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Nigel Paine

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Will 2023 be the year of organisational learning?

Organisational learning – not individual learning – is what will enable businesses to overcome their most complex problems, argues Nigel Piane.

Will 2023 be the year when L&D focuses its attention on deliberately increasing organisational learning?

For too long we have concentrated solely on building up individual learning, individual competence and individual resilience. By focusing instead on organisation-wide development we will help build organisational resilience – something we desperately need in times of uncertainty and ambiguity.

This does not mean that individual competence is no longer relevant – quite the opposite – but building organisational learning is possibly the only way that businesses will be able to thrive in the current climate.

Many organisations work against the kind of collective and spontaneous action I am envisaging.

It will also mean that individuals will learn faster in more connected communities and value their colleagues more. One great by-product will be stronger, happier and more supportive workplaces where people stay because they realise what they will lose if they leave.

I say this with great passion, but also, with some evidence to prove my points. I am writing a book on organisational learning and the research I have been doing keeps pointing more and more clearly to the power of connected learning communities and the impact this will have on work culture. My research points in one direction only.

Learning happens best through sociocultural interactions

We have known for a very long time, at least since the work of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotski in the early 20th century that learning is sociocultural not individual. And the most effective learning of all happens when we join what he called a zone of proximal development: an environment where we can learn alongside and with our peers in a space just outside our comfort zone. 

Sadly this rarely happens by chance. It requires vision and leadership and conscious decisions to modify behaviours and working practices inside an organisation to encourage such support and cooperation. 

Above all, it requires a culture that readily empowers employees and gives them permission to explore, question and secure small groups to work spontaneously on key challenges.  If you are interested to discover more, then read Vygotski's Mind in Society which is a collection of his writings pulled together in 1978 to help his ideas percolate down to a wider western audience. The chapter on learning and development (Chapter 6) is the place to start.

Work is focused on individual performance targets to the exclusion of everything else.

How does this work in practice? Google shows us.

One rare example of where this type of learning does happen is at Google. McKinsey’s most recent Insights Journal recounts this mini-case study from the tech giant:

“Notably, many successful organizations focus on creating the types of environments in which workers can teach themselves. For example, at Google, the vast majority of tracked trainings happen via an employee-to-employee network called “g2g” (Googler-to-Googler). Members of the network, which includes more than 6,000 people, offer their time to help peers develop.” 

What is required is a change to the very structure and hierarchy that promotes knowledge sharing.  Many organisations work against the kind of collective and spontaneous action I am envisaging, and actively block peer group learning in the belief that it is somehow a distraction and therefore unproductive. 

The obsession with individual performance is blindsiding us

Work is focused on individual performance targets to the exclusion of everything else. This has an in-built negative impact that discourages asking for or offering help. In such a climate only the brave few admit what they do not know or ask for help.  Essentially, you are required to get on and do your job, not anyone else’s.  The better you appear to do it, the more that you are rewarded.

You may work alongside people, but you don't work together. Your relationship and support network is never clear or tested because showing vulnerability or admitting what you do not know is not a cultural norm.  It can even be career-limiting.

In my last book, Workplace Learning, I identified that one of the key characteristics of a learning culture was widespread trust amongst colleagues, and a fundamental desire to support each other. This in turn led to an openness when it came to admitting mistakes or acknowledging when you needed help. But building trust is a shift that requires active development and careful nurturing.

If colleagues in adversity recognise the common elements of their challenges, they can work together to move the organisation forward. 

Only as a collective can we overcome our most complex business challenges

In the 1970s when Reg Revans developed his theory of action learning, he based it on the assumption that the only way ‘wicked’ problems could be approached was by collective action, not individual brilliance.  A wicked problem is one where there is no obvious solution, and as you begin to tackle it, the problem morphs.

He saw the workplace as challenging and complex and beyond the reach of ‘experts’. If colleagues in adversity recognise the common elements of their challenges, they can work together to move the organisation forward. 

The manager’s role, he envisaged, was to create that climate where such open and frank discussions among peers could be organised informally and constantly without fear of criticism or retribution and where learning could become deeply embedded in work. That inevitably leads to the recognition that organisations are complex, and that you are not only part of the solution, but, potentially, part of the problem.

Learning is at the heart of organisational development

An organisation is a collection of procedures, values and behaviours. This means changing the organisation requires changing the people in it and their behaviour. 

Creating a climate for learning, not just learning programmes, should be at the top of learning leaders’ agendas and I hope by the end of 2023 it will be.

Interested in this topic? Read 'Nine learning and development predictions for 2023.'

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