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B-Cognition

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)

About the GRE

9 Jan

I took the GRE in November last.  It had been 20 plus years since I endured a high stakes, standardized test. My reflections.

To begin with, the GRE is stressful. Going in the testing room is something like entering the Green Zone in Baghdad. You’re signed in and out, you have your picture taken, you’re scanned for electronic devices, and you’re monitored during the exam. You repeat the process to go to the restroom. Also you sit in a grey cubicle in front of a computer for 4+ hours. No food. No music. Stress hormones floating in the air.

Even if the environment itself weren’t stressful, the GRE would be stressful for social reasons. Why? Because you have to do well on it to go to graduate school, get an advanced degree, get to do the thing you’ve pinned your hopes and dreams on, retroactively make your parents’ lives purposeful, etc. Images of your mom, neighbors, people you went to church or shul with loom up in front of you in the grey booth, threatening to return with disappointed expressions if you fail, etc.

Registering for the test is also rather Kafkaesque–the various medieval agreements, legalistic jargon, complex instructions, multiple and repeated threats to cancel your test and not refund your money! if you do something wrong–all of this is perhaps even worse for your peace of mind than the test-taking environment.  One of the things in particular that you are required to sign forces you print the text of a long-winded license agreement by hand.  Imagine doing that with iTunes.

Compared to the above, the test itself is relatively benign. There are multiple thirty-minute sections testing three things: quantitative reasoning (or math), analytical writing (where you make an argument about someone else’s argument), and verbal reasoning, which is a kind of mix of logic and language. If you say this here, what should you say over there, etc. But for me the GRE sections or the particular questions aren’t really the problem.

One problem is just the stress: do people effectively demonstrate rich and varied learning in high stakes environments? Probably not. Should they have to? No, in my opinion. Another problem is that the GRE doesn’t really test anything people do. When, for example, do you ever have to write an essay in thirty minutes? Without an opportunity to revise? Or without a spell checker? And when, if you’re not a mathematician, do you solve quadratic equations for the heck of it? An assessment that has no connection to what you do in life, or even what you would do in graduate school (trust me, you get more than a half hour to write your essay in graduate school), isn’t helping you, although it might be helping someone else.

Maybe the worst problem I have with the GRE is on a conceptual basis. It’s with the idea that you can and should test people in isolation as fixed entities. That the test assumes I have, say, a kind of inherent knowledge essence that is discrete and knowable separated from the people I work with or the things I am doing. That I am a container more or less filled of the stuff teachers put into me. You see where I’m going: in a sense the GRE takes up the teacher-centric education idea that says knowledge is conveyed in little packages from a positive knowledge pole (the teacher) to the negative pole (me) and that we can measure the amount transfered like we can measure rainfall by looking at a graduated cylinder in the yard.

For one thing, the limits of thinking of ourselves as “fixed” are made clear by Carol Dweck’s compelling research. In short: people who see themselves as “fixed,” or “good,” say, give up when things get tough; people who don’t care as much what they are, but instead focus on getting better and being resilient and trying again succeed in the hard spots. The GRE and the way it’s given seems to reinforce the fixed mindset. Either you’re good (and can deposit an essay in a half hour) or you’re not (and can’t); no room for someone to, say, draft, reflect, tweak, get feedback, adjust, do some more research, etc.

I’m much more interested in people as developing and growing beings and want to see them learning over time–in actual contexts. So for me a better assessment would more or less look like a record of our growth throughout school. Be it the kind of complex, multi-domain cognitive development assessments the Developmental Testing Service (that’s DTS as opposed to ETS) offers, be it a great e-portfolio, be it a discursive report on the student, their work, and their environment (my preference).

Of course this doesn’t exist as far as I know. What to do in the meantime? Well one thing we could do is drop the requirement of the GRE and reinvest the money invested in taking it into beefing up the teams of thoughtful people who are tasked with reading applications for admission.

About Grades

3 Jan

Someone asked me recently why I tend to frown when grades are mentioned. My attempt to answer.

I don’t think a simple, one-dimensional linear scale (grades) is the best possible way to represent (or honor) the rich cognitive development that occurs in complex patterns across a variety of domains in the growth of an individual.

For instance, grades provide no information on the learning context—no considerations of the course design; social group dynamics; style of teaching; particular assigned, tacit or implied, learning outcomes; opportunities for formative assessment; what was on the syllabus; humidity in the classroom; and so on. And yet the environment is so crucial to understanding how people develop, ignoring it would seem to make your data almost meaningless. If Vygotsky is right, and the most important thing in the study of our development is understanding the potential growth of the individual-in-society, grades aren’t helpful.

For another instance, grades don’t show you what sorts of cognitive development are happening.  Or even what skills are being used. Of the various Howard Gardner intelligences, say, which did the student effectively draw on to get that B in Russian History? That might be interesting to know. A grade won’t help you know that.

You might say that we could supplement the grades with a variety of other things, like the syllabus; an essay on the course by the teacher or a trained observer; a discursive evaluation of the student; a narrative self-evaluation by the student; some pre-and-post testing to learning outcomes; a collected portfolio of produced work with reflective analysis by the student; etc. Yes. Basically, I think that’s what we should organize ourselves to do. Ken Bain describes a kind of “synthetic” (in the sense of creating a synthesis of diverse kinds of data) course evaluation that he thinks would be more helpful than the traditional student survey. I’d like to see along with that a synthetic development report replace the letter grade.

So grades don’t show you everything they possibly could.  What’s worse is I suspect grades might even undermine learning. When people focus on grades rather than learning, which it’s hard not to do, what should be a positive and productive relationship between the learner and the learning environment, leading toward a virtuous circle of robust growth, tends instead to become a cynical negotiation, sadly tending toward a vicious circle of minimal growth. For more on this, see Alfie Kohn on the negative effects of extrinsic motivation, rewards, and punishments.

The usual relationship that arises between learner and school–a sort of reluctant, dogged cooperation; a work-to-rule; and a general defensiveness or mutual suspicion–might be the best way to prepare us for the same kind of negative relationship we’re likely to have with our work environments.  But it is a far cry from what you need (in my opinion) to learn, and what you would get in the sorts of safe spaces you see in, say, a Reggio Emilia or Atelier model, where can be developed the kind of wonderful, risky, vulnerable, collaborative learning Lee Shulman calls a “marriage of insufficiencies.”

Fortunately, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before we develop more sophisticated ways to represent the breadth of student and group learning in context, or (what is perhaps also as important) before we learn to show the potential for growth that is present in a culture or an environment. And I think it’s also only a matter of time before we grow school and work environments that are humane.

As a parable, I offer a recent parent-teacher conference experience, with the identities of participants obscured.  In this conference, the parent found his child’s first grade teachers to be amazingly gifted interpersonal perceptors (if you will)–wonderfully attuned to his child’s social development, personality, learning styles, perspective, strengths, loves, fears, challenges, successes.  The teacher’s evocation of the child-as-person-in-context was the bulk of the conversation, and the parent reported that it felt wonderful and appropriate and life-affirming.  Then there was a change. The teacher almost reluctantly drew out from a folder a sheet upon which she’d been forced to register linguistic and math “grades” (only in those two domains, I note!), and the atmosphere of the conference changed immediately from one that was generative, productive, alive, adaptive, full of hope–in short, everything good about education–to the opposite: one that hinted at a lifetime of compliance, fear, bureaucracy, guilt, and worry.

If we could have deleted the grades from that conference, it would have been thoroughly great. And that’s what I’m after. Thoroughly great stuff.