Complex problems and social learning

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Adaptation, evolution, innovation, and growth all require that we gain new knowledge and apply it to our circumstances, or learn. While much focus in education is on how individuals attend, process and integrate information to create knowledge, it is the social part of learning that may best determine whether we simply add information to our brains or truly learn. 

Organizations are scrambling to convert what they do and what they are exposed to into tangible value. In other words: learn. A 2016 report from the Association for Talent Development (ATD) found that “organizations spent an average of $1,252 per employee on training and development initiatives in 2015”, which works out to an average cost per learning hour of $82 based on an average of 33 hours spent in training programs per year. Learning and innovation are expensive.

The massive marketplace for seminars, keynote addresses, TED talks, conferences, and workshops points to a deep pool of opportunities for exposure to content, yet when we look past these events to where and how such learning is converted into changes at the organizational level we see far fewer examples.

Instead of building more educational offerings like seminars, webinars, retreats, and courses, what might happen if they devoted resources to creating cultures for learning to take place? Consider how often you may have been sent off to some learning event, perhaps taken in some workshops or seen an engaging keynote speaker, been momentarily inspired and then returned home to find that yourself no better off in the long run. The reason is that you have no system — time, resources, organizational support, social opportunities in which to discuss and process the new information — and thus, turn a potential learning opportunity into neural ephemera.

Or consider how you may have read an article on something interesting, relevant and important to what you do, only to find that you have no avenue to apply or explore it further. Where do the ideas go? Do they get logged in your head with all the other content that you’re exposed to every day from various sources, lost?

Technical vs. Social

My colleague and friend John Wenger recently wrote about what we need to learn, stating that our quest for technical knowledge to serve as learning might be missing a bigger point: what we need at this moment. Wenger suggests shifting our focus from mere knowledge to capability and states:

What is the #1 capability we should be learning?  Answer: the one (or ones) that WE most need; right now in our lives, taking account of what we already know and know how to do and our current situations in life.

Wenger argues that, while technical knowledge is necessary to improve our work, it’s our personal capabilities that require attention to be sufficient for learning to take hold. These capabilities are always contingent as we humans exist in situated lives and thus our learning must further be applied to what we, in our situation, require. It’s not about what the best practice is in the abstract, but what is best for us, now, at this moment. The usual ‘stuff’ we are exposed to is decontextualized and presented to us without that sense of what our situation is.

The usual ‘stuff’ we are exposed to under the guise of learning is so often decontextualized and presented to us without that sense of how, whether, or why it matters to us in our present situation.

To illustrate, I teach a course on program evaluation for public health students. No matter how many examples, references, anecdotes, or colourful illustrations I provide them, most of my students struggle to integrate what they are exposed to into anything substantive from a practical standpoint. At least, not at first. Without the ability to apply what they are learning, expose the method to the realities of a client, colleague, or context’s situation, they are left abstracting from the classroom to a hypothetical situation.

But, as Mike Tyson said so truthfully and brutally: “Every fighter has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

In a reflection on that quote years later, Tyson elaborated saying:

“Everybody has a plan until they get hit. Then, like a rat, they stop in fear and freeze.”

Tyson’s quote applies to much more than boxing and complements Wenger’s assertions around learning for capability. If you develop a plan knowing that it will fail the moment you get hit (and you know you’re going to get hit), then you learn for the capability to adapt. You build on another quote attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said:

“I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.”

Better social, better learning

Plans don’t exist in a vacuum, which is why they don’t always turn out. While sometimes a failed plan is due to poor planning, it is more likely due to complexity when dealing with human systems. Complexity requires learning strategies that are different than those typically employed in so many educational settings: social connection.

When information is technical, it may be simple or complicated, but it has a degree of linearity to it where one can connect different pieces together through logic and persistence to arrive a particular set of knowledge outcomes. Thus, didactic classroom learning or many online course modules that require reading, viewing or listening to a lesson work well to this effect. However, human systems require attention to changing conditions that are created largely in social situations. Thus, learning itself requires some form of ‘social’ to fully integrate information and to know what information is worth attending to in the first place. This is the kind of capabilities that Wenger was talking about.

My capabilities within my context may look very much like that of my colleagues, but the kind of relationships I have with others, the experiences I bring and the way I scaffold what I’ve learned in the past with what I require in the present is going to be completely different. The better organizations can create the social contexts for people to explore this, learn together, verify what they learn and apply it the more likely they can reap far greater benefits from the investment of time and money they spend on education.

Design for learning, not just education

We need a means to support learning and support the intentional integration of what we learn into what we do: it fails in bad systems.

It also means getting serious about learning, meaning we need to invest in it from a social, leadership and financial standpoint. Most importantly, we need to emotionally invest in it. Emotional investment is the kind of attractor that motivates people to act. It’s why we often attend to the small, yet insignificant, ‘goals’ of every day like responding to email or attending meetings at the expense of larger, substantial, yet long-term goals.

As an organization, you need to set yourself up to support learning. This means creating and encouraging social connections, time to dialogue and explore ideas, the organizational space to integrate, share and test out lessons learned from things like conferences or workshops (even if they may not be as useful as first thought), and to structurally build moments of reflection and attention to ongoing data to serve as developmental lessons and feedback.

If learning is meant to take place at retreats, conferences or discrete events, you’re not learning for human systems. By designing systems that foster real learning focused on the needs and capabilities of those in that system, you’re more likely to reap the true benefit of education and grow accordingly. That is an enormous return on investment.

Learning requires a plan and one that recognizes you’re going to get punched in the mouth (and do just fine).

Can this be done for real? Yes, it can. For more information on how to create a true learning culture in your organization and what kind of data and strategy can support that, contact Cense and they’ll show you what’s possible. 

Image credit: Social by JD Hancock used under Creative Commons license.

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