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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.

Innovation

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.

Assessments

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.

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On “The Very Superior Boss”

24 Jun

“The Very Superior Boss” is an entry in Abraham Maslow’s Eupsychian Management: A Journal (1965, Richard D. Irwin and The Dorsey Press)In it, Maslow doesn’t enumerate the characteristics of superiority, instead he focuses on the strife-filled relationship between the high-functioning leader and the rest of her team.

Maslow sees problems when someone who already knows or can quickly find the answer is thrown in with people who need to work out the answer through the various slow processes of communication, postulation, trial, and error. On the one hand, the business won’t make speedy decisions and the manager will herself suffer the excruciating pains of impatience and self-suppression if she waits for people to figure things out.  On the other hand, she will breed resentment and render her staff less capable than they are if she always tells them the answer, and she won’t ultimately be preparing them to lead themselves (or to live in a post-her world).  A third, stranger problem arises from an attempt to reconcile the first two–to artificially speed up the team’s processing by a kind of trickery, making it seem like they’ve solved the problem when really the leader has been perhaps not-so-subtly putting words and thoughts into their minds and mouths the whole time.

Another way to view the tension, says Maslow, is as between short-term results and long-term growth.  If the organization needs to “last past the death of the supervisor,” says he, “then greater patience is required and greater participative management, more explanations, more giving out of facts, more discussion of the facts and common agreement upon the conclusions.”  And he notes, “this is the only way to train good managers and good leaders in the long run” (145).  

The problem is similar to the one between beautiful or gifted parents face: having to stop being beautiful and gifted themselves to let their children develop.  Maslow associates it as well with the problem all creative children have in general: feeling “apart” from others; and in this way he suggests the problem is not just about a power-struggle, but also arises from basic differences of perspective or cognitive processing.  Important in his view of the tension is the fact that people often dislike or suspect intelligent or gifted people, even when these people are their best leaders; similarly, insecurity leads people to seek, and like, leaders who give clear and consistent answers, whether or not this consistency is related to intelligence or to pathology.

As a partial solution, Maslow calls for a shift of focus from the self of the leader to the situational context: asking what sort of decision-making or development is necessary to the group, and then integrating the related style of leadership. Which might very well mean giving people leaders they don’t particularly like.  As another partial solution, he suggests, interestingly, that the superior boss might just separate herself from the team, in order to let the team figure out how to solve problems on its own.

Ultimately, though, the tension is irresolvable:

This is of course, an extremely difficult problem, a profoundly human and existential problem, which in truth has no good solution even in theory. The fact is that great superiority is unjust, undeserved, and that people can and do resent it . . . . I don’t know of any good solution to this situation which demands honesty but in which honesty and truth must necessarily hurt.  (148)

The quote above might not leave you feeling great, but the idea that a slight reorientation of our focus–from “leader” to “context”–a reinsertion of the separate element into the soothing suspension–holds the potential of reducing some of the pain of the tension between us and others–that’s helpful and healing.  We might decrease the pain a little more by thinking of the separating “superiority” not so much as the boss’ intrinsic better-ness but more that she is at a particular place on one of many development tracks–and it just so happens that she is further along than us on that track, but nothing prevents us from moving in that direction, or in being further along than she in some other area.

Of course a person able to see things through B-Cognition would breathe the universal context, and would be OK with someone else’s betterness, in fact would appreciate it, particularly if it emerged clearly from their essence, but not many of us do that.

In any event, everyone can probably connect with this conundrum. I imagine we’ve all seen the three problematic aspects Maslow mentions, from both sides, too.  As both the person with the answer and the person without the answer at some point, in some way, whether the “superiority” be related to work-based problem-solving; experience, skills, or performance of some kind; or something more like emotional stability, comfort with ambiguity, and so on. Who hasn’t been in a situation where she or he had to bite their tongue while others slowly processed something? And who hasn’t discovered the disheartening feeling associated with being asked questions when you know the questioner already has a particular answer in mind. Of course, much of education traditionally has engendered this feeling.  Perhaps the third, or “trickery” experience is less common, but I have been guilty of it myself–and I can support Maslow when he says it never works.

We probably identify, as well, with the problem of seeking an “all-knowingness,” or a sense of conviction and consistency, in our leaders, because we’re scared or nervous in some way, when what might do us better is a little bit of ambiguity, consideration of multiple perspectives, some emotional and intellectual struggle of our own. Trying something without firm conviction now and then.

Finally, the suggestion that benign superior bosses, who see themselves as a blockage in their team’s development, might simply leave now and then is beautify in its simplicity, and I’ve known leaders who I think have done this well, though I suspect many leaders would scratch their heads at the idea.  “I’m not leading if I’m not there, I need to see what they’re doing if I am to control it, etc.,” they might say.  On the other hand, as Maslow points out, healthy people do not exhibit the need to control other people.

The Hopper and the Innovation Pipeline

30 Jan

I want to talk a little bit about something we’ve done recently in the Northeast Regional Computing Program (NERCOMP). NERCOMP, like any organization, is faced with a tension between doing things now and doing things later. We’re trying to direct our energy and attention to existing, operationalized activities, while still making sure we save a little bit for new ideas that may one day become wonderful and important activities in their own right. This is trickier than it seems, because it takes a different quality of mind to keep things going than it does to recruit and envision and cultivate new things to do. But you need to do both, because you need to be successful in the present, of course, and you also want to be successful in the unpredictable future.

There are two basic knots of problems you face when you try to both have new ideas and maintain existing services. One relates to the new ideas: How do get them? Where do you put them? What do you do with them? How do you turn them into something real? The other comes from the antagonistic relationship between new ideas and existing operations. How do you keep the crazy, zany, emotional, fad-like, breathless quality of new ideas from disrupting the staid, responsible, serious work of operations, and vice versa–how do you keep the harsh noon-day realism of what exists from prematurely scorching the delicate nocturnal tendrils of the new thing being born?

The solution, in my mind, has two parts: first you need a place to put ideas, and second, you need a process that tells you what to do with them. NERCOMP, I’m proud to say, is working on both.

The Hopper

How do you get these ideas? Who knows when an idea is going to pop into someone’s head, and who knows whose head it will pop into? Apart from those rare people who continuously sprout ideas regardless of how they’re received (I’m one of them), how do you make people comfortable even saying their ideas out loud, given that new ideas tend by definition to sound somewhat crazy? How do you create a culture that says proposing ideas isn’t just OK, but expected?

Well, we’re not totally sure about the answers to any of these questions. But here’s what we did: we thought we might at least lower to the minimum the work someone had to do to get an idea from their head into ours, such that while they’re still in the thrill of the moment, and before they’ve thought better of it, they can dash it off, and we can capture it. We took a simple, one-text-box Google form, put it online, and tested it with our board members, by having them pull it up during board meetings and other NERCOMP activities. Anytime they had a thought or suggestion, they could put it right into the form. We called it the Hopper, because that name made some of us envision a kind of rotating tube full of crazy ideas, like the cylinders of ricocheting ping-pong balls used famously in lottery drawings or bingo parlors. And it worked. We gathered over a hundred ideas in a matter of weeks; too many to process, really, so we stopped encouraging it for a bit while we come up with a way to regularly review and process the contents. Now we have such a process, so we’ve made the Hopper open to all NERCOMP members (here, if you’re a member) and are poised to announce it beginning with our upcoming annual conference.

The Innovation Pipeline

Getting the ideas is the first part of the battle. But then you need to know what to do with them. Here we were influenced enormously by the work of Dr. Min Basadur, whom I’ve written about before. He breaks creative problem solving into four stages– Generating, Conceptualizing, Optimizing, and Implementing. In the first step you think of the idea; in the second you flesh it out, as it were, in theory; in the third you begin to take that theory and make a plan for its implementation in the real world; in the fourth, you implement the plan.

We took Basadur’s stages as a kind of growth chart for our ideas, if you will, and let the stages tell us what we should be doing for and with ideas as they evolved. We added transition points or firewalls between phases–places you have to check in with the board to move on to the next phase. We made these check-ins progressively more difficult. Moving from having an idea to developing it (or “conceptualizing”), we thought, really only required an interested person willing to think it through. But moving from development to optimizing (which we renamed “testing”) required a legitimate plan for the test. And moving to the final phase–implementation–required data from a successful test as well as some clear ideas about where the resources would come from to operationalize the activity. We called the whole thing the “Innovation Pipeline,” and you can see one of our early (somewhat silly) versions as we were developing it.

The Innovation Pipeline has a lot of great benefits. Most importantly it addresses aforementioned problem knot number two: it protects new ideas from operations and operations from new ideas. It trains us to modulate our expectations and behaviors and feelings towards ideas as they grow–we’re gentler on the new ideas, and we ramp up the prosecutorial rigor as they come closer to operationalization, as is only appropriate. We delay, as they say, our evaluation of ideas–we don’t burden them with premature expectations of perfection. By the same token, there are three check-in points that an idea has to get past before it can really be considered operational and thus rightly become part of our routine activities, and, effectively, force us to drop or reduce some other activity to allow for it. These three check-in points are like police road blocks. Nobody gets by who shouldn’t, thus protecting our fragile operations from the threat of disruption by frivolous novelty. A secondary benefit of the pipeline is that, surprisingly, it helps people get along better. A key flashpoint in every organization is between what the creativity researchers call the ideators (people who generate cascades of possibility and love brainstorming meetings) and the evaluators (people who say no to everything new in order to continue to say yes to what they are already doing): in our pipeline the ideators get their space to think of and develop ideas before they hand them off (at stage 3) to the testers and implementors, who are ruthless. But the ideas by then are ready for reality.

In any event, there you have NERCOMP’s approach to the age-old problem of new vs. existing activities. We’re implementing it now, and we expect some iterations and tweaks before it’s perfect. A key test will be when our rank-and-file members embrace it and put ideas in the Hopper that really challenge us to grow, be creative, and innovate. Will we be able to rise to the bold new vision they propose? Only time will tell. It’s a start, and we’ll report along the way.

As a P.S. let me give a shout out to the Learning Organization Academy–NERCOMP’s intensive new professional development program. It was LOA thinking (“how can we learn better as an organization?”) that led us to tackle the problem in the first place, and research for a LOA workshop that pointed us to a solution.

Being Creative Together

12 Jun

Have just read Min Basadur’s article “Leading others to thinking innovatively together: Creative leadership,” in The Leadership Quarterly 15 (2004). It’s interesting!

Basadur suggests that the big task before all of us in this global, fluid, disruptive age is to manage our organizations for adaptability rather than for efficiency (the traditional focus). Adaptability requires being creative together. We’re not good at being creative together, however; says he: “the attitudes, behaviors, and skills necessary for creative thinking are underdeveloped in many people” (106).

There is fortunately an easy-to-understand creativity life-cycle or process that’s made of four stages, each with its own kind of thinking, and people, it seems, orient to one of these stages by preference (111). The stages are Generating, Conceptualizing, Optimizing, and Implementing (112). (Which, I note, seem to generally correspond to the Learning Cycle and areas of brain processing; see my previous post on the topic.)

The problem is that, not knowing the different phases of creation, nor their preference for one or the other, people generally jumble all the phases together, achieve naught, and annoy each other.

Basadur describes the kind of meeting this leads to as “undisciplined discussions where facts, ideas, points of veiw, evaluations, action steps, and new problems are interjected randomly” (110). The person oriented to optimize, which calls for “rational, systematic, and orderly analysis” of a project-moving-towards-implementation, for instance, is not open to the incomplete and weird ideas unleashed by the person oriented towards generation (I have that orientation, for the record), who uses engagement with the world, emotions, empathy, and other unpredictable things to concoct “problems, opportunities, and projects that might be worth solving” (112, emphasis mine).  This of course, leads to the famous “how to kill ideas” situation, which Basadur describes as an insufficiency in the basic creativity-thinking skills of “deferring judgment, keeping an open mind, and thinking divergently” (106).

On a side note, Basadur aligns with Chris Argyris in seeing defensive reasoning as another block to creativity: people, says Basadur, “wait for others to find problems for them to solve,” (108); avoid “unsolvable” or cross-functional problems (108); desire to be seen as “practical and economical above all things,” and thereby tend to shut down strange new ideas (106); and “get mired in arguments about functional issues to protect their ‘turf'” (110)–all different ways of prioritizing political safety over productive thinking and creativity. Not good in an age of change.

The way to slash through all this is simply to help people with process.  A leader who knows the phases of creation can act as a creative “process coach” (111) making sure the group knows and honors the phase they’re in and uses and appreciates the particular cognitive skills the phase requires (106).  A good process-focused leader can even go so far as to predict the kinds of help individuals would need based on their orientation, and be prepared to supply that. Such a leader helps the strong optimizer, for instance, “discover new problems and facts.” In my own case, my creatively-oriented leader would help me (the generator) “convince others of the value of [my] ideas and push [me] to act on them” (116).

Importantly, Basadur notes that the highest-performing teams include a representative mixture of people orienting to the four phases of creation (115). But he also notes that people tend to gravitate towards people of like orientation, such that work teams and even professions tend to be made up of one dominant orientation (117). AND he notes that people report higher satisfaction in teams where they’re with birds of a feather (115). So there’s some natural resistance to be overcome: the leader has to consciously combine people with different orientations and help them work together; the diverse team “may experience more frustration initially” but “will achieve more breakthrough results as they learn to mesh their styles” (117).

There are some work-related processes that probably don’t fall under creation (maintenance of existing functions), but these seem less important now than in static environments of years past; Basadur’s model seems helpful for a wide breath of challenges we face at work, and should make up part of any workplace’s ethos. Thinking about the normal flow of creative–or cognitive–process  in the development of ideas and initiatives, and seeing our own orientation towards phases within that process seems particularly helpful.

Things-in-Use-by-People

11 Jan

Gardner Campbell talked at our school recently, and a comment he made resonated with me. “See those books,” he said, pointing to shelves of books nearby (it was in the library), “we see that as a conversation.” By “we” he meant the teachers, staff, grown-ups, etc., listening to him talk. His point: that it is our job to get students to do the same–to see the wall of books–learning, scholarship, life–as a conversation. As a multi-dimensional interchange that’s part information and part relationship. As an interaction between people, vibrant, living, committed, engaged people. As something they can and ought to be involved in. As something that can benefit from their involvement. Not as some limited, flat, inscrutable, mysterious, dusty, impenetrable, boring facade of emptiness.

This might be part of the idea behind the slow sea change we sense in undergraduate education–shifting toward student-centered learning, active learning, engaged students, “authentic” learning, experiential learning, experiments, on-site activities, road trips, real research–all things that help students see the world of learning and research as a place they can engage with people.

David Lewis, on a recent visit, said something similar. Students aren’t that motivated to understand research as a complex social activity, when our assignments call for finding, say, five credible sources. That’s an assignment that calls for a list of discrete things. (I.e. a flat wall of book spines). But we need students to enter into the world of information sharing and learning that generated those five items. Into the conversation. Some other kind of assignment is needed.

And some other kind of representation. Fortunately the ways computers can represent complex stuff may come to our rescue. For example, Daniel McFarland and Eric Klopfer in a recent article in Teachers College Record suggest we need a new interface for searching the scholarly literature. Unlike the existing search tools, which return flat and impenetrable (my words) lists of information resources, McFarland and Klopfer call for something that shows the information resource in the context of the people using it, representing relationships and networks and thought-structures. Some cross between the information object we know so well and a map of people talking to each other. With rankings and trends.

The future looks very interesting.

By way of concluding on a random thought: this substitution of discrete things for the more complex idea of things-in-use-by-people might help explain why IT shops and Libraries have always seemed to be a tad isolated from the communities they serve. We’ve focused on the thing, the list, the tool, and we haven’t really taken the time to understand the thing as an integrated part of a community in conversation. We just might need to get our own selves into the conversation along with the students.