Sunday, May 01, 2011

42/100: The New Social Learning

I have been reading Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner's timely book, The New Social Learning, which points to the social nature of organizational learning. I would rate this book only 3 out of 5, and found parts of it quite laborious to read. Lots of it reads like PowerPoint slides put together, which makes it quite dry and difficult to engage with: However, the book nonetheless makes important points that any Learning and Development practitioner should take notice of.

The central thesis of the book is to conjoin the psychological and sociological approaches of learning theories together. Starting from the point of organizational learning, indeed Tony Bingham heads ASTD, or the American Society for Training and Development, which is one of the most respected professional associations for training and development practitioners in the world. Their approach, however, centers around facilitating a 'learning organization', through 'paving online community roads' and 'share stories around, up and out' and the like. In fact, organizations are already doing it, as evidenced in the book and elsewhere in the T&D literature, though most approaches in the profession remain focused on individual-centric approaches, like talent management.

I did some work on training for creativity in the organization a couple of months ago, and explored various approaches that T&D professionals take. However, it is interesting to see while management professionals tend to see creativity as a technical process and preserve of a few exceptional people, most literature on creativity and innovation focus on its social nature and the fact that it can be best nurtured through creating a 'creative environment' (and not a creative department, as most organizations will do). In fact, it was rather illuminating to come across the three paradigms of creativity, from I-paradigm of individual creative talent and He-paradigm of a genius to We-paradigm of social nature of creativity. I would think organizational learning should focus more and more on the social aspects of it, even when it is dealing with non-creative aspects of the business, like Health and Safety. [Some of the working notes are here]

I pick Health and Safety because this is the most boring subject that I could think of. Make no mistake, I know its value as I have had to live through evacuations caused by bomb threats during my tenure in Bangladesh. People I know died in fire incidents because they did not know the proper evacuation process. In a world full of terrorist threats, earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear meltdowns and fire hazards (as newspapers will make you believe), Health and Safety training remains one of the most crucial for an organization. But this is also T&D professionals' nightmare, because it is so boring and most people won't take it seriously unless a major problem does happen.

Now, consider the current approaches that we follow to train people. One would have a few Health and Safety 'champions', like a Fire Marshall, and they will usually be picked because they have the least important jobs to do (and therefore can spare some time). This also means that they will usually be junior in rank and have less influence on colleagues. They will then be trained and would be told to train other colleagues. The most persistent ones among them will try, either by trying to assemble colleagues for training sessions which most people will ignore, or by sending emails after emails to remind everyone that H&S does not paying heed to. The managers of the department will initially back him by sending 'stinkers' to people who are not attending the H&S sessions, but will soon start mocking the H&S emails privately. The most useful H&S training employees will ever receive will be in the first 30 seconds when the crisis actually breaks out.

Consider the other approach, if you consider the social nature of learning. Whatever the regulatory authorities may demand, H&S is an organizational priority and the T&D professionals should start by establishing that. Depending on what resources you have on your disposal, a number of things can be done: What about commissioning a film using real people on a storyline that show a possible disaster and the most dramatic bits where some expert knowledge helps to avert it; or, creating a safety culture - what about making the world's safest employee canteen - and circulating the stories around. In this approach, the focus will shift from usage of technical devices - formal training, notices, email communications - to social devices, stories, missions, champions, communities. The good news is that there is so much more resources available to help build such an environment - all the social tools that sustain our lives and phones can be tweaked to help our work lives.

So, here is the central point - despite our lives becoming intensely social, organizational learning is still not there. Companies have embarked on interesting experiments, but full scale commitments are still rare. This is an important book: Pity it is not Gladwell-esque and we still have wait for a better effort to ignite a trend.

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