Tag Archives: feedback loops

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.
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Liaisons, Collaboration, Cooperation, and Soup

12 Jan

I was invited to talk to a group of wonderful library, IT, and teaching and learning center staff at UMASS Boston in early December; they are thinking about new ways to organize their community liaisons, and they asked me for my two cents.  I loved every minute of it; they were enthusiastic, engaged, reflective, fun. And here’s what I said, somewhat abbreviated.

When you look up the definition of liaison, you get what you’d expect. A person who interfaces between two organizational units to “ensure unity of purpose.” That makes sense. But I like some of the more obscure meanings of the word, too, like “any thickening for soups, sauces,” such as cream. Liaisons should see themselves as binders and thickeners. Liaisons, you are cream. Hold that thought.

I then worked with Lee Shulman’s definition of collaboration, as “a marriage of insufficiencies” (see “Communities of learners and Communities of teachers,” Mandel Institute, 2007, freely available online) and the well-known contrast in education thinking between collaboration and cooperation.

Cooperation, in my recap, is how you work together in a static environment. Your roles are defined, you basically perform consistently: you do things together that you don’t have to do together, you do them for convenience, and you don’t need to communicate much, because you all know your part. Collaboration, on the other hand, is the inverse. You do things together that you can only do with other people, because the goal is lofty, and none of you is sufficient to the task. It’s improv rather than reading scores, it’s sailing a boat in a storm rather than having a transaction at a bank window, it’s risky, it makes you vulnerable, you’re aware of and processing together all sorts of environmental factors and responding dynamically; there are feedback loops on top of feedback loops, and there’s a massive emphasis on communication.

I proposed four hypotheses related to collaboration and cooperation:

  1. In an environment of change, collaboration becomes more important.
  2. Collaboration is required for group adaptation.
  3. Collaboration builds relationships.
  4. Liaisons may be the best positioned to collaborate of all the people in the entire planet.

A brief explanation of these: I decided that in our fluid, changing environments, we have to collaborate to be successful, that that collaboration is the only way to get a group of people to do something differently, that it’s the best way to build relationships with peers (because you have to have each other to survive), and I suggested that it’s the role of the liaison, in particular, to effect collaboration. Because the liaison is by nature half in and half out of the group. Relationships–a tying-together kind of thing, in other words, a thickening of the soup, bringing us back to the cream idea. N’est-ce pas?

Some notata bene I felt it important to add:

  1. Collaboration is politically vulnerable.
  2. Collaboration works best in a community that appreciates it.
  3. Confusion about when cooperation or collaboration is more appropriate freaks people out.
  4. Collaboration takes a lot of time. And the groundwork is invisible. And it’s occasionally hard to explain.
  5. Collaboration (and learning in general) is anxiety provoking.
  6. Collaboration builds on cooperation and is a ground for it.

Explanation: basically collaboration comes at a cost: being highly unstable, political unwise, and anxiety-provoking; we should not jump into it without knowing the costs. The best of all worlds is when your enlightened boss, school, organization know(s) what it means to collaborate and unleash(es) you to do it, with all that it will consequently entail for you and them, including lots of short-term inconveniences, because they want the long-term payoff.

Another two points I think worth making.  First, it’s probably wrong to contrast these two approaches, which really need each other. I can’t really collaborate if we haven’t been cooperating or if I can’t subsequently evolve that collaboration into a cooperation.

Second, every organization at any given moment should be running some mix of collaboration and cooperation. Lean towards cooperation in the calm periods. Lean towards collaboration in the crazy periods. Whatever the case may be, it is important that everyone on the team knows what that mix is, and who is doing what. As a kind of natural collaborator, I see all the time the quite remarkable stress caused when peers assume I should be cooperating, and I’m collaborating. If you’ll have a particular person do one or the other, it would be good to let everyone know it, and to know the ramifications thereof, and to say a blessing on them.

As a tantalizing concluding device, I’ll leave you with this little association table I concocted–eight, arbitrarily chosen, other ways of expressing the same sort of dichotomy I develop here between collaboration and cooperation:

  1. Transactions vs. Virtual Circles
  2. Linear or Causal Systems vs. Complex, Dynamic Systems
  3. Departmental or Compartmental Views vs. Institutional or Holistic Views
  4. Consistent Performance vs. Inconsistent Creation
  5. Bergson’s Intellect vs. Bergson’s Intuition
  6. Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset (see Carol Dweck)
  7. Red Ocean vs. Blue Ocean
  8. IQ Test vs. Zone of Proximal Development

You are an Adulterated Oyster

13 Apr

I have been thinking again about academic support staff and what they should do in a time of systemic academic change. I offer you here 3 thoughts and 2 pragmatic suggestions.

Thought 1: Let’s move beyond the “interface,” the “factory,” and “established services.”

It’s hard to be an interface between a library / IT organization and an academic community nowadays, because both of these population pools are changing so much. You need stability to be a good interface; so we need a better concept. Another concept worth replacing is this idea that you are part of an hierarchical organization, or a “factory,” of work. Work with stovepipes and managers and top-down direction and a fixed suite of long-established services–all this assumes the people at the top know best what to do and that decisions made in the past still hold true. I think increasingly important today is what the people on the ground know about the moment in the moment. A factory by its nature is not particularly adaptable to the world around it (witness the hulks of brick buildings remaining from the Industrial Revolution), and you need adaptability in a time of change. So let’s drop the factory idea, too.

Thought 2: You are the community knowing itself.

If you’re not an interface, part of a factory, or a part of the provision of fixed, prefabricated services, what are you? I think you are the means by which the community knows itself. It can’t know what it needs until it knows who it is. We can’t help it unless we know who it is and what it needs. So help it figure it out. You are an organizer, an observer, an ethnograph, an epistemological vector (to quote myself) and you reflect back to the community what you hear, learn, see, think, do, discover, create. This is legitimate work. We’re growing and changing as a society, and we’re learning how to do things differently. A key thing about learning is that you watch yourself doing it. Academic support staff can be the way that that particular kind of necessary reflexivity happens in our community. It’s hard, it’s rewarding, it’s hard to explain, it’s a calling.

Thought 3: Think of yourself as an Adulterated Oyster.

What would be a good replacement concept for the factory or the interface? Well how about this. Think of yourself as an oyster with a kind of intake and output. But you don’t take in dirty water and give back purified water, you take in information about what the community is doing and needing, you take little actions designed to test out hypotheses and model solutions, and you give back information to help people know themselves and their options better. So you’re slightly adulterated–your goal is not just to filter the estuary but to engender a feedback loop that perhaps moves the estuary towards a certain channel (the channel of learning, you might say).

Pragmatic Idea 1: Publish your plan.

Instead of secret goals on a hidden performance review, why not write your own plan for yourself, publish it to the community, report on it. Say “here’s what I see happening, here’s what I think needs doing, and here’s what I plan to do.” Invite feedback. Let it be a plan that draws like an oyster from the community and like an adulterated oyster, reflects back meaning, improves.

To do this, have knowing and reporting activities in your plan. Tell the world how you will come to know it. But also make it a priority to tell people what you learn.

Also, aspire and grow. Oh, please, please, put your dreams in your plan. It is perhaps the height of professionalism (not the opposite) to use your intuition about what you’re good at and what you like to do to inform your activities.  And, plan in your plan to grow. Remaining static should not be allowed. If you’re not changing yourself as you’re changing the world around you, there’s probably a problem.

Pragmatic Idea 2: Create your own advisory committee.

Think of yourself as the executive director of yourself and report to a board of trustees. Identify community members who will sit on your committee, listen to and confirm your view of the world and its problems, ratify your proposed interventions, and speak on your behalf when you get in trouble. Have students. Have faculty. Maybe you can invite your boss, maybe not! It’s like your personal learning community. Just thinking about doing this seems to completely change people’s perspective from a kind of head-down, trudging-along attitude to a chin-up, looking-around-yourself perspective. Imagine if we all were on each other’s advisory committees? That would be neat.