EDUCATION AT THE HEART OF THE ORGANISATION

    This piece has been originally published as part of the book ‘Philosophy@Work’ curated by Anders Indset and published by Thinkers50 and unbound.

     

     

     

    Putting education at the centre of attention is one of the core factors that will help organisations overcome 21st century challenges. One could even argue that if education becomes a fundamental component of organisational design, it has the potential to tackle all future organisational challenges.

     

    Unfortunately, education in organisations is quite often planned and rolled out when it’s already too late or in the words of Peter Drucker: “When a subject becomes totally obsolete we make it a required course.”

     

     

    To harvest the benefits of education, tap into the potentials and create new opportunities, organisations must address the essential challenge of becoming an ‘infinite organisation’.

     

    Becoming an infinite organisation is not a process but a mindset. A mindset to build for future generations by taking all stakeholders into account. Building an infinite organisation is an ongoing journey without a dedicated start or end. It is a way, not a  finite goal. It’s a constant flow in a highly complex environment in which new pieces are added and edited regularly.

     

    The infinite organisation is interconnected and interdependent and when coordinated and led for a common purpose, there are very few limits to what can be achieved. 

     

     

    Why the infinite organisation is needed

    The economy has changed and so have organisational requirements. One example of this is the role of the manager. People responsible for controlling, overseeing and administering individuals in an organisation have historically been of great importance.  

     

    Today, however, more and more of these activities are being moved from human-beings into technology. New organisational designs as well as decentralised structures and the removal of hierarchies have undermined typical manager-roles within the organisation and the related tasks. This has led and leads to: 

    (1) the transition of structures from rigid and hierarchical to fluid 

    (2) the constant reorganisation of work from manual to technology-driven on all levels

    (3) the replacement of closed, linear thinking and politics in favour of creativity and co-opetition (collaboration and healthy competition) 

     

     

    Technology is already proving to be much better at a vast majority of management tasks compared to human beings, ranging from small things like planning a schedule to more advanced tasks like the optimisation of production lines. Technology is getting better every single day and at the same time easier to implement. Along this process of replacement the prestige-driven role of the manager is dying, leaving organisations with people in their workforce that have nothing left to do.

     

     

    In other words: Management is still very much alive, but the (traditional) role of the manager is dying.

     

     

    What might sound dark to many senior executives today is, however, a great chance for organisations and managers alike to tap into unused potentials and create new opportunities by mastering the essential challenges of…

    (1) Turning managers and administrators into leaders

    (2) Turning information processors into problem-solvers 

    (3) Moving from authority and power to strength

    (4) Moving from fragmented information to unification and interdependency

     

     

    The infinite organisation tackles these challenges by empowering the people within the company through education. The infinite organisation then drives the change internally and creates impactful spillover effects through the exploration of the unknowns. The infinite organisation is, therefore, constantly engaging and empowering their people to be learners and teachers. 

     

     

    In the following section, I want to shed light on how infinite organisations can make education a fundamental part of the operating model by taking the individual into account. 

     

     

    Learning to learn

    What might sound strange is that one of the biggest challenges in education is the actual skill of learning in itself. A root problem in a large part of educational systems is that many people never really learn how to learn effectively and efficiently. Most educational models are built on finite and absolute structures where saving information, often for one test, is the sole purpose, as in comparison to developing a deeper understanding of the subject matter. People lack fundamental skills in some of the most important capacities in learning: critical thinking, problem solving, creativity and collaboration. Educational programs are set up to gather and save knowledge as in comparison to seeking wisdom. Additionally, due to format and presentation, people are quickly bored of today’s educational programs as they do not spark curiosity and/or trigger emotions and sensory experiences. 

     

     

    Without initial curiosity and interest, the learning process is interrupted and disrupted, and the initial learning experience will most likely also end up being the end of the learning process altogether. One very important reason for the relevance of curiosity and the intrinsic motivation to mention here is the so-called “learning plateau” that every learner will experience on various stages. The learning plateau is a long, flat stretch in the learning curve in which almost no progress in learning is experienced and/or recorded.

     

     

    The learning plateau is best described as a love-hate paradox for learners. During this phase, the learning progress is almost non-existent but the adaptation of ‘the learnt’, however, is strengthened. The learning plateau is essential for learning but at the same time introduces an unbelievably exhausting challenge for the learner (e.g. loss of attention or lack of motivation) to continue and not to build up frustration. Having the fundamental skills of learning in place can be essential during learning plateau struggles to stay awake and keep going. Or in other words, interesting content that sparks curiosity makes the learner interested in the learning in tough times on the learning plateau. Through interest the learner will be ‘interesting’ and will therefore build relationships with others through collaboration and co-creation and -although it feels like stagnation- grow during this phase.

     

     

    Given that there is no one-size fits all, the infinite organisation tackles the challenges of the learning process by implementing mechanisms to enable each individual to strengthen their ability to learn through the definition of an individual learning proposition (ILP). The individual learning proposition contains three main dimensions:

    (1) Training fundamental skills that supplement learning; e.g. critical thinking, problem solving, creativity and collaboration

    (2) Aligning content according to the individual learning style and offering multi-dimensional access to the content

    (3) Providing learning environments and tools

     

     

    Training fundamental skills that supplement learning is often not addressed at all and are only reflected in standalone (often short-term) programs. These skills, however, require consistency in training and should be part of lifelong learning and all educational programs. Therefore, each and every educational activity should always include skill-based elements that foster the fundamental skills of learning. But also outside of dedicated educational activities learning skills must be trained and fostered within the organisation based on the individual learning proposition, an activity that can and should be facilitated by leaders on a daily basis: Whilst entry-level staff probably requires a mentoring approach, an experienced team member might be better off with a challenging task that requires new solutions. This is also the reason why the focus must lie on an individual learning proposition and not just a generalised learning proposition.

     

     

    Educational activities are often designed to address only elements of one or two learning styles (e.g. presentations and readings) without tapping into other learning styles (e.g. audio or haptic) and preparing the content in different formats. People that struggle with learning-by-reading will have a hard time in a textbook only format. One thing to highlight here is that even a pure textbook learner benefits from other learning styles. The ILP of each and every learner should include elements from all/different learning styles. This is significant, as most people learn best when they experience content in an assortment of ways and can engage with the material on various fronts.

     

     

    A similar approach should be chosen in the design of learning environments and the use of tools. Similar to different learning styles, everybody prefers different setups for learning. Making use of a variety of setups and tools can be helpful in designing great learning environments and offer choice to the learner to change and adapt accordingly. Choosing and creating the right environments for learning should get proper attention and not be seen as a task of simply “getting a room”. An important aspect of the learning environment is to not limit this dimension to a physical space but also have an extended perspective into virtual environments and using technology (e.g. digital campus, wikis, knowledge hubs). The infinite organisation seeks to support the learning process on all ends, respects the individuality of learning itself and creates a holistic environment for learning. 

     

     

    Establishing knowledge playgrounds

    Knowledge playgrounds act as an open environment to create initial sparks for learners to leave their comfort zone and look at things from a different perspective. It’s a playground that offers a safe space for exploration and experimentation that is open for everyone.

     

     

    Establishing such a playground to gather inspiration is more of a cultural question than an operational one. It’s certainly great if an organisation provides high-quality learning experiences and offerings, but it has almost no impact if learners can’t make use of the offerings due to cultural limitations (e.g. where learning is seen as “waste of time” or where work schedules are fully packed without any room for learning). 

     

     

    Time- and social pressure are two very big cultural challenges to face, especially when it comes to exploring something new, not immediately related to the actual job of the learner. How can you achieve progress in this area if someone who is taking a course during work hours is seen by colleagues as “the lazy guy that is ‘learning’ and not working”?

     

     

    Another cultural challenge to take into account is the outcome-driven focus of educational activities. As a comparison to absolute knowledge and output (through rigid goals) the playground focuses on inputs and delivers in the long-term without predictable outcomes, where the learners grow with every experience from the playground. The impact of the playground can therefore only be evaluated in retroperspect (if at all), and many of the long-term outcomes cannot be easily traced back to the playground. Planning, modelling, and predicting the actual outcome of learning experiments is almost impossible. This makes it hard for many learners to justify why, for example,  a course on game-design might be a good idea, even if they are working in the legal department. 

     

     

    It is not the idea for people to spend all their time on the playground, however, it is exactly this stimulation that is often needed to spur ideas to overcome existing challenges of the organisation. It is therefore an investment in the trust of progress through learning that is the very fundamental key for striving to build such a playground. It is a symbiosis of the market- and working-environment: whereas in operations (the market) there is little room for failures and the pressure is high, the ‘training field’ offers a playground where chaos and screw-ups are a part of the journey and the “everyday experience”. The infinite learning organisation therefore continuously strives towards more chaos and more stability as a part of the learning environment. 

     

     

    Embracing in-depth learning

    Learning something new and applying it does not always work out as planned. Especially in the early stages of learning, mistakes will happen and this might be seen as a “learning failure” within the organisation. However, this is not true. New knowledge needs further strengthening through in-depth understanding and reasoning in order to bring positive effects. It is like driving a car: people that just got their licence most likely drive poorly and will be stressed in many situations compared to someone who has been driving for 20 years. Training understanding and reasoning is fundamental in order to find plausible explanations and make use of new knowledge to create impact.

     

     

    A major challenge for many learners is to overcome emotional barriers to actually make use of their new skills. Being willing to prove yourself – or someone else – wrong is often a much harder challenge than the skill acquisition itself. The infinite organisation must build the capacity to reduce emotional barriers in order for employees to apply new knowledge and skills. This is achieved by embracing in-depth learning through multiple learning cycles in an open and trusted environment. In the infinite learning organisation, time is given for change to happen. Drops in performance due to the change in progress applied through new knowledge is not seen as a critical risk but rather as a temporary effect that will be overcome in the learning process itself. In fact, organisations that embrace learning are also much better at ‘change’ in general.

     

     

    Understanding and reasoning are important cultural pillars of the infinite organisation and are being seen as an active process that is demanded throughout the organisation via active dialogues, interdisciplinary collaboration and outcome-driven co-creation. By fostering these cultural pillars throughout the organisation the infinite organisation avoids spontaneous decision-making on superficial knowledge and unreflected insights.

     

     

    Embracing teaching

    Not only is teaching a great way to strengthen the learning itself (in fact it’s the best validator for in-depth understanding), but it is also a catalyst for scaling knowledge in the organisation in terms of sparking new inputs. Embracing teaching capacities within the workforce of an organisation has multiple benefits: 

    First of all knowledge can be better shared throughout the organisation. 

     

     

    Instead of sourcing only external trainers, the organisation can make use of their own teachers. In addition to their availability, a major advantage of this is the fact that the internal trainer knows much better about organisational structures and can tailor the content even better to the learner’s needs and adapt according to individual learning styles. This needs to be carefully monitored to avoid “getting stuck” and to make sure that still enough external input is delivered. A healthy mix of internal and external teaching capacities, where the goal of the external resources is to enable and qualify for internalisation, has proven to be successful. Building up internal teaching capacity also enables the organisation to offer more learning opportunities without formalising it (e.g. undefined training on the job). 

     

    All this leads to a positive impact on the learning culture itself as education becomes visible in multiple shapes and sizes within the organisation and underlines the importance of it. Education within an infinite organisation can only unfold its full potential if teaching is embraced and not left out of the equation.

     

     

    Mastering the rhetoric of teaching by practising logical argumentation and a structured approach to sharing knowledge (the logos), tapping into the emotions and connecting with the audience (the pathos) and building up and practising how to establish authority to address the audience (the ethos) are all crucial skills to grow as a teacher and also to manifest own knowledge to gain further wisdom on the topic.

     

     

    The art of teaching is therefore also a skill that must be learned.

    Learners that master the art of discourse and have the capacity to empower and activate the people within the organisation, will be the ultimate drivers for change and fundamentally shape the infinite organisation.

     

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