Learning for organisation design

What I decided to do today was reflect on what I’ve learned last week and how/when/where I’ve learned it, leading on to my asking the question – is what I’ve learned  applicable to my org design work?

Why this topic?  It comes on the back of attending, last Tuesday, a meeting of the CIPD’s Learning and Development Advisory Group – we were being asked for our views on a research project on learning cultures that the CIPD is doing.

In the advisory group discussion – Kolb’s Learning Cycle and Honey and Mumford’s Learning Style Questionnaire came up.  I’m curious about whether these have stood the test of time and research, but didn’t have the opportunity to ask the ‘neuro’ expert there what his view is. However, later I did find the article ‘Are Learning Styles Just a Fallacy?’  which satisfied my scepticism on them.

It was a free-wheeling discussion which, unfortunately, I had to leave early, but even so it set me asking questions: What is learning? How do we know we’ve learned something? When do we learn?   Years ago, I trained as a teacher, ending up teaching learning theory to would-be teachers, but I’m not going down that route now.  This is more an exploration of the notion that learning is something we can’t opt in and out of, we are doing it automatically whether we are conscious of it or not.   My contention is that learning is not something that has an on/off switch in us.

What we can switch on and off is considering, or reflecting on, our continuous informal learning.   And we can also make decisions on when, where and how to participate in formal learning situations – ones that are often designed for a specific purposes.

Pondering this, I asked Google the question ‘what is learning?’ and got a variety of answers.  My preferred is:

‘Learning is a process that:

  1. is active – process of engaging and manipulating objects, experiences, and conversations in order to build mental models of the world (Dewey, 1938; Piaget, 1964; Vygotsky, 1986). Learners build knowledge as they explore the world around them, observe and interact with phenomena, converse and engage with others, and make connections between new ideas and prior understandings.
  2. builds on prior knowledge – and involves enriching, building on, and changing existing understanding, where “one’s knowledge base is a scaffold that supports the construction of all future learning” (Alexander, 1996, p. 89).
  3. occurs in a complex social environment – and thus should not be limited to being examined or perceived as something that happens on an individual level. Instead, it is necessary to think of learning as a social activity involving people, the things they use, the words they speak, the cultural context they’re in, and the actions they take (Bransford, et al., 2006; Rogoff, 1998), and that knowledge is built by members in the activity (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006).
  4. is situated in an authentic context– provides learners with the opportunity to engage with specific ideas and concepts on a need-to-know or want-to-know basis (Greeno, 2006; Kolodner, 2006).
  5. requires learners’ motivation and cognitive engagementto be sustained when learning complex ideas, because considerable mental effort and persistence are necessary.

The conditions for inputs to learning are clear, but the process is incomplete without making sense of what outputs constitute learning has taken place. At the core, learning is a process that results in a change in knowledge or behavior as a result of experience. Understanding what it takes to get that knowledge in and out (or promote behavioral change of a specific kind) can help optimize learning.’

In this description you can see learning both as a continuous, albeit sometimes unrecognized, process and as a conscious, formal and ‘designed’ activity.

My week held multiple examples of continuous, incidental learning – that I probably wouldn’t have noticed as such if I hadn’t been reflecting on it.  For example, while on the tube, I read an article by Lucy Kellaway, ‘The journalist turned economics teacher and founder of Now Teach on the value of switching careers’,  in her 50s she has ‘founded charity Now Teach, has since qualified as a teacher herself, and convinced more than 100 others to do the same.’ She’s an example of a learner illustrating all points of the learning description above, and I learned about Teach Now and some confidence boosting for exploring a new career. (Or, shall I go back to teaching?)

On another tube trip I read an article on how people ‘in the poor world’ are learning how to make use of the internet.  (‘Poor world’ in this context meaning India, not parts of the UK or US).   One example given was of Ms Sharma, who had ‘no particular interest in this internet thing.  But she liked the idea of learning something new.’  She and a handful of other women were each given a smartphone … ‘“First we had to learn how to turn it on and off” …  Once they had mastered that, they got down to the essentials: how to take a selfie, What’s App, Facebook, YouTube, how to search.’   Here I was, not in any conscious or formal learning context, learning about someone’s learning.  During my read, among other things in the article,  I learned a new word ‘mofussil’  and about a new Google phone app Files that ‘helps clean up space on your phone’ – something I need to do.

Having put up my umbrella many times through the week, and broken a spoke on it,  I’ve just found out how to mend it – an example of ‘as needed’ learning!   Ditto, as needed learning, I spotted that the hairdresser I go to has just got a booking app so I’ve downloaded that so I can book my next appointment.

On the formal situational ‘designed’ learning was a busy week too.  I attended the CogX conference, completed some modules of the APMG online change management course, read about a third, so far, of a book on organising workload (SuperStructured) – a kind of hybrid of Dave Allen (Getting Things Done)  and Marie Kondo (The Life Changing Magic of Tidying)  –  and attended a screening of a film on barriers to social mobility in the UK – H is for Harry.

Back to the question – what, from a week that’s involved both continuous/incidental learning and formal organised learning, has fed into improving my organisation design skills, experience, knowledge?

  1. There’s been a thread on the use of frameworks, models and theories – some which I’ve already known about but now have additional takes on and some which are new.  I’m thinking about the dual operating model which I’ll explore further.
  2. Something about building from what we ‘know’ and seeing whether and how what is new can build on what we ‘know’ and take the knowledge further (either deeper or broader or both).  CogX 2019 was a goldmine for this.
  3. Much of my learning this week was about listening, discussing, interactions with others, H is for Harry, had a video documentary, panel discussion with questions, and before and after networking/chatting  with participants. Learning with and from others on the topic has highlighted issues of designing for social mobility and the value of learning with/from others.
  4. I’ve got some practical tips that I’m already applying,  SuperStructured is good for this and I’ve got Stiernolm’s, the author’s,  resource on task sifting to hand and in use.
  5. Another continuous thread through the learning has been on automation – apps, workflow, tasks.  I’m now on high alert for opportunities to automate more aspects of my organisation design work both in the method, and in the content e.g. focusing on repetitive tasks and activities in workflow.

I won’t tackle here how I will recognise/measure any performance improvement in what I do.  (The CIPD L & D Advisory Group spent time discussing ‘what is learning for’, and ‘how will we measure outcomes of it’?)

If you consider your past week – what have you learned, when, how.  And what will you apply into your organisation design work?  Let me know.

Image:  The art of learning poster, Leon Zernitsky

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