Today, almost every text describing the state of the world begins somehow with complexity.
Yes, we know the world is no longer predictable. We live in a world of constant change. Governments, businesses, and individuals must constantly re-evaluate and adapt to new situations. This ability becomes a necessity for survival.
Organizations have evolved to respond effectively to an environment with high predictability challenges. Yet, the approaches which guaranteed success yesterday do not work well today.
Companies do not create new values in the form of innovations; management wants to achieve growth with even more efficiency to collect the last bonus. Working people in organizations deal with unnecessary bureaucracy and are disconnected from the market, value creation, and colleagues. Apart from causing unnecessary costs, this leads to frustration or has even worse consequences.
Organizations are complex systems
To survive in this new world, organizations need a systems change, a system that is not built on centralized planning and command and control; organizations must be able to learn how to adapt and respond to the changing environment. This requires them (the people, groups, and teams) to be able to sense what is happening, interpret it and generate effective responses. We refer to this as organizational learning - or, more precisely, organizational learning based on the assumption that organizations are complex systems. Diversity, the emergence of local interactions, and the formation of emergent patterns are all phenomena we must consider.
To cope with these challenges, companies today expect different competencies from their employees to survive in the market. But, the question is, what are these competencies which should secure the future?
The most frequently mentioned competencies are critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication, also called the 4 Cs'. But here is the catch: companies focus on the individuals and not on the system that should establish and nurture connections between people. And this is also reflected in the organizational approach toward learning.
The reality of organizational learning
Organizations are faced with the challenge of preparing employees for these ever-accelerating changes and building an environment where the people can act to cope and survive in the marketplace.
But what is being done in companies to foster and nurture these competencies? What is being done to design a system that promotes people's ability to think, learn and communicate? How to design structures so that people from different cultural backgrounds can form caring relationships?
Many questions, so let's take a look.
The reality of organizational learning looks like this:
Learning is separated from the work and often not relevant to the work. We've all heard the saying, "I'm only working three days this week because I'm on training for two."
The focus is on the individuals, and learning opportunities are only available to a small part of the organization.
Workshops are offered to managers with the idea that they will become leaders and share their knowledge.
The goal is to transfer information and test whether the information can be retrieved, which is why the learning is managed, controlled, and measured.
In the digital space, beautiful LMS systems are supposed to convey information in a playful way so that people gain knowledge. The problem is that this knowledge is passive; it does not lead to competence, especially not solving complex problems.
Conventional workshops and learning management systems are designed on the assumption that learning could be externally controlled. Yet, expertise and competence, as the prerequisite for knowledge to enable action, are not gained in this way. The famous Ernst von Glasersfeld, one of the founders of radical constructivism, said:
"Knowledge cannot be passed on,
knowledge must be actively acquired."
Meaning that leadership should shift focus to creating spaces where people can acquire knowledge and insights. Because after decades of trainings focused on individuals and/or leadership trainings, one thing becomes visible - results are modest.
Social learning is conversational
Nothing is necessarily the way it is, but nothing is the way it is by chance either.
People who work closely together and create value together should have the opportunity to learn together. Not alone and isolated. And secondly, in complexity finding appropriate solutions requires a large number of people and a shared understanding of the relevant contexts. Without this common understanding, companies can hardly develop coherently. It is only through the social learning process of a large number of employees possible, and it can be achieved only in conversation among many people by observing and reflecting.
So, what happens if we start designing organizational learning offerings (opportunities) with the above-mentioned in mind? If we accept this view, the focus shifts:
from people to the system
from empowering individuals to creating learning spaces offered to all
from managing and controlling to relevance for work and value creation
from functional departments to networks
If we were to close our eyes and have one wish, that wish would be to give all people in the organization the opportunity to unleash their potential together „with – each – other – for – each – other“. But it takes more than a wish or asking them what they think should be changed or what they want from the organization.
Creating innovative learning spaces for Change
Learning is change. If you understand that and stop parroting the narrative that people are not motivated and have an aversion to change, then impactful organizational learning should be designed by:
Creating invitation-based, voluntary, and self-organized learning opportunities
Understanding learning as a social process, in which employees in the company learn „with – each – other – for – each – other“,
Considering the group or team as the new learning unit
Accepting that learning takes place where work is done, aka the learning space, is part of the work (workplace learning)
Designing learning experiences as meaningful conversations and reflections with colleagues about models of thought, concepts, and theories in the context of their work.
In such a setup, the focus is not on transferring knowledge but on the joint development and construction of knowledge in a work-relevant context. Thus, the teacher is no longer the source of information but becomes the designer of learning spaces. As Galileo Galilei said:
"You cannot teach people anything.
You can only help them discover it within themselves."
Most learning approaches in an organizational context are not suitable for today's complex environment. It is not about giving the right answers but about people being able to solve complex problems.
But here is the good thing.
Impactful organizational learning is not a utopian dream. It is neither a romantic journey nor an idea that can be applied one day in the future. It is all about the willingness to implement a new concept of learning and about building networks.
It is an invitation for change!
- Bowen, José Antonio. Teaching Change. Johns Hopkins University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Arnold, Rolf; Schön, Michael. Ermöglichungsdidaktik (E-Book): Ein Lernbuch. hep Verlag. Kindle Edition