Learning is a Social Act . . . are we ‘teaching’ the wrong things?

Follow us on LinkedIn for our latest data and tips!


Learning is a Social Act . . . are we ‘teaching’ the wrong things?

We asked Todd M. Warner, Founder, Like Minds Advisory, to provide some thoughts on social learning. Below are his thoughts.

We make a ton of assumptions about organizational learning. Unfortunately, most of them are wrong. On the surface, we all seem to know what organizational learning is: people go to programs or complete e-learning modules, they learn something new, and they somehow magically become “better”. But this approach is woefully misplaced: It doesn’t represent how people in organizations really learn, hence we see massive failures across the board in the effectiveness of organizational learning.

As a result of this quandary, most organizations pursue “efficiency” in learning. They drive down internal learning budgets, and replace costly face-to-face programs with less expensive e-learning solutions, despite the fact that the completion rates of many e-learning modules is in the single digits. The thinking, I suppose, is “if it isn’t going to work, it might as well be cheap, and we should have a lot of it.” And so organizational learning is caught in a downward spiral of ineffectiveness.

To fix learning in organizations, we have to reimagine what we want people to learn, and understand how they are actually learning every day. People learn all over organizations. Indeed, most modern organizations are veritable jungle gyms of learning. The problem is that –in many instances—they’re learning the wrong things from the wrong people. They reinforce internal bias, and seek out like-minded people who perpetuate misinformation and misalignment to strategic changes, leading to an almost intractable status quo in most places. The challenge is to shift our concept of learning away from the teaching of abstract concepts, and come to terms with learning as a social artefact of every organization.

People are social; and work is a social act. Despite our attempts to simplify employees down to “Job Descriptions” and their position on the hierarchical chart, relationships matter in organizations, and we overlook them far too much. Despite the amount organizations invest in content and experts for learning programs, it is the relationships that participants value the most. The highest rated item on almost every organizational learning program’s “happy sheet” is “networking”. This ranking is frequently dismissed as nice but inconsequential, yet it teaches us a lot about what is missing in organizational learning.

The reality is that in the 21st Century, content is a commodity. If people want to learn something new, they can go to Ted.Com, Khan Academy, or a myriad of other locations that offer content for free. What people yearn for is context and connection—ways to make the social aspect of work more meaningful and impactful. Real learning is social in organizations, and people –through their scores on “happy sheets” have been telling us this for years. It’s time for organizational learning approaches catch up.

To seize on embedding learning in the social system of work, organizations must start retooling their approaches to learning: Invest in context, not content, throw great parties, and leverage leaders as your best teachers.

Invest In Context, Not Content.

Despite the amount we invest in corporate learning, research by McKinsey and the Corporate Executive Board tells us that more than 70% of corporate initiatives fail. Further, “Strategy Execution” is regularly touted as the most vexing challenge for CEO’s. if the job of corporate learning is to make organizations better and more nimble, we’re failing.

People work in rich contexts that they create with others—they create social norms, they dictate the unspoken standards that they and their peers work to, and they define who to collaborate with and who to avoid. All of this is done locally, in “tribes” of employees, beyond the gaze of corporate policy. Research tells us that peer expectations are more important to performance than hierarchical expectations. It is this local context that organizations should be investing their learning dollars around.

One way to reorient learning to context is to use Functions as teachers. Every organization has functions that wield a disproportionate amount of power –the typical suspects are Finance, Procurement, and Audit. These Functions, due to their power over local teams, can be incredibly powerful agents to teach the organization. In one organization, the new leader of the Audit Function (which was almost universally feared and loathed) decided that he wanted to cultivate a more pro-active “learning” footprint. The Audit Process and outputs were retooled away from “catching people out” toward “identify and spreading best practices.” While this shift may not seem material, because it was built into the teams and the way they executed their work, the on-the-ground impact, and the effectiveness of the Audit team improved dramatically. Rather than being the “death squad” that organization feared, they became the “pollinators” that sought out and spread great ideas. While they still delivered their auditing requirements, the shifts in their approach caused the organization to engage with them and their outputs in entirely new ways, and the organization started to learn from them in ways previously not imagined.

When we focus on context, we should bear in mind a handful of critical questions: How do we connect people around the expectations and challenges that really matter? What is implicit in our local practices that is wrong? How do we embed learning into the ways teams work, day to day? The most pressing learning issues of the 21st century involve application and translation to real work, not the shiny new models typically peddled in learning programs.

Throw Great Parties

On a social level, a great party is “great” because of the mix of people that are gathered, and the freshness of ideas and dialogue that are generated (“good wine” can also help). Organizational learning needs to throw great parties at the points in the value chain where it will yield real impact.

One Pharmaceutical Research and Development organization built multi-day learning “parties” into key transition points in the drug development cycle. Not only did this help accelerate the transition timeline between phases of development, but it yielded a hugely valuable way for the organization to capture (and action) knowledge –yielding a knowledge management system that people actually valued and used.

People in organizations long for new connections and fresh dialogue, but they typically accept that they are prisoners to the intransigence of the status quo. Learning in organizations has to be built into the value chain where it will yield the most impact. By identifying and throwing the right parties, organizational learning can help people in the organization learn what will really help them do their work better.

In a corporate environment, learning has to move away from abstraction, and it has to help real people, doing real work, make new connections to improve performance. When we become too abstracted about this focus, we miss the critical role that learning can play in the real relationships and the real interactions that occur millions of times a day across organizations.

The key to a good party is provocative dialogue. Most people in organizations have been domesticated to go along with things; they need to be woken up, and provoked with fresh stories and ideas in the context of their real work. One of the keys to a great learning party is provoking the right dialogue. This is an art form that can be cultivated, but it is vital to avoid rote, formulaic events . . . suprising people and making them think in new ways, with new people, around real work is a massively valuable learning lever.

Leverage Leaders As Your Best Teachers

Your leaders teach every day; they’re just not aware that they are teaching. In a number of organizations, we’ve focused intensely on enabling “Leader Led” learning. To be clear, my approaches are not your parents’ “leader led learning” of 65 Power Point slides covered in 60 minutes. Leaders must build the skill to invite and provoke dialogues.

In one large-scale transformation project in Austral-asia, our team worked with the top 400 leaders of a Financial Services company, in intact teams, to help leaders translate their insights from a program back to the day to day. The sessions were co-led by an external facilitator and the leader, and the focus was not on content, it was on translation to the context of the team. The leaders were held accountable, by the facilitators, for engaging their teams with openness, curiosity, and vulnerability.

The impact was striking. Rather than getting hung up on outside cases, and interesting models, teams actually engaged around the ways that they worked, and what they could do differently. The impact on the normal operating routines of these teams, and their collective impact on the organization yielded significant improvements in change agility and performance of the organization.

Good organizational learning needs to focus on harnessing and focusing leaders as the best teachers within the organization. Hierarchy is a strong lever in organizations, and if leaders can build some skills and get the right tools to teach their people, the impact can be incredibly powerful.

Closing Thoughts

People learn in organizations, every day. They create their own “why”, but they frequently do this in isolated bubbles around familiar populations. Organizations need to shift from focusing on the traditional “nouns” of corporate learning, to focusing on the “verbs” of getting people connected with others in compelling ways. At its starting point, organizations should recognize that people are smart, if you give them the right bread crumbs, they’ll find the right way.

People in modern organizations long for dialogue, connection, and shared purpose . . . all things that organizations are woeful at enabling). The next horizon for organizational learning has to help people generate these points of connection through their real work.