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)