depressing thing there is. Another name for this program might be “hack your work;”
  • Learning cultures are in the best position to thrive in an era of change, and they’re more rewarding for the individuals in them, if more challenging (in my opinion); but they are hard to create, and this inter-institutional, highly supported structure seems a good way to start to design them incrementally and collaboratively and wisely;
  • Re-inserting a little theory in our workplace is great on a lot of levels–it adds an intellectual fulfillment that work life sometimes lacks (sorry, but it’s true), it gives context to the work we do, and, in the case of my beloved academic support profession, it reconnects our library and I.T. organizations with the academic work we support but often don’t engage substantively;
  • We use a unique, “Neapolitan” content style in the program that probably should be patented, and that can be amazingly energizing–a 3-part combination of kinetic keynote speakers; game-like, hands-on interactive events; and work on personal projects. We think this makes our events more meaningful, engaging, and encourages better learning than traditional professional development structures. At the very least, I can fairly confidently claim in my enthusiasm that participants are unlikely to be bored, which is a claim a lot of learning environments would hesitate to make.
  • The Learning Organization Academy also attempts (as a few other fine programs do) to address with coaching and follow-up meetings one of the key problems with traditional professional development–that it’s hard to transfer what you learn back to your workplace.

For all the abstract references in this post to the newness of this project and to the wonders of “learning,” and for my breathless praise of fun and games and energy, it ends up (from my preliminary investigations) that most organizations, leaders thereof, and staff therein, are probably already thinking of projects that would qualify and benefit wonderfully from being supported by the Learning Organization Academy.

What do I mean?  Well, any project or idea that seeks a transformational or aspirational change in normal operations or communications or in general responsiveness to change or in opportunities for individual and team development is probably a perfect fit–so, things like these:

  • new forms of “horizon scanning” (knowing what strategic directions to explore before they explode to disrupt your life);
  • new ways of encouraging reflective learning “after” projects (sometimes known as “after battle assessments”);
  • new ways of collaborative planning, like bottom-up, consensus strategic planning (!);
  • ways of training people in structured feedback (so crucial to developing a learning culture, as in throwing out the old “How to Kill Ideas” methodology);
  • ways of developing ongoing “innovation laboratories” (or building in innovation or ensuring operations don’t consume all organizational resources–isn’t everyone thinking about this?);
  • ways of encouraging experiments and praising failure (a key element in learning organizations).

And so on. In short, many things most forward-looking people are probably already wishing they were doing or even actually getting around to doing are the kind of thing we hope to help them do. The point is that these transformational changes are not that easy, and the Learning Organization Academy gives your organization a leg-up; when the inevitable pushback comes from the existing culture, you’ve got an external coach, a cohort of peers, and a deep pool of research to back you up.

So there’s the idea, and it’s coming to a professional development organization near you (NERCOMP, I mean). Webpage, recruitment emails, brochures, town-hall conference calls, dog-and-pony shows at interested campuses, bumper stickers, etc., are on the way.

In the meantime, if you’re interested, feel free to let me know; we’ll be open to applications from just about any organizational context, I think, though we’ll likely privilege (probably by decreased tuition) non-profits, the education sector, and NERCOMP members.

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2 Responses to “Learning Organization Academy”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Learning Organization Academy » THATCamp New England 2011 - October 18, 2011

    [...] NERCOMP is helping sponsor an interesting new professional development opportunity that might appeal to DHers trying to instantiate their work into an academy that doesn’t yet know how important DH is.  It’s basically an intensive support structure for people developing projects that improve learning in their organizations; it is comprised of a 1-week intensive project-development workshop with training in workplace learning theory and a year-long scaffolding made of coaching support and quarterly gatherings of the cohort for refreshers and collaborative troubleshooting.  You might say “this sounds like something for a company or an IT organization or a library, but not for my academic department,” but I actually think academic departments and schools need to ask themselves how well they do as learning organizations (for those who aren’t students) and could benefit from an experiment or intervention or two.  I describe it more thoroughly here. [...]

  2. The Disruption Percentage « Theatrical Smoke - October 16, 2012

    [...] idea of the learning organization is basically the former–instead of thinking that we can achieve a stable state, to refer to [...]

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