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Four Ways to Think About Workplace Learning

15 Jun

I’ve been talking lately to people who are charged with supporting learning in their business, as part of a new (to me) genre of professionals sometimes called Directors of Learning, or Chief Learning Officers. I’ve asked myself how I would go about designing support for learning in an organization, if I were in their shoes. Here are the results. I would think about four things: kinds of learning, location of learning, the activity continuum, and the zone of learning.

1. Kinds of Learning

Technical Learning

Of kinds of learning, I think of three: technical, adaptive, and systematic. Technical learning constitutes all those fixed skills, knowledges, procedures, and competencies in which what you are learning is relatively fixed and known. You have to learn a discrete set of information or to do things in the right way. It could be about facts, steps, or cultural norms. A particular equation. A software program. A way of participating in a discussion. The knowledge particular to your profession. It’s content you master. Stuff to add to the “container of you.”

Adaptive Learning

Adaptive learning, drawing on Ronald Heifetz, is different. It’s learning in which you yourself grow or change. The “container of you” gets bigger, better able to handle complex, ambiguous phenomena. In adaptive learning you discover and rewrite your assumptions about the world. Adaptive learning focuses more on the “you” part of you, or what’s there underlying the technical knowledge. Adaptive learning is more difficult, messy, and personal, and makes you acknowledge and address all sorts of anxieties, tensions, worries, and self-limitations. I would guess most workplaces are thinking about technical learning. But I would be impressed if many go beyond technical to embrace adaptive learning.


Just to show you how important adaptive learning is, I note that innovation is usually adaptive learning. That is, we’re not hardwired to innovate, and it’s not a technical skill (though it has some technical components); to be able to innovate, we have to change the way we see the world to allow it to be an ok, and not deathly-scary task: we have to learn to be ok with taking risks, failing, ideating like crazy, restraining evaluation, etc.

Systematic Learning

Systematic learning is when you attempt to understand things at a systems-level: as complex and recurring processes, like ecosystems or steam engines. On one level, just trying to see what is going on in your workplace as combination of systems–financial systems; systems of time and investment of time; systems of feelings, emotions, trust, or morale; decision-making systems; environmental systems–is already using systematic learning. The even more interesting application, though, is to the learning processes themselves. This is where you understand individual and collective learning (and their interaction with performance) as interlocking ecosystems, each with natural laws, growth, change, inputs, outputs and so on. This is probably the ultimate goal of any learning officer in a company: to have the learning systems of the company be as visible and as well attended to as well as are, say, finances.


Under systematic learning, I want to mention learning assessments, or the ways to know what is being learned. Without them you can’t “see” how you’re doing, so that you can make adjustments. If you can’t see and make adjustments, you don’t have a system that you can manage or understand. (It’s there but you have not found it yet).

2. Location of Learning

Location has two values or poles: Engaged and Disengaged.

Disengaged and Engaged Learning

Disengaged learning is learning outside of the context in which it is meant to be applied. Engaged is learning in the context. For example, you can read Ted Williams’ book about hitting a baseball, you can get someone to throw you a ball so that you can take a few swings, and you can play in a real game. Those are three steps along the path from disengaged learning to engaged learning.

The traditional view of learning is that it is disengaged. And much is. But engaged learning can be some of the most effective. If you cast your mind back over your life of learning, and you dig out one or two examples of where you feel you learned the most or the best, the chances are they will favor the engaged end of the spectrum. Engaged learning can take a lot of forms: apprenticeships, internships, mentoring, debriefs, just-in-time learning, difficult conversations, “gamified” work.

Doing and Learning

You may think that engaged learning just sounds like work, or like “doing.” Well it is. It’s a false dichotomy to think that learning isn’t doing. You have to do to learn. Yet there are also ways you can “do” that aren’t requiring much learning, where you’re essentially repeating things you mastered long ago. In my opinion, as an individual and an organization, you want your “doing” to have as much learning in it as you can. If you’re not learning a lot in the doing, that particular doing is probably ripe for automation.

3. Activity Continuum

Your learning will fall somewhere on a particular continuum I call the activity continuum. At the left end of the continuum is a kind of traditional, reductive, linear, conduit way of thinking about learning. On this end of the continuum we see learning as a kind of passive thing: we are transferring fixed discrete “things” to the learner. At the other end it’s active: the learner is understood to be doing or reflecting or making-meaning or becoming in some new, meaningful way. The poles can be seen to cohere across technical, adaptive, and systematic learning.

In the realm of technical learning, at the left pole, you will have a kind of simple, old-school lecture, or a handout. At the right pole you will have much more engagement, and probably less traditional content, more meta-cognitive thought going on, and more game-like or real-world structure. You can read a book about how to play Worlds of Warcraft or you can work through the tutorial. The tutorial falls towards the right pole. Similarly, in adaptive learning, you can learn about yourself, or you can actually work on your own behavior change. My favorite adaptive learning method, Immunity to Change, famously includes both poles. Also, systems can be understood to fall towards the passive or the active side of the continuum. There can be systems that are reductive and conduit-like, like the basic use of a learning management system (as a document repository). And systems that are dynamically changing, like something in a virtuous cycle of improvement, such as bamboo. The bamboo plant gets sun and nutrients and grows; the larger plant gets more sun and nutrients and grows more.  Eventually it’s a forest, an ecosystem.

I recommend inching towards the right pole wherever you can, but a few instances of left-pole thinking are ok. The problem is that our default is overwhelmingly left-pole, and that is an issue. (Why do we favor passive learning? Probably because it’s easier for the teacher . . . but I digress).

4. Zone of Learning

Thinking about the “zone” of learning is inspired by Vygotsky’s idea that there is a space, like a sweet spot, where you will learn best–a particular growth edge that, if you find it, will be simultaneously most compelling for you, encourage your best learning, and give you the most positive feedback, resulting in you wanting to learn even more.

This idea argues for designing learning that is tailored as much as possible to where the learner is. It requires we be able to assess where people are, and be able to adjust the learning content and experience to fit their needs. Of course the challenge in the workplace is that we will be unlikely to have the kind of master teachers, curricular experts, learning designers, and psychologists who can really make this kind of thoughtful analysis and then design learning activities to it. There are new sorts of automated assessments that can begin to help us, so some hope exists that we’ll be able to do a little bit along these lines soon. And, in any event, it is still worth asking, for any learner, what is the appropriate “zone” for their learning? If we tend towards one-size-fits-all (which is often the case), does this work for everyone? Are there basic things we can do to start to accommodate differences? What are the differences?

Another way to come at this challenge is to trust the learner. Oftentimes a self-aware learner knows best what they should be studying next. I give a personal example: I am an intermediate trombone player. I am actually more interested at this point in hearing people just a step or two ahead of me play, than I am in hearing virtuoso performers, as much as I like the latter. Why? Because the top edge of my learning zone at the moment is advanced intermediate, not virtuosity. I will learn better, grow more, and have more positive feedback with the more relevant goal.

Talking about the Rules

24 Apr

I was reflecting on a social media post by a successful IT leader the other day; it was a list of his rules to live and work by. He had talked about them enough over the course of his career that people had asked him to write them down. (As an aside, I’ve found other cases of people asking leaders to codify their life instructions; it seems to be a fairly common event.)

These particular guidelines were very good; the work of a thoughtful, caring, dedicated colleague and leader. Things anyone wise would take to heart. My own reaction centers not on what the guidelines said but on the way the guidelines came about. Upon their genesis, which seems arbitrary.

In any group of humans working together a set of rules develops over time that define who we are and what we do. How we talk to each other, who gets more authority, what skills are valued, what behaviors are off-limits, etc. You might say these rules exist on a kind of consciousness continuum. Some are visible: talked about, written down, and even posted on a wall, like an office sign that says “no smoking.” But most rules are invisible. We don’t talk about them much, nor do we write them down, and they may not even be thought about consciously. These hidden rules are perhaps the more powerful and meaningful rules, and they are not always pretty. They might contradict more visible rules, or otherwise be something you aren’t particularly proud to say out loud. For example, one deeper rule might be “we actually do smoke; we just do it when the boss is out, and we open the windows and turn on the fan to hide the fact.”

One of my interests has long been to help make these deeper rules visible, discussable, and changeable. To give people the conscious tools to acknowledge and adjust (if they wish) their workplace culture, improve their interpersonal relations, even revise their own deeply personal decision-making.

That’s why the IT leader’s list caught my eye. His list is his way of saying “these are the rules I think we should follow” or “let’s change the rules to these.” This move is good in a lot of ways: our leader is perceptive enough to sense what is going on around him; he is reflective and imaginative enough to think about how things ought to be; he sees the world as a place that can be improved (plastic in the original sense, of “moldable”); he thinks he and his colleagues have the power to make changes; his proposed rules are in the service of improving the lives of others; by making a list, he shows that he knows there are rules; etc. All good.

And what would be better still, although admittedly harder, would be to engage the other members of the organization in the creation of such a set of rules. To invite them into a space where they could contribute in the perception, acknowledgement, and adjustment of the way they worked together. If one person on their own has good ideas about how to fix things, wouldn’t more people have better ideas still? If you could get your colleagues productively engaged, a lot of benefits would accrue, among them two key ones: you might get their buy-in to helping you enact the new rules thereafter, and you might empower them to keep on talking about and improving cultural rules forever. Which is probably the ultimate goal: to leave behind a culture that has the tools to continually improve itself.

Getting more people involved is easier said than done, I admit. Why? Well, one of the most important rules is like the movie Fight Club: we don’t talk about the rules. Our identities and social status are wrapped up in them as they are. If we mess with the rules, it’s not clear what will happen. If I am to start being honest about what needs to improve, for example, things might come up that I don’t want to change. Maybe I will be asked to get better, and maybe I won’t be able to! Very scary. Power dynamics also have a rule-reinforcing effect: we are, in general, famously reluctant to tell our supervisors what we are really thinking and feeling, and vice versa. Easy to get a group of reports to talk candidly about the rules of their relationship with their boss if she is not in the room. Harder to get to the same level of honesty with her there. But a level of semi-radical openness is what you need to surface and rewrite the rules.

The IT leader might be the only person in his organization who can safely produce a list of rules as he did. The worst case scenario for him is that his staff may politely ignore his list. There is rather more risk for a person at a lower organizational level to spontaneously propose changes like these.

Having said all this, it’s not too late for this leader’s list. You could use it, once made, to open up a conversation, even if you hadn’t involved people theretofore. It could itself be the entry into engagement; if you could get interested staff in a room, put them at ease, and build some trust, you might ask them what they felt about the IT leader’s guidelines. Which resonated with them, which didn’t, etc. You might get them to articulate one or two rules they felt were important in their own lives and work. You might get them to think about what role unspoken rules play in their organization. And so you might have the start of an effective rule-changing conversation that could both help you improve things in the short term and build the skills in the staff to continue improving things in perpetuity.


21 Jun

Abraham Maslow studied self-actualized people–highly evolved people, you might say, advanced in their thinking, sophisticated in their humanity, expressive, expansive, generous, loving, confident, healthy, gifted, alert–and what made them special. In particular he focused on the way they perceived.

He thought they knew things in a different way, which he called B-Cognition, short for Being-Cognition. In B-Cognition, the individual perceives the object as if the individual were part of the object. A loving, universalizing, interrelated way of knowing. Knowing the object so well that you discover in it yourself, or links to yourself, and through those links, you intuit more links–to everything.

A way of looking or knowing that encompasses the object’s existence and your own existence and so is also a kind of being, hence the name. A way of knowing that radiates love, joy, contentedness, acceptance, appreciation, forgiveness to those in contact with the individual.

The great people manage to exist in B-Cognition; the rest of us get in there now and then: in the process of artistic creation, listening to music, in meditation or in mindful moments, walking in the woods, in a moment of “flow,” or generally, in moments of being teased out of routine cares by things.

Maslow distinguishes B-Cognition from D-Cognition, which we all use all the time, to my everlasting chagrin. This is Deficit-Cognition, perceiving in a way that separates the looker from the looked-at. Judging, categorizing, assigning relative value, assessing relevance, bracketing off, determining usefulness or beauty, investigating logical truth, etc.

D-Cognition is the lens through which we see each other and the world: “To what extent is this thing useful to me?” we are asking at some level every time we perceive anything. Or perhaps the question we ask ourselves has another form, too, coming from a position of anxiety: “Will this thing impede or injure me? Expose a vulnerability?”

If you pay attention to the flicker of thought in your mind and in the faces of others as you meet them in the street or in the office (imagine doing this!), you’ll see D-Cognition at work. Instantaneous judgements and rankings and assessments and associated thoughts and anxieties well up with every glance, no matter how fleeting.

I think D-Cognition is basically the only perceptory apparatus of the workplace, which is logical, I suppose, because the prevailing idea at work is that we are practical, efficient, and attuned to the bottom line, and we need to judge, judge, judge, judge. Or be judged. 

In aesthetic and academic circles I think there might be a little more room for B-Cognition. A scholar writing about Wordsworth, for instance (I picked him on purpose!), I hope, is (or was at some point) motivated by a B-Cognition-like experience of (or with) the text. Of course she then writes about it and has to defend her writing against other scholars and other interpretations and in creeps D-Cognition.

Maslow’s study of perception connects with other similarly-oriented ways of thinking. My personal saint and philosopher, Henri Bergson, always sought “pure perception,” for instance, which was to be achieved by intuition, a penetrative, organic, knowing-from-within, like B-Cognition.  I remember writing in my Master’s thesis decades back about the experience of using intuition on a text and hypothesizing that at some point down in the trenches of that perception you were seeing yourself or seeing an interplay between yourself and the text that changed both. Some kind of quantum effect.

B-Cognition is also a good way to describe the goal of mindfulness and meditation, very popular now (and deservedly so) in our frazzled, overloaded, hyper-material, people-argue-with-each-other-on-TV, tabloid-y culture.  These activities, coming out of the Buddhist tradition, focus your attention to your inner experience of life in the moment; and one of the key points, as you come to know yourself, is to come to know yourself as existing in a kind of suspension of selves, one big oneness. Mindfulness chips away at the unhealthy personal and interpersonal effects of D-Cognition and aims to get you to the place where you can radiate in all directions the kind of contentedness and love that Maslow’s modern Buddhas did.

B-Cognition and mindfulness also align with Constructive Developmental Psychology, which I’ve mentioned a few times, and in particular with the fabulous 5th stage of Robert Kegan’s hierarchy of epistemological sophistication.  This is the stage where your interest in being a “self” fades and you begin to take very seriously other selves and relations between selves. You laugh happily at your own fallibilities, which you would never do if you were trying to keep your you-ness intact.  And of course they align with all those wonderful, inscrutable, contradictory, healing messages from thinkers and artists working along the same lines. Walt Whitman, of course. Maybe something in the Cubists. Etc.

I like the path Maslow took — starting with a psychological investigation more or less according to the way of Western science (although feeling perhaps more like archaeology than psychology?), he ended up confirming what he was seeing by drawing similar connections to thought in non-western-scientific containers: religion, philosophy, aesthetics, literature.

One last point that I think is key. In B-Cognition, we have the data of D-Cognition, plus much more. It is not that we suddenly lose our ability to discern or to think; B is not intellectually inferior to D. Those D-data are all there, but contextualized, re-membered, put back together, held together with contradictory information, resolved, understood in a different way by an epistemology at a higher order of complexity. A small piece replaced in a big puzzle.

For myself I’m about getting more B-Cognition to the people. At work, in life. On a personal level, on a local level, on a national level. B-Cognition of others, and maybe more importantly, of themselves. Appreciation of B-Cognition. Restitution of wholeness and relatedness in the deconstructed and compartmentalized lives of people.

Whither Higher Education? 16 Ideas.

1 May

Whither higher education in the global, digital, flat world of today and tomorrow? It’s the cocktail party conversation topic du jour. My pick of 16 thoughts on the subject:

  1. We’ll Pay to Be Members: Education will be seen as something you pay for regularly, before and after you draw on it, like life insurance or a membership to a benevolent society or tithes to a church; although there won’t be an “after”–in the future we’ll never stop learning;
  2. Disaggregated Learning Bits: The “feel” of participating in higher education will be disaggregated, with much more involvement of crowd-sourced-like components and entrepreneurial thinking (and perhaps funding), in which people in all walks of life will play equal parts (as in Jim Groom’s “proto-MOOC” which is both in and outside of a university);
  3. Control to the Students: Students will have a greater role in shaping and selecting the components of their education; course catalogs will take on the dynamic feel of stock markets or some other wide-scale selection and value-confirming interface; students will be allowed to drop and add components as they feel they should; students will write components that other students use; students may even sometimes teach teachers; and that’s OK because of number 4, below;
  4. More Sophisticated Learners: Students will be much more sophisticated about how learning works and more aware of their own learning (we’ll encourage this with “how to learn” structures of all kinds), so they’ll be much more thoughtful in the selection and creation of their educational components, more conscious of whether they’re learning or not, and much more demanding; they’ll move away quickly from things they don’t like; also they’ll be of every age and culture and life experience;
  5. End of Bankers Hours: Hours of synchronous instruction, where it remains, will spread across the clock and will include times 16 – 32 year olds are mentally active (midnight to 4 am) as well as times the rest of us are; the work day for staff and faculty will be replaced by widely distributed work-chunks popping up throughout the calendar and clock;
  6. Faculty and Staff Will Phone It In: Faculty and staff will increasingly work from home and spend minimal time on campus, and that’s good, because we’ll be able to draw on a greater variety of people, and have access to wider skills, and people will be able to live where they want (like among beautiful grasslands) and still work for schools elsewhere (like in the city); where I talk about the end of the four-year student residency below, I also mean the end of the life-long residency for many faculty and staff;
  7. Work and Learning will be Similar: It will be less easy to distinguish education from work and vice-versa (and that’s good, in that we’re retraining the entire workforce to be effective in the digital, flat, global age, even as we’re training students to be similarly effective); and there’s a lot both work and formal learning can learn from each other; and people will be shifting in between each mode constantly;
  8. On-sites are Brief and Intense: Residential experiences will only happen at key points–bookends, or for particular parts of a sequence, but won’t be constant throughout the learning cycle, which will let us move many more people through the campus, as through a hotel or a resort and give more access to a campus experience to more people; it’s the end of the four-year residency. But don’t worry: you can still get that community feeling from brief stints: remember summer camp?;
  9. It’s About the Culture: More emphasis will be placed on creating and assessing the “culture” that supports and surrounds learning (this will complement our focus heretofore–on learning as a thing that happens in the head of the student); this means more investment in (and assessment of) faculty and staff learning and more attention to community-enriching things like faculty-student interaction studies or assessments of workplace dynamics; we’ll consciously try to craft a “learning organization” (or Argyris “Model 2”) culture in our schools and workplaces;
  10. Roles Will Be Fluid: There will be less differentiation between what have been seen as fixed roles: most staff will have some greater hand in instruction; students will increasingly teach each other (through tutoring, etc); and faculty may even play student-like roles more happily; instruction will be seen as a collaborative partnership of multiple people;
  11. Massive Retraining Will be the Norm: We’ll be constantly ready to retrain all staff and faculty at a moment’s notice in the various new processes and forms dictated by shifting market conditions and incessant innovation;
  12. We’ll Cultivate Ideas: We’ll see our own internal creativity and ideas as perhaps the key component of long-term institutional success and we’ll build systems and cultures to support, generate, and encourage ideas, the testing of new models, entrepreneurial thinking, innovation laboratories, etc.;
  13. We’ll Share with Other Schools: We always said we would, but now we really will–collaborate with other schools. In shared infrastructure (LMS, Information Systems, shared skill positions, shared risky innovation environments) and in shared academics (you offer French and we’ll offer Greek), but we’ll try to keep a wrapper of core institutional identity around the things we offer and do;
  14. Feelings Will Guide Us: We’ll describe a certain kind of institutional “feeling” that should exist in the learning that happens under our auspices, and this will be the thing that we’ll use to vet new structures and courses, which are likely to be formally radical;
  15. We’ll Analyze Stuff: We’ll make much more use of Learning Analytics and Corpus Linguistics sorts of real-time analyses and dashboards to better understand (in meaningful ways) how our students learn and to adjust our pedagogy in response (and we’ll share these analyses with the students themselves);
  16. We’ll Archive Everything: We’ll invest significantly in the infrastructure that archives and retains (and makes analyzable) the intellectual record of the institution–and we’ll interpret this “record” broadly, to include conversations, written work, emails, course syllabi.

Pieces of an Ecology of Workplace Learning

9 Apr

Lately I’ve been saying that you should cultivate learning in your organization as you might manage an ecological resource, like a forest, or any other complex system of high priority (like your computer network or your budget). As if learning were a “cognitive enterprise infrastructure” or worked like a kind of water cycle. But how would you do that, and what would it be like, and how would it be different than what you do when you think of your workplace as a kind of machine that consistently produces material stuff? I am not totally sure, but here I take a guess at nine possible pieces of an ecology of workplace learning.

  1. Cultivate Development, Rather Than Manage Performance. The point is not to manage people’s performances, but rather to get them to develop as much as they can, on the assumption that more highly evolved people do better things. The annual performance review that tracks behaviors against rather limited metrics and has a kind of binary output (wrong or OK) here evolves into something more like a coaching relationship in an experiential context: growth is the focus, not proscription. You look for activities that are motivating to the individual, that are a bit out of their comfort zone, yes, and you expect to support them in iterative cycles of trying things out, reflecting, adapting, and trying them out again. And you might add a variety of unheard-of supports and activities to help people think and reflect and be aware of themselves in a variety of dimensions, drawing on things from personality styles assessments to mentoring relationships to counseling-like activities, such as item 2, below. The trick is that these things, that we kinda do now in a knee-jerk way, away from work, would be more like the work.
  2. Support Cognitive Development. According to the work of Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey (whom I talk about a lot), we evolve through a series of increasingly sophisticated ways of seeing ourselves and the world around us. That is, we can so develop, if given the right environment. And with this increased epistemological sophistication comes a better ability to deal with and thrive in complex environments. One such complex environment is the increasingly global, flat, multi-cultural, resource-starved, post-ideological, environmentally-challenged, a-traditional, scary world of today. To help people be effective in this kind of world requires activities that help us know differently; Kegan and Lahey’s Immunity to Change coaching process is one such structure. Having done it myself, I am amazed by its ability to make you reinvent the way you think about yourself and the world in which you engage; I fairly salivate to try it with a team of colleagues in a workplace. The downside? It’s an intensive, six-month process of bi-weekly meetings, invoking much deep personal questioning; that’s a huge investment. But in an ecology of workplace learning, invest in people is what you do: no rain means no rivers means no seas means no evaporation means no rain, etc.
  3. Assess Development in New Ways. In Higher Education we try to assess student learning, and it’s a challenge. But we don’t even try to assess faculty and staff learning; and the generic workplace doesn’t generally assess staff learning, either. But we should.  To promote development over production, we have see where this development is happening, individually and in teams. Of course it gets tricky: it’s easy to see your behaviors, but how do you see what’s going on behind the behaviors? Fortunately there are new kinds of tools that have potential in this regard: things like the Developmental Testing Service’s reflective judgment assessments, such as their test of managerial decision-making, which asks you to analyze complex, asymmetrical workplace problems, assesses you according to a complex scale of cognitive development rooted in Kurt Fischer’s work, and gives you (you yourself, the test taker!) rich feedback about your strengths and ways in which you can improve, data which feeds right back into the coaching relationship I mention above.
  4. Represent the Learning Ecosystem. If you’re going to try to manage an ecosystem, you need some kind of a representation of it. As the water cycle has its famous circular chart with arrows and the budget has its classic representations in profit/loss statements and balance sheets, so does the learning system have something. I don’t know what it will look like, exactly; but I imagine it will be something like the famous Kellogg Logic Model, which the well-known foundation suggests you use to understand your various high-stakes interventions, and which helps you see programmatic inputs, outputs, assessments, changes. With a key difference: the effect of your ecology isn’t an output external to you, it’s an evolution of your ecology. So a learning logic model would show as its characteristic feature a looping back upon its constantly changing self.
  5. Analyze How We Work; Analyze Our Culture. Part of learning is seeing yourself learn. That may be the single biggest difference between a learning organization and a producing organization: the learning organization sees itself and not just the things it makes. We will need to learn to pay attention not just to the products of our culture but to our culture, not just to the deliverable of the project, but to the way we work together on the project. For that a lot of tools exist already, like various kinds of post-activity group reflection encouraged in psychologically safe spaces, that let anyone share their experiences along the way. But new tools will help: the same sort of analytics thinking that has been transforming everything around us can help transform how we work together: social and network analyses to show us how we engage, corpus-linguistics analyses on the big data of our communications and cultural artifacts; these will help us, too, to see the patterns that make up our togetherness.
  6. Assign Staff to Cultivate Learning. Of course you can’t really have a garden without a gardener. And all the network analysis and group reflection exercises you might want to use won’t be that helpful unless it’s somebody’s job to watch learning in the organization at a meta level: to gather relevant data, assess its meaning, and help the group understand where it’s going. The teacher, if you will, of the organization. This would be a new thing: we’re used to thinking of Chief Information Officers, Chief Information Security Officers, Chief Executive Officers: this would be a Chief Learning Officer. Although of course it needs to be more than one person. And of course everyone has to be involved. But still the CLO might help organize it all. How much of your people resources should you put into learning, CLO and everything else thrown in? I propose 20% as a start. But I suspect it should be more, maybe up to 50%. Maybe 63%.
  7. Find New Ways to Gather and Share Ideas. Which Means Liking Them. One of the most important things in your organization are the ideas in people’s minds. The business world is just beginning to learn that to be relentlessly innovative, they have to gather and tend ideas in new ways, because ideas are the seed of innovation, be these ideas from their staff, their customers, their partners, their competitors. (See my last post for more on this). Part of this idea-tending requires a real cultural change–towards the acceptance and collective cultivation of ideas–and away from the general distrust of all things new that naturally grows up in an organization designed to perform consistently. Let me say that again: we will have to learn to like each other’s ideas.  And treat them, as it were, like a community resource, like, as it were, children. Because without them growing and maturing, we’ll fail. Businesses are starting to do this by building open, inclusive, idea-participation systems called Ideation Engines or Idea Stock Markets that aim to make the ideas in the group transparent and collectively developed. But I suspect you can go a long way without a particularly unique tool (a shared spreadsheet might work as well).
  8. Create Loops and Groups. In my perhaps over-simplified way of thinking, learning comes down to loops (in that feedback and reflection are crucial) and groups (in that learning is social; and in that your co-learners are as important for your learning as your own mind). So I think much of the key work of the Chief Learning Officer and her team will boil down to finding or building, and supporting, new sorts of groups in which people are desirous of learning together, and in adding “loops” to existing processes, to work reflection into the fabric of the organization.
  9. Do Some Old-School Ethnography. I am continually amazed by the complexity and mystery of people and of organizations. And by the fact that all you need to do to begin seeing and unravelling (or ravelling) the mystery is to observe people and ask questions (of course taking notes and writing down the answers). This is the way anthropologists settled on coming to know things as complex and mysterious as entire alien (to them) cultures. Libraries and IT departments have recently begun seeing that ethnography helps them understand the mysterious complexities of cultures alien to them, too (their customers). And it will work for you. On a certain level you can see an ethnographically-inclined research project as a kind of mirror to the people (if its results are shared with the people it studies), a loop at a high level, that both honors people and lets them see what’s going on. I think a lot about the emphasis in the popular Reggio Emilia model on the artful documentation of what the learners are doing; an ethnographic approach to your own organization is like that.

Top Ten Lessons of Learning Organization Research (Part B)

16 Mar

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.

Top Ten Lessons of Learning Organization Research (Part A)

15 Mar

Colleen Wheeler, Gina Siesing, and I presented the “Top Ten Lessons of Learning Organization Research” this week at NERCOMP 2012; an excerpt of our presentation begins below.

If you agree with us that the time has come to cultivate learning in our organizations in a systematic, holistic way, as a kind of cognitive enterprise infrastructure—you may be interested in some other opportunities:

  • The Learning Organization Academy (LOA). We have been researching organizational learning as we build out NERCOMP’s new, intensive professional development program, designed to support you as you design and implement projects to improve learning in your organization. LOA premieres this July in Wellesley, MA, at preposterously low cost to you: if you’re interested, the enrollment pages will be opened on the NERCOMP site any moment now.
  • The Workplace Learning Survey: You may also like to take our provocative, associated Workplace Learning Survey; results of this survey will be reported on in the near future, stay tuned!
  • The Workplace Learning Road Show. For those who want to start to apply the lessons of workplace learning immediately, Collen, Gina, and I will come to your workplace and conduct a half or whole-day program with you and your colleagues that includes an introduction to the Organizational Learning literature, your own results on the Workplace Learning Survey, focused sessions on understanding your own culture and targeting areas of improvement, and sessions on surfacing individual and team-based belief systems. Write to me if this sounds fun.

Top Ten Lessons of Organizational Learning Research

10. Learning is key during times of change, yet organizations don’t learn well.

Everyone agrees that during times of change, the way to stay relevant is to learn, adapt, evolve. And we more or less have a sense of what it takes to do this—to significantly change our organization and its performance—it’s a big deal, yes, a three-year process, emotional, etc., but it can be done. That’s for changing once, though: retooling the production line to produce a new model, then just producing that model for a while.

The trick is that we’re now in an environment of constant change, so we need to forget the idea of alternating between periods of change and stability and design our organizations to be in a constant state of learning, of intentional, self-directed learning, and not just waiting for the world to intermittently force us to learn. It’s about managing a self-renewing learning ecosystem, not a factory.  This kind of always-learning organization is a higher order of learning, a much more complex structure, involving sophisticated management that we don’t really know how to do.

Complicating the problem is that we’re not particularly good at even the old change-once model of institutional learning. People by default come to act in organizations according to Argyris’ “Model 1:” they protect themselves from vulnerability, defend their teams from external destabilization, they don’t share, and they don’t trust. Which all means they don’t learn well.

9. People develop

We used to think you stopped learning at around age 21, and that after that point (when formal education generally stopped, too), you pretty much just coasted. This idea has fallen from favor; recent leaps in brain science let us see that the brain is constantly linking neurons to neurons right up to the end; Robert Kegan’s research also shows that adults can grow in cognitive sophistication over their lifetimes, changing the way they see the world in deep, meaningful ways, becoming increasingly able to deal with complexity and ambiguity. Which is good, because we’re talking about the need to teach ourselves how to grow and manage sophisticated learning ecosystems.

The catch here is that many of our behaviors and cultural structures still assume you don’t really develop. Things that focus on changing behavior rather than mindset or belief system (like performance reviews or New Year’s resolutions) are an example: they assume you can consciously decide your way through life, while the truth is that to really learn you often need to grow your consciousness itself. Another example is the cookie-cutter way we tend to understand each other and our organizations: more as changeless and rigid caricatures and less as subtle ontological and epistemological structures in constant state of flux and growth. Don’t we often identify a job and then look around for who can do it? In a learning organization we’d probably do something more like identify a job and ask what we need to do to help someone to grow into the ability to do it.

Carole Dweck’s work is telling. Her research reveals that if you think of yourself as “fixed,” say, as in “good” at something, you will avoid situations that challenge you, because you fear you’ll discover that you are not good. However, if you don’t worry about whether or not you’re good, but you focus on getting better, and if continuous improvement is your identity, you’ll crave any situation, especially the challenging ones, that can help you improve. Succeeding at getting better is of course better than failing at remaining good.

Even an institution built on improving people sometimes misses the point. Take the university. Here we dump enormous resources into the development of students, but nothing (relatively) goes to develop the staff or faculty.  But in an ecosystem every part influences every other part—investments in faculty and staff will help create a virtuous circle that lifts everyone.

8. People learn with loops and groups

Two very basic elements of learning can be summarized as “loops” and “groups.”

By loops we mean feedback loops. The basic learning cycle made famous by Kolb involves some planning, some action, some reflection, and then it starts over; this little sequence basically repeats itself in learning at a myriad of levels microcosmic and macrocosmic, in individual learning, and in team learning.

By groups we mean groups of people. Learning is a social happening (whether we think we’re alone or not). On the theoretical level Vygotsky’s famous Zone of Proximal Development sees in the social context the maximum growth potential of the individual. On the mundane it makes sense, too–clearly you can protect the vulnerability of learners and foster great conversations (important in forming loops!) when a small group of like-minded people are learning together.

An organization thinking about how it can improve its learning will thus likely spend a lot of time looking for places it can create feedback loops and add reflection to the ubiquitous planning and action cycles in the workplace. And when it’s not thinking about loops, the learning organization will be looking at its teams, how they function, how learning happens in them, and thinking about creating new learning teams or reinforcing existing teams.

7. Learning makes you vulnerable

One of the difficulties of learning in the workplace is that (as we saw above) we learn fast not to be vulnerable in the workplace.  But learning requires you to be vulnerable. On a basic level in any cognitive domain you have to be a beginner before you can be an expert: yet the workplace is obsessed with expertise and the appearance of expertise—to be thought of as less than expert, or incompetent, is perhaps the worst thing that can happen to you.

The problem is compounded for a team learning to do something new—in what we call the “double incompetency” problem, if you’re shifting resources from the old thing to the new thing as you ramp up to produce the new behaviors, there will be a point where you are insufficiently doing the old and not yet expert at the new. You’ll be liable to be called incompetent in both areas. From a traditional production perspective you should be fired.

But from the learning perspective the incompetence is required, and not welcoming that incompetence would be more or less immoral. So a learning organization will have to deal with this tension—protect the learners by retooling their expectations and the environment’s expectations, etc. And a learning organization that is in continuous dynamic development will have to learn how to also be in continuous dynamic insufficiency.

6. Learning makes the unconscious conscious

The reason we hinted above that structures that expect you to change your behavior by willpower don’t work is that we all have deep belief systems—both on an individual and social level—that govern those behaviors.  And if we want to behave differently (that is, if we want to learn), we have to adjust those belief systems.  This is the thinking behind Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s work, and it emerges in Schein and Argyris as well.

You can change these belief systems, fortunately, and that is indeed the way we evolve through life: but to change them you need to “surface” them. You need to “see” the frame through which you saw the world, and in so doing you can make a new frame capable of handling more complex information.  It requires a king of penetrating self-examination and honesty in conversation that we don’t normally see in the workplace, though. Kegan and Lahey evolved a process, “Immunity to Change” that can guide you and your team in this journey; for Schein, protected conversations in safe “islands” are required to get at these deep beliefs. In either case looking for places you have conflict with the expectations of others is not a bad starting place, and fortunately, that sort of conflict is rife in work, where all our assumptions are basically thrown together and jostled about daily.

(continued in Part B)