Iceberg…. Straight Ahead

The main focus of HRD (Human Resource Development) Departments, I’d venture to say, is creating structured learning activities; planning employee ‘on-boarding’, skill re-certifications, in-services on new equipment, introductions to corporate concepts like the world of ‘lean’ practices, etc.

It seems we are quite fond of having everyone congregate in a room (virtual classrooms was a big advancement for us) so that we can deliver a lecture with an accompanying power point presentation…… please tell me no one is still using THIS :). It’s our comfort zone; it helps us to ensure that the class unfolds exactly as WE planned, that we cover every point WE believe is salient.

However, I think we might have missed the memo…. Authors like Berg and Chyung (citing Cross 2007) have found that 80% of workplace learning occurs through ‘informal’ means. It’s the learning that takes place outside of a classroom setting – unstructured, experiential, non-institutional learning. And they report that although the majority of learning is now ‘informal’, only 20% of our investment in learning is dedicated to enhancing informal learning (p 230).

With the rapid change and supercomplexity in our organizations that I spoke of a few months back, it seems only sensible that the only way we’ll keep up and thrive is with a commitment to life long and ‘informal learning’. An impressive example, is the ability to reach out and find the definition of ‘informal learning’ recorded by Jay Cross (who I just quoted in the previous paragraph) at my fingertips via Web 2.0. It’s all part of the ‘participatory web’ that he describes. Or that an expert like Jay would be willing to share his passion for the topic via his wikiThe push/pull learning that he describes on his ‘’, where “Training is something that’s pushed on you; informal learning is something you’re pulled into. Many a knowledge worker will tell you, ‘I love to learn but I hate to be trained.’ Knowledge workers thrive when given the freedom to decide how they will do what they are asked to do”….

Aren’t we usually the best judge of where our knowledge deficits are? Don’t we have the best sense of the educational strategy that appeals to us? Shouldn’t transference be what each of us is striving for (both teacher and learner)?

As with most occasions in life…. somewhere in the middle usually lies the truth. Accuse me of vacillating, but  I found myself agreeing with Svensson, Randle & Bennich and their claim that both formal and informal learning are needed to create innovative and useful knowledge. As they suggest:

Both formal education and informal learning have severe limitations if the ambition is to develop competent employees for the present and the future labour market. Formal education is more likely to lead to the production of abstract and sterile theoretical knowledge, while informal learning is geared to practical knowledge that it is short-sighted and instrumental. Competence, as we have defined it, is based on a combination of theoretical and practical elements; the former element contributing to the generality and innovativeness of the knowledge and the latter guaranteeing the usefulness of what is learnt. (p 776)

At present, however, the scales seem  heavily tipped with our comfort in delivering formal training in HRD. So, I’ll spend the remainder of this post sharing some potential ideas that we might incorporate to reach that balance.


An interesting finding in the research of Berg and Chyung was that as age increased, so did the interest in engaging in informal activities like searching the web, and reading printed professional magazines and journals (p 238). In my own world, access to the web is still fairly limited on nursing units and handhelds are viewed with trepidation in patient care areas  AND I’m not sure how many of my colleagues know how to access our library services on-line or which are the most user-friendly data bases….. PLUS that would mean we’d also have to ensure they have time dedicated to informal learning.

I enjoyed the idea that people learn easily and are happy with learning situations where they are not aware that they are learning. As Simons, Germans & Ruijters suggest, it’s where learning is a side effect of working and problem solving. These authors offer that it won’t occur automatically and still needs to be organized by providing opportunities for responsibility, reflection, feedback, innovation and autonomy. They also suggest that measures are needed to ensure that learning remains possible – because task goals tend to take priority and  dominate learning goals (p 45)….. So how do we ensure that employees have those teachable moments? Allow them to find the answers themselves, encourage them to share their new-found knowledge with colleagues? Encourage colleagues to pair up to take on the day’s work? Ensure that time for informal learning, isn’t time that we fill with another task. Perhaps we can ask an employee to create the new policy we need or host the next team meeting OR next time someone makes a mistake, lets congratulate them on trying something new rather than pointing out their failures. There must be ways that we can ‘sneak’ in a little learning…. and according to Simons et al, they’ll appreciate that we tricked them!

Another finding of Berg and Chyung was that ‘level of interest in one’s current field’ was identified as affecting engagement in informal learning the most. People tend to be intrinsically motivated to spend time on things that interest them and ‘monetary rewards’ have the least impact on informal learning (p 239)….. Finding what makes each employee tick is the benchmark of a true leader. I’ve always agreed with Hertberg’s motivation theory that I cover in my own class. It identifies money as a ‘hygiene’ factor….. it doesn’t motivate, but it limits dis-satisfaction. (Do we really think that the NHL players will come back to work ‘happier’ when this current dispute is FINALLY settled?)

Building on the research above, Brake, Champion, Fuller, Gabel & Busch (citing a study of teachers reported by Lohman) found that:

To promote informing learning in the workplace, organizations should design employees’ work areas and schedules to allow opportunity and time for collegial integration and sharing. In addition, they should ensure that employees have access to adequate computer technology and the Internet, which would enable access to needed information in a timely manner. (p 348)

I’ve been at a number of meetings lately where we’ve talked about the ‘new’ design for offices and the move to open concept spaces. Where inter-professional teams are co-located and work, plan and problem solve as a team. It’s an intriguing concept…. but one that we are having a little trouble selling.

There is also a role for supervisors according to Coetzer; who suggests that we need to foster employee learning through engaging in a range of employee development interventions like providing feedback and coaching, delegating challenging work assignments, and reinforcing learning. Or as the managers interviewed by Armson & Whiteley were quoted as saying: “I could probably interact more with them [employees], make them feel like an individual and not a number, chat with people, encourage them with positive feedback or sometimes sitting back and listening” (p 420). Sometimes I think we make it harder than it really is….. Just last week, I asked one of my team members how they were going to approach a dicey situation and agreed that we’d ‘just listen’.

Finally, I particularly liked this idea of  Berg and Chyung (citing Livingstone 2000):

The tendency of researchers [is] to compare informal learning to an iceberg, explaining that while a small portion is observable, the vast majority of it takes place in subtle forms that are not easily observed and documented. We suggest other researchers pay attention to this hidden phenomenon in workplace learning and use ethnographic research methodologies to uncover variables that may be crucial to developing a learning organization (p 240).

Observing and documenting our practices as teams; trying to uncover more than just the superficial practices that work presents, may prove to be an exciting and interesting research opportunity. We need to find out more about what makes informal learning so successful? And how might we create our own ‘invisibility cloak’ for workplace learning practices.

What have YOU seen out there? How did you trick someone into learning lately?

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How many ‘loops’ in your organizational learning?

I attended an interesting presentation this week on enhancing our organizational culture. What it will take to make our organization a great place to work? How we might emulate our friends at FCC? Etc.

When I perused the list of bullet points presented by the consultants, I immediately thought that excluding the need to become an organization that is continuously learning was a palpable oversight (literally my heart raced a little)…. Given my passion for the topic, I asked the question AND was relieved to see it show up a few slides later as a future state for our organization….

The reason I provide this backdrop, is to help you understand the conversation that followed and the colleague who stopped me after the presentation to ask how I might define ‘continuous learning’….. it was my chance….. carpe diem…. finally a forum to share all of this information I’ve been gathering over the term.

What I offered (in the 5 minutes that followed) was my own definition of creating an organization that: is mobile, is willing to change practices when new information becomes available, supports employees when mistakes are made and to take risks, encourages learning at all levels – from individual to organizational, finds ways to ‘transfer’ learning, and supports ‘single to triple loop learning’….. (yes I really can talk that fast & no I didn’t use this new-found jargon with my colleague.)

It was quite a different definition from my colleague’s. Her definition was a more traditional one – where practicing continuous learning means providing regular in-services for employees and supporting professional development. Two important aspects, BUT, I’d offer that in today’s environment we need to do more AND, perhaps the starting point is to design a common definition for ‘organizational learning’ if we are going to be successful in this goal.

THERE…. a NARRATIVE to set the stage for this post 🙂

So how did I do with my 5 minute elevator speech? Well, one of my favorite definitions of a ‘learning organization’ (or as I like to say – an organization that practices continuous learning) comes from Garvin:

A learning organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights. (p 2)

Or to enhance that definition,  Garvin & Edmonson  in their short video help us to understand why we as leaders need to support learning at all levels of our organizations. How we need to make it safe to take risks and report mistakes; the importance of creating concrete and systematic processe; and our commitment to develop ways to reflect on past practice. The authors recommend that we start with our own groups and model the behaviors – show curiosity, ask a lot of questions, admit when things are puzzling, acknowledge uncertainty, invite others input….. some pretty straight forward ideas to get us going.

Vassalou‘s adaptation of the work of Goh helped me to visually describe the concept of a learning community:

The Learning Community

As Vassalou suggests, the basic building blocks of a learning organization are: a widely shared and understood mission, dynamic and actively involved leadership, knowledge dissemination and sharing, brainstorming and team problem solving, and an openness to responsible risk taking and a willingness to acknowledge failures and learn from them. Supporting the learning organization is a structure that encourages upward and downward information sharing with minimal boundaries and hierarchies, and life long learning practices where employees possess the right skills and are capable of single, double and triple loop learning (p 357). When I think back to the presentation I attended this week – these are exactly the characteristics that we need to commit to if we are going to become a high performing and learning culture.

So, those in the know regularly use the ‘loop’ terms for describing organizational learning…. and I found it somewhat difficult to pinpoint the various levels prior to reading the work of Vassalou. She helped me get a handle on the three types of organizational learning. It makes a lot of sense when you say it this way….. “single-loop is about ‘doing the same things differently’, double-loop is about ‘doing completely different things’ and triple-loop is ‘changing the assumptions about the way things are done'” (p 355). As she went on to explain (citing Argyris 1977):

In single loop learning, decisions are based solely on observations and result in the correction of errors. Double-loop-learning encourages critical rethinking of the existing knowledge, which has proven inadequate. Finally, triple-loop learning forces the individual to challenge deep-rooted assumptions and norms that have previously been inaccessible, because they were either unknown or known but undiscussable. p 355

When you reflect on the concepts identified in each ‘loop’, it encapsulates what I would hope a learning organization would as discussed in an earlier post, ‘act’ their way into.  Where leaders resist the temptation to assimilate and encourage questioning and calculated risk taking….. where it is safe to discuss and challenge deeply rooted assumptions and norms. It also speaks to an organization that involves the HRD (Human Resource Development) representatives at senior level discussions…. not where ‘training’ is an after-thought or an accreditation requirement to provide mandatory in-services or skill re-certification.

The final question that I’ll briefly tackle in this post, is to ask if an ‘organization’ can really learn, or is it really just the collective learning, experiences and actions of individuals. The analytical me knows that a ‘non-human entity’ can’t learn, but the reflective/reflexive me recognizes that how an organization reacts to change, and the importance that leaders place upon formal and informal learning is more than just offering up some in-services to our employees or a sum of the parts. As  Vassalou asks:

Organizations are not merely collections of individuals, yet there are no organizations without such collections. Similarly, organizational learning is not merely individual learning, yet organizations learn only through the experience and actions of individuals. What, then, are we to make of organizational learning? What is an organization that it may learn?

It didn’t take me long to realize that this question, could have been an entire term of reading all on its own…. but suffice it to say, most authors feel that individual learning is more related to skills and processes where organizational learning monitors outcomes and includes a variety of environmental and political impacts.

As Berg and Chyung (citing Marsick & Watkins 2001 & O’Neil 2003) relay :

While each level of learning has distinct attributes, all three contribute to the success of a learning organization. At the organizational level, learning is described as a collective experience and tends to result from the need to respond to an organization’s environmental influences. The group level of learning is described as the mutual construction of new knowledge including the capacity for concerted, collaborative action. Learning at the individual level is the way in which people obtain knowledge and skills, through the promotion of inquiry and dialogue and the creation of continuous learning opportunities.

For me, the important take away is that we need to encourage learning at all levels. As Wilhelm helps us to understand: investing in individuals drives employee engagement, attention to groups encourages innovation and thinking outside the boundaries of employees day-to-day jobs and learning at an organizational level encourages alignment of employees and leaders around the organizational vision and strategy.

So tomorrow (perhaps over your bowl of fruit loops)….. why not think about the importance of the various loops of learning required for our organizations to become ‘organizations that are continuously learning’.

Thoughts from those with more or similar experiences?

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What’s in a Story?

It was just another Wednesday morning….. moving from meeting to meeting, maneuvering the ruts that the recent snow storm had left, and thinking about what was next on my list of projects, and how much work awaited me as I returned to my office. As I walked down the halls (perhaps it was the air of familiarity in my pace and the briefcase in hand that made them ask), I stopped briefly as I heard someone call out – excuse me…. can you help.

I stopped in my tracks….. a bit disappointed with my own lack of attention to my surroundings. There she was, an elderly woman with tears in her eyes and the sound of fear in her voice. She was trying to find her way; probably because a loved one or her husband of many years had just been brought into the hospital or had taken a turn for the worse…. She was alone and distraught and wasn’t able to follow the directions she’d been given by our switchboard. I looked at the piece of paper in her hand and started to offer her directions…. and immediately thought WHAT ARE YOU DOING….. nothing at this moment could be more important than helping this woman to get where she needs to be. So I stopped and said, why don’t I just accompany you to where you need to go. As we slowly walked down the hallway and we talked, she apologized for the ‘rust on her brain’ that morning. I re-assured her, and let her know that she had no need to worry – we’d get where she needed to be and we all have some rust that needs shaking off first thing in the morning. With others around I didn’t feel comfortable asking her to relay her story, or to ask why her brain was rusty that morning. BUT we safely got to her destination and her thanks and her touch on my arm as we parted said all that needed to be said….. When we forget that the most important part of what we do each day – is to take the time to walk with a patient or family member and help them navigate the unfamiliarity of our culture….. I’d say, we’ve lost our way.

Did it work? Was my story memorable? Was it easy to understand? Did I tell too much or too little? Was it believable? ‘Rememberable’? Entertaining? Did you identify with the character? Did it as Rossiter suggests, stimulate your empathetic orientation and provide a basis for both cognitive and emotional responses. Did it allow you to experience the story and the world views of another? As Rossiter suggests, there is power in stories, they can lead to experience based, constructivist pedagogy (p 1).

It was with my continued search for how we transform our cultures that I came across the work of Lamsa and Sintonen this week, and their advice that:

narratives are useful tools for interpreting and transforming abstract values into an understandable and rememberable form at the practical level among the organizational members. (p 108)

These narratives help us to reflect upon the type of organization we want to be. Perhaps they help us to move past single loop learning (stay tuned yet another post coming on that topic)….. and change our assumptions about the way things are done around here. I’d hope that anyone in my organization would have done the same thing on Wednesday morning OR, that they’d relate to my story and think a bit differently the next time they are faced with a similar situation. I didn’t save a life on Wednesday, it was just another day at the office – BUT, I hope my actions made a difference.

If I were creating the banner that hangs at our front entrance, I’d hope it would simply say – ‘our team is here to help when you need us’.

As  Lamsa and Sintonen suggest:

narratives not only define who we are but also what kind of an organization and what kind of people we should be. Thus they also tell us about the wishes, aims and morals of an organization. The participatory narrative enables the members of the organization to commit to self-reflection, and it serves as a method for their learning. (p 108)

A few years ago, our culture started down the path of the importance of stories. In the portfolio that I was part of, we started every meeting with a story. BUT, we’ve become so busy as of late, that we’ve started to slip back to old ways and old habits. As with anything, cultural changes are only sustained with continued dedication…… So, after my readings and critical reflection this week, I’ve sent a note to my teams and have updated our meeting agendas…… 1.0 on the agenda  now reads: positive stories of the week & thank you’s. As I talked about last week, it’s time to start ‘acting’ my way into it again :).

That little yellow challenge flag has been thrown…..Thoughts? Ideas? Your story?

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Can we become the culture that ‘learns the fastest’?

I recently spent some time in a beach chair (after a busy day on the golf course), reading a bit more about organizational culture. What does it mean? Why is it important?  And why do some organizations seem to drive excellence while others have a ‘that’s how its done around here’ attitude?

According to Glisson (2007) “a number of studies in various types of organizations link culture and climate to service quality, service outcomes, worker morale, staff turnover, the adoption of innovations, and organizational effectiveness (p 739 )”. For example, when we enter a hospital and a banner greets us that reads – the employees and physicians of X welcome you to our institution (FYI – this is a real life example) – we know we’ve likely hit upon a site where culture creates a sense of purpose and a feeling of family….. where people are valued for their expertise, where the stories we tell about colleagues are positive and supportive.  So what do they do differently at a place like X to create the type of culture we all hope to have?

With my own interest in healthcare, I loved the bold statement from James Anderson (retired CEO of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center)….. who publicly declared that their organizational aim was to ‘become the organization that can learn the fastest’ and their goal is to ‘be the safest hospital’. Now that’s a leader with a clear vision of what a culture should be. A leader who models the change he wants to see. He and his team have defined excellence in their culture.

Changing corporate culture is difficult. According to Beer & Nohria about 70% of these cultural changes fail – mainly because we immerse ourselves in ‘an alphabetic soup of initiatives’…. I’m sure we all have organizational stories of our ‘flavor of the day’ initiatives where our employees just keep their heads down and wait for the next flavor, OR stories of the plethora of projects we ask our staff to take on at one time – with no additional resources or a firm commitment to stay the course and measure outcomes. BUT change is a topic for another post, so I’ll return to a focus on culture.

The signs and symptoms of an unhealthy culture (according to FCC) include a:

lack of teamwork; poor communication; siloed behaviour; infighting and competition for scarce resources; unclear objectives; overly complex customer interface; and blame, finger-pointing, fear, and mistrust. Organizations may do well on the bottom line in the short-term despite problems with the culture, but in the long-term an unhealthy culture leads to poor performance. (p 3)

Ultimately, the old adage that culture trumps strategy – is true….. the best strategy in isolation will fail every time.  I like the idea that culture isn’t “what we say, it’s what we do without asking”. “Where a healthy culture allows us to produce something with each other not in spite of each other” according to Nilofer Merchant.

What does it say about a culture, when on your first day of orientation, the CEO and Senior Leadership Team meet each new employee and say this is ‘how we do things around here’….. its our culture and the expectation of each of us on the team at FCC. Now that’s a culture that gets recognized and one where people say, I want to work there.

So….. what can WE do in our own organizations to transform our cultures?

There is a lot of great advice out there on leading cultural reform. For me, what resonates is the data specifically related to healthcare transformation. Back at James Anderson, building a culture of reliability includes things like: constantly asking why, a commitment to resilience, front line leaders rounding daily with staff giving 5:1 positive to negative feedback …..these are just a few of the examples you’ll find (on their website) of a transformed culture.

Christine Daley endorses the attitude of Anderson, and identifies that health care organizations often have trouble learning from our failures and using what we learn to make sustainable change. She quotes Senge and his belief that organizations have to strive to become learning organizations (or perhaps better described in my last post as those who practice organizational learning).  As Senge suggests, this process is one “by which individuals continue to expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free and where people are continually learning how to learn together (p 26)”.

What I’ve found, is that we are trying to change our culture of blame….. but so far, we have only created pockets of safety for our staff, it’s not safe everywhere and with everyone – we still have lots of work left to do. We often forget that practitioners are usually devastated by an error, sometimes they never recover. And rather than support them because we know it was the system that failed and not the well-meaning individual; instead we remind them constantly that they were the cause…. BUT, its hard in an industry when errors mean harm to the patients we work so hard to protect. When our errors end up on the front page of the paper and in a court room where the outcome is still to assign blame and cost.

It would be great if jargon like collaboration, innovation, creativity and continual self-transformation and learning could be terms that we take to heart in our healthcare cultures. I paused when I read Daley’s example of ‘knowing less than our individual members’ – where nurses are aware of new research that would enhance patient outcomes but are asked to work according to outdated organizational policies and practices (p 27). These comments were front and centre for me at a meeting this week, where we talked about specific policies that we are working on and the need to stop the ‘continuous tweaking’, that we should be satisfied with what we’ve got and move on to other and more important things. I wanted to say, stop, but, but, but….. there must be a way for us to continuously adapt our culture. We can’t just move on and be satisfied – but, being new to the committee I stayed silent (and thought yep, this IS how we do things around here)….

I  subscribe to Daley’s ideas of how we bring organizational learning theory to patient care:

Perhaps these themes (specifically adapted to our culture) will help us to see that organizations that practices continuous learning are likely also the ones that see cultural transformation.

Conceivably what’s working at FCC, can also be the 7 steps that will lead reform for us in healthcare:

  1. Identifying a need for change
  2. Establishing and articulating the vision
  3. Enlisting the appropriate help
  4. Leading from the top
  5. Communicating to engage all
  6. Sustaining the new culture
  7. Measuring progress

If it was/is possible at FCC, I believe that we all have bright people in our cultures who can also make it possible. When I look at my own culture (with my rose-colored glasses on),  I choose to believe we have: identified the need for change (#1), enlisted the external help that we’ll need (#3) AND I am hopeful that our leadership team holds ourselves as accountable and responsible to lead the change (#4). Now its up to all of us to ‘act our way into it’ as you’ll see next.

When I’m struggling to find a way to innovate or see my way to the end, the IHI (Institute for Healthcare Improvement) is often my guiding compass. This summer, they published an article that told me that creating a culture of excellence is not as difficult as we might think. They recommend that we ‘act’ our way into it…. that new cultures are not planned out on paper, but are acted out over time. They offer that there are a few ‘vital behaviors’ that create desired results – perhaps for front line staff it’s always asking for help or that leaders will visit the front lines every day….. but over time, if we all ‘act’ the same way and our teams see that this is the new normal, we’ll create a new attitude in our workforce. According to IHI, gone will be statements like ‘well those things just happen’ and ‘we’re not like them’ and instead we’ll hear ‘how could we’ and ‘why don’t we’ ( p 69).

It seems like a pretty simple theory…

It makes me think about the famous quote that many people have at the bottom of their e-mails that reads…. ‘be the change you want to see’ (Gandhi). And here I’ve been the one skeptical of those canned quotes…. seems they are effective after all.

SO….. that’s a lot of surmising (from a beach chair), but it has given me a new energy for what’s ahead and a bit of personal CPR for where our organizational culture is going. What about you – are you willing to ‘act your way into’ a new culture where we commit to ‘learning the fastest’?


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Should we call ourselves ‘learning organizations’?

If anyone has just tuned in recently, you might be wondering about my recent obsession with topics on a similar theme. Well, since it was a few posts ago that I explained this, I’ll reiterate that I’m studying independently this term and using my blog as a means of critically reflecting upon the reading and writing I’m doing for a class entitled “Learning in the Workplace”.

I’m finding that I’m likely a more arduous task master when I’m personally being held accountable for my progress than when I’m provided with a required reading list…. SO I’d encourage you to offer blogging and critical reflection up as an option for your learners…. I think it works.

ANYWAY……This week, I thought by the titles that I chose, that I would be starting to assemble and synthesize data on techniques for workplace learning (as I’m required to submit a paper on this topic)….. the literature again had much to offer, but I found a few concepts that I felt were foundational to the topic and that required a bit of attention prior to a focus on techniques.

The first concept that intrigued me was a definition by Rashman et al (citing Gorelick 2005): “if organizational learning is seen as a continuous learning cycle, then an organization can not arrive at a point in time when it declares itself a ‘learning organization’, a noun or an end state. On the other hand, any organization can identify with being in a constant state of learning and declare itself to be practicing organizational learning (p 470).

The idea of practicing organizational learning, appeals to me. It encourages us to remain ever vigilant and to guard against complacency with our techniques. It means staying in touch with recent literature – perhaps by setting up RSS feeds to help us keep up OR by recognizing that simulation is not just a fad and that it is one of the best ways to engage learners actively. It’s a technique that begs us to review those mandatory re-certifications that we do each year and ask – isn’t there a better way…..

The second notion that I gravitated to, was to find a model that could help me explain why some organizations are successful at practicing organizational learning and why others struggle.  Won Yoon et al (2009), (p 62) suggest that the flow of learning and knowledge should look like this:

As the model suggests, organizational learning starts with members’ expertise and information sharing. It increases when members socialize and adapt to new ideas. Validation occurs when members transform the knowledge into meaningful and practical knowledge. For this new knowledge to be applied, it will need to be justified as applicable to the work setting and then embedded into the nonverbal climate and underlying norms through reflective practice. Finally, for new learning to be sustained it requires organizational support, appreciation for diverse perspectives, group collaboration, trust, empowerment, collaborative problem solving and strategic leadership (p 62 – 64).

What I like about the model is its relevance to our current environment of supercomplexity. It is modern and inclusive and recognizes that to be successful, organizations will need to value both their employees and their leaders. It recognizes that a culture of ‘top down’ management is doomed to fail – as without the individuals’ knowledge and trust, organizational learning won’t be possible. It also advocates for employee support and the need for a culture of safety – where we learn from our mistakes.

I liked the quote by Simon (1991) who claims that “all learning takes place inside individual human heads; an organization learns in only two ways: a) the learning of its members, or b) by ingesting new members who have knowledge the organization previously didn’t have (p. 125).” Perhaps the model that Won Yoon’s group describes above is the way that we’ll get this learning out of individual’s heads and embedded into our organizations and cultures.

The final concept that I highlighted this week, was the recognition that organizational learning is unique within private and public sector organizations. The two sectors share some complex challenges, but according to Rashman et al (2009) they have different drivers and goals for knowledge. They also have different purposes, structures, and stakeholders. As the authors suggest (citing Hartley 2006), “if the purpose, drivers, catalysts and key actors are different between sectors, it is possible that the nature of knowledge and knowledge creation differ also (p 465)”.

In their systematic review, the authors found that there is negligible research on learning and knowledge transfer in the non-profit sectors. I see this as both an opportunity and a curse……  It supports my own research interests and the importance of specifically examining organizational learning and knowledge in the public-sector. BUT, as a practitioner, it requires me to review what is written with a degree of scepticism; as it may have limited relevance to the population and culture that I’m part of.

I’ve often been part of the public/private debate…. habitually the lone voice saying – we are different. I’ve witnessed much of what Rashman et al (2009) spoke of –  both large and small ‘P’ politics in action and I’ve been under the microscope when spending from the public purse (don’t actually disagree with this :)). We try to show value that isn’t motivated by profit and find ways to recognize our best and brightest when HR policies make it quite tough. We’ve struggled with being nimble and moving our large workforce expeditiously, and although we work together we have silos within professions and across boundaries.  We’ve become accustomed in healthcare to doing things a certain way and at times…. perhaps we’ve used our patients as an alibi – knowing that everyone values healthcare and will cut us a pass when we feel we had no other choices. We believe that we just can’t make mistakes – people will die…. and are still having trouble believing that we need to admit to, support (rather than blame), and learn from our mistakes  – as we’re good human’s in bad systems. Yep…… it’s official – we’re different from private.

The whole idea of culture and leadership (stay tuned as these are my other research questions this term) – are important concepts in supporting learning, especially in public organizations. As Moynihan and Landuyt (2009) found:

Leaders seeking to foster learning should recognize that most relevant organizational variables combine structural and cultural aspects, which are mutually dependent on one another. The strongest influences are the existence of work groups that are purpose driven and incorporate the views of all members, including dissenting views. Such learning forums can be fostered through formal requirements, but they need appropriate cultural characteristics to succeed. Mission, orientation, decision authority, information systems and resource adequacy are also positively related to improved organizational learning. (p 1097)

I liked the author’s idea of giving employees some ‘elbow room’; empowering those closest to the work to have input into how work is structured and the permission to experiment.

I’ve recently been reinvigorated by our journey in lean – it’s not a panacea but its the best thing I’ve seen in years to address the learning challenges I highlighted above in the public sector. I love the idea of  A Little Less Planning: A Lot More Doing… sign me up. Most days lately I shake my head and ask – what took us so long? But no sense in dwelling on that.

So as we move ahead with the many changes coming, it will be important to reflect on all the good work that has gotten us to this point. AND in my opinion, it’s also important to be comfortable with being different…… and rather than trying to imitate private – we need to put strategies in place to do a better job of practicing organizational learning – public style.


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When do I reflect, critically reflect or use reflexivity….. or is it all just navel gazing?

This week I thought I’d focus on the HRD (Human Resource Development) literature that had been recommended to me for the term. I got through a number of the articles, but with each page turned (or these days scrolled), I became increasing confused about the differences between reflection, critical reflection and reflexivity.  With the repetition of use of these terms in the literature, it seemed a reasonable diversion….. to spend a bit of time clarifying each label.

As I searched, I soon found I’m not alone with my quest for a simple definition. I agreed with Swan (2008), as I also found in my reading that the term ‘critical’ often ‘sneaks away’ or ‘slips out of view’ and authors just talk about reflection (even John Dewey did it in the great picture above ). And as Swan suggests, that might reduce reflection to mere navel gazing.

My empirical roots started to show…. as I wanted the literature to just provide me with a black and white answer. And as you’ll see below, what I found were many shades of gray (and no I’m not referring to my roots). I found Swan’s summaries (p. 389) of a variety of the experts on this topic really helpful…..

Reflection: concerned with practical questions about what courses of action can best lead to the achievement of goals or solutions of specific problems.

Critical Reflection: seen as confronting underlying assumptions, in particular about the context, and involves engaging with individual, organizational or social problems with the aim of changing the condition which gave rise to them, as well as providing the basis for personal change… critical reflection is imagined to go deeper….means questioning hidden assumptions and the operations of power.

Reflexivity: understood as a kind of generalized self-awareness that all of us have to engage with due to contemporary changes in social and cultural life. Reflexivity involves the capability of us to constantly reflect upon, examine,  and revise who we are and what we do in the light of new knowledge… Individual reflexivity is both a consequence and an attribute of late modernity and the disappearing importance of customs, traditions and social structures such as gender, class and ethnicity – ‘detraditionalization’.

What impressed me most about Swan’s interpretation was her interest in a more contemporary view of ‘the other’. A broader view of the cultural, social and political influences on today’s society….. I could relate to the work of Giddens and Beck (reported by Swan) that spoke of reflexive as able to distance ourselves from the world. Able to examine and revise who we are in the light of new knowledge. Able to break from tradition and able to overcome fixed attributes such as gender and age. In the world of ‘supercomplexity’ (four posts ago) survival will depend on our adaptability, our ability to be reflexive and our ability to use ‘knotworking’ (three posts ago).

I also found that Bolton (2009) had some good advice to offer. As he reported that reflection “enables practitioners to learn from experience about themselves, their work,  and the way they relate to home and work, significant others and wider society and culture” (p. 3). He went on to advise that reflective practices only lead to change in learning organizations with coaches and facilitators and not where top down organizational visions are imposed. Critically reflective practitioners have increased morale, commitment to clients, openness to multiple perspectives and creative innovative non-dichotomous solutions and clearer boundaries (p.5)…. What separates reflection (again the critical got dropped) from navel gazing, according to Bolton, is that it supports and demands that practitioners think about values. Finally, he suggests that reflexivity is finding strategies to question our own attitudes, thought processes, values, assumptions, prejudices and habitual actions, to strive to understand our complex roles in relation to others. Its to examine how we unwittingly are involved in creating social and professional structures counter to our own values (p. 14).

Again Bolton seemed to be preparing us for what we see in our workplaces today. He wanted us to consider how we might shake up our curriculums, question our actions or the taken for granted. I appreciated his comment of how we ‘spend so much time studying medicine that we never have time to study sick people’ (p. 9). I can’t wait to try the idea of being reflexive by asking learners to step outside themselves and re-write a personal story from the perspective of the patient. Or to give students the opportunity to rewind and break the rules the next time the plot unfolds.

Schon encourages us to become reflective practitioners (again note the critical is absent) and remember that we learn best by doing.  It makes sense (as he suggests) to become ‘critically reflective’ or perhaps even ‘reflexive’ by reviewing and critiquing our instincts (reflecting-on-action) as well as reflecting-in-action. His theory asks us to take a step back and remember that the best instructors are coaches who allow learners to experience chaos and confusion as a step in artful doing.

But what did all this have to do with the HRD literature that I started out reading this week. Well…. as Valentin suggests, there is a new perspective for critical research needed – one where there is an emphasis on reflexivity in the research process (p. 25). Where we finally realize that being objective bystanders is highly over-rated and where we roll up our sleeves and become actively involved in the practices that we are passionate about. Or as Sandelowski & Barroso explain:

Reflexivity is a hallmark of excellent qualitative research and it entails the ability and willingness of researchers to acknowledge and account of the many ways they themselves influences research findings and thus what comes to be excepted as knowledge. Reflexivity implies the ability to reflect inward toward oneself as an inquirer; outward to the culture, historical, linguistic, political and other forces that shape everything about inquiry; and, in between researcher and participant to the social interaction they share. (p.222)

So as a doctoral student, the diversion has led to one of those aha moments….. recognizing how my faculty has been encouraging me to get ‘reflexive’ in my project. Giving me permission to participate in and have my own perspective of the culture I’m studying. Too bad, I hadn’t started with this question a year ago….

As a teacher, I have new ideas for the next time I provide blogging as an assignment option. (As perhaps this time I just asked students to ‘reflect’ rather than ‘critically reflect’). As Sandars offered, I’ll be clear with the guidelines and ask them to be aware of the need to reflect and to capture those feelings. Or perhaps I’ll offer them the option to blog from the voice of the patient or to create a happy ending by changing the rules.

Finally, as a leader and practitioner, I already put a bit of ‘reflexivity’ or at minimum ‘critical reflection’ to work today…. where I asked my team to take a step back and to re-consider a suggestion in terms of the next customer who might be opening the door and requesting our services. What would be the first comment that the customer might utter? It changed the dialogue and it led to a richer discussion.

In summary, I hope it’s been a great deal more than navel gazing that I did this week. How about you and your reflective/reflexive practice?

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Is your practice ‘deliberate’?

As a former pianist and ‘wanna a be’ competitive sports person, I found myself ruminating over this week’s readings and speculating that a higher level of performance could have been mine if ONLY I’d known about and focused on ‘deliberate’ practice way back then. Although….. the fact that I’m still reading and studying would suggest (according to Ericsson, in Dolcy et al 2011) that I’m perhaps in the class of continuous learners – those who never seem satisfied, but want to perfect their performance and those who always try to improve on their current level and reach ‘expertise’ (p. 6). (That made me feel only slightly better – since being a rock or sports star could have been quite fulfilling)….

As I read more on this theory, it once again seems like common sense; the recommendations seem so practical. It’s potentially a strategy to assist us in escalating our transfer of learning in the workplace from the 9% that I spoke of last week. It could create opportunities for relevant and repetitive practice and supervisor support which research suggests will improve training transfer.

I stopped and re-read this passage of Ericsson’s a few times:

The primary task of most professionals is to complete job-related tasks on time…. most professionals reach an acceptable level of performance during the initial phase of their career and then stay at this level without serious attempts to develop beyond the proficient execution of routine tasks. Only some individuals surpass this level and succeed in their continuous efforts to develop themselves as they become recognized as outstanding professionals in their domain. (p.6)

It seems so harsh….. that most professionals reach a stable, average level of performance, and then they maintain this ‘pedestrian’ level for the rest of their careers (Ericsson 2006, p. 685). I have colleagues who are doing a great job – but who are still doing the exact same job that I left 23 years ago…. they are proficiently caring for those with cardiac disease. I’d be lucky to have them care for me if I was ill. They certainly have put in the required time to achieve mastery (approx. 10 years).

BUT, there is the possibility that they have gotten too comfortable in their roles, that their performance is now  ‘automated’ and they’ve lost some conscious control over their execution. These are the people we likely refer to as ‘experts’, but according to Ericsson’s work – there is limited research to suggest that these professionals perform at a higher level than their colleagues; that they show a reliable superiority over novices…. simply with added experience. In fact there are some studies that have shown that performance decreases in accuracy and consistency with the length of professional experience after the end of formal training (p. 688)

Ericsson (2004) encourages us to rethink how we consider ‘expertise’ and to seek out individuals who consistently exhibit superior performance, whether they are socially recognized as experts or not (p. 71). That years of service does not automatically equal ‘expertise’.

In his work with the medical profession, Ericsson (2011) found that to maintain professional expertise, physicians need to incorporate new developments in their field  – that they need to continue to practice deliberately. He recognized, especially in healthcare professions, that learning at work is less than optimal. In a study of 60 physicians in the Netherlands:
The results showed that learning in medical practice was very much embedded in clinical work. Most relevant learning activities were directly related to patient care rather than motivated by competence improvement goals. Advice and feedback were sought when necessary to provide this care. Performance standards were tied to patients’ conditions. The patients encountered and the discussions with colleagues about patients were valued most for professional development, while teaching and updating activities were also valued in this respect. In conclusion, physicians’ learning is largely guided by practical experience rather than deliberately sought. (p. 81)

So, is Ericsson trying to tell us that the thing that we are the most proud of – providing high levels of patient care – could be holding us back from doing exactly that? Do we need to take a step back from what we do automatically and start asking the ‘why’ question again? Rather than spending all of our time focusing on the condition in front of us, and reactively reflecting and problem solving, perhaps we should be discussing our performance standards? How did we get to this point? What if we had tried X instead of Y for this case? Was this the optimal outcome we could have achieved? What did you see that I might have missed? Let’s go to a safe setting and rehearse alternative treatments and outcomes. As Ericsson suggests: “doctors, who bear a great responsibility for patients’ wellbeing, do not extensively engage in the type of deliberate practice that professionals in more competitive domains would do to stay at the top of their games” (p. 93).

So how do we practice ‘deliberately’ ? Well, I don’t think that healthcare is unique in this regard. I believe that there is a lot that we can learn from the competitive domains such as sport, music and chess. There is a lot of great advice already available on blogs and web sites like ‘The Most Valuable Lesson I Learned from Playing the Violin’.  As Noa suggests, we need to deliberately monitor our performance – both in real-time and on video. We need to stop to analyze what went wrong and how we can produce different results next time…..

Ericsson (in Dolcy et al 2011) suggests there are 7 principles for developing expertise:
  1. Informative & immediate feedback is fundamental in order to refine knowledge and skills;
  2. Measuring & analysing current performance is cornerstone to improving it;
  3. Practice activities need to be specifically designed to improve performance aspects that need improvement;
  4. Practice activities need to be repetitive but also allow for reflection on outcomes and processes;
  5. The motivation to improve performance is a prerequisite to achieving expertise;
  6. Time & effort need to be invested; and
  7. Teachers and coaches play a crucial role in guiding individual development.

Interesting to me is that much of the advice is very similar to what I read and wrote about last week when I spoke of eliminating scrap learning. The two concepts seem to go hand in hand. The key difference being that perhaps developing expertise is not as dependent on cognitive/physicial abilities (unless you are 5’2″ and wanting to play pro basketball) and more related to a continuous aspiration to learn and improve.

For once, I could hardly wait to get to the end and tell you where I can play a role in deliberate practice…. our brand new simulation centre is just the place to: practice, reflect, video tape, review, increase the complexity, repeat…. you get the picture. It was created exactly for this – I just didn’t have the terminology that I now have to describe it.

The centre has already become a busy environment – mainly with those new to our professions who are at the early stages of expertise and who are trying to develop/refine their motor skills. The challenging part will be to shift our more experienced culture….. the team who is focused on patient centred care and reactive problem solving. We need to motivate these teams to think differently about what we do and who we call ‘the expert’. For my part it will start by encouraging them to visit our centre and we’ll need to make that first visit memorable…. that’s the opportunity ahead of us.

So, what might you do to ensure that you practice ‘deliberately’ and maintain your focus, rather than just going through the motions? Thoughts? Comments? Advice?

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Eliminating ‘scrap learning’….

Learning 1 by kathyschrock, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License

This week I decided to delve into the topic of ‘training transfer’.  Knowing what we do about the complexities of our work environments, it seems that ‘working to learn’ or ‘knot working’ that I’ve written about in the past few posts will only be possible if we are able to successfully transfer what we learn in the workplace today into the evolving skill sets that we’ll need next week and next year.

So what is ‘transfer’? As Blume et al (2010) reported in Transfer of Training: A Meta-Analytic Review, originally transfer was described as the “extent to which learning of a response in one task or situation influences the response in another task or situation” (p. 1067). But more recently according to the authors, the definition has been evolved to better address our modern workplaces.  I could   relate more easily to these new terms like ‘lateral transfer’ (when skills are spread over a broad set of situations of similar difficulty) and ‘vertical transfer’ (when an acquired skill affects the acquisition of a more complex skill) or ‘near transfer’ (when tasks are applied almost immediately and/or perhaps at the same location) and finally ‘far transfer’ (when tasks are applied in a much different location and/or months or years later).

As someone who has been involved in academic and workplace education for years, my first thoughts were, well isn’t this what we do each day? Aren’t these the skills that we are equipping our students with for their first jobs? Isn’t this the role of every good workplace facilitator? I was taken aback when I started looking at the data, but quickly dismissed what the research papers were quoting, as it was data from the 1980 & 90’s –  I was sure things have changed….. our profession has evolved and is much more contemporary. So I went searching for more current data, which came from industry and was gathered in 2010. Knowledge advisors spoke with approx. 160 individuals involved in training in large organizations and found that only 9% of learners actually apply what they learn with positive results AND only 11% of leaders held their teams accountable for applying training……You know its pervasive when it even has its own term – ‘scrap learning’  (learning that was delivered but unsuccessfully applied and is therefore wasted). This makes it rather difficult to defend the $125 billion that is spent on training (US data – reported by Salas) each year. I started to understand why so much has been written on this topic.

I was now left looking for answers – hoping that I’m part of the 9%, part of the solution and not part of the problem. As I mentioned, a great deal has been written on the topic, but as I read further, it seems that we are having trouble quantifying the issue. Researching in a manner that can clearly identify cause and effect.

I found a great article… The Transfer of Training: What Really Matters where Salas et al spoke about the importance of training transfer and how it can yield higher productivity, improved work quality, increased motivation and commitment, higher morale and fewer errors. This group completed an extensive analysis of the research to date and came up with 11 key factors related to the transfer of training:

  1. Cognitive Ability: higher cognitive ability leads to more success in processing, retaining and generalizing trained skills;
  2. Self-Efficacy: those with higher self-efficacy have more confidence in their ability to learn and apply trained competencies and are more likely to persist with difficult tasks;
  3. Motivation: trainees must believe that they are capable of learning, that their efforts will change their performance and that change will lead to a valued outcome;
  4. Perceived utility of training: trainees must believe that the training is useful, a clear link between required performance and outcomes that they value;
  5. Behavioral modeling: trainees see the behaviors modeled by those in the culture and have opportunity to practice both positive and negative models;
  6. Error Management: trainees anticipate potential issues, practice problem solving and outline negative outcomes that can occur if training is not transferred;
  7. Realistic Training Environment: training occurs in an environment that resembles the workplace;
  8. Transfer Climate: cues are provided in the workplace that prompt the trainees to use the new skills,
  9. Support: for trainees from supervisors and peers (supervisor seen as more NB);
  10. Opportunity to perform: trainees need the resources and opportunities to apply the new skills; and
  11. Follow Up: formal training period is followed by additional learning opportunities – goal setting, job aids, debriefing, coaching, etc

Most of the list seems logical. We know that cognitive skills, self-efficacy and motivation have an impact on performance, but do we consider these traits when we are screening for hiring or to select applicants for a training program?  Perhaps it is something to consider – and it’s certainly a list that I can’t do justice to in one blog post. SO I guess I have more research and writing to do…..

Barbara Carnes in Make E-Learning Stick echoed the findings listed above and highlighted the importance of follow-up. Barbara suggested that approx. 50% of training’s effectiveness comes from follow-up and she highlighted how training is a process, not an event, and that sometimes we over focus on the event and not the process before, during and after.

So now the hard part of reflective learning…. and potentially an opportunity to ensure that it doesn’t become ‘scrap learning’. How might I use this new information that I’ve gathered this week to change my own practice? What one thing might I do differently? Hard to pick just one or two because they all seem so important BUT here goes……

I’ll start with one example of a change I’ve already made in my classroom – and that’s to start each class with a discussion/slide that speaks to WIIFM (what’s in it for me). Often times, we get caught up in the concepts and theoretical underpinnings of an issue and forget the practicality supporting theory – concepts that are evident to us, but likely a bit abstruse for our students.  A simple discussion and a WIIFM can help bridge the gap and assist in setting the stage for the dialogue of the day. I find this most often meets with nods and the willingness to travel the journey with me. And now I see that there is research to support my actions :).

And finally, what resonated most with me from this week’s readings was the need for support (from leaders and peers) and opportunities for learners to try out new skills. This is an area where I have an opportunity to influence. I have the ability as a leader to remind my colleagues of the amazing training that their staff has just participated in. I have the capacity to ask them to seek out their employees to talk about the highlights of a recent training event, engage learners by sharing their own stories as experts in the field, try to find opportunities on their unit for the trainee to actively utilize the new skill…. it really could be that easy. I commit to making one call this week – a small step to eliminating scrap learning.

That’s what I plan to try…. which of the 11 strategies above might prove helpful to you?

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‘Knotworking’…. not to be confused with not working

My mission this week was to start reviewing the work of Tara Fenwick on workplace learning. My intentions were good, I downloaded a variety of her research and then made the mistake of starting with the article with the most interesting title “Organizational Learning in the Knots “. The metaphor of ‘knotworking’ resonated with me. I liked the idea of a focus on discursive practices (how cultural meanings are produced and understood), where learning happens via inter-organizational collaboration, and the potential to create cultures where expertise trumps hierarchical structures.

It seemed like a theory of learning that might help us thrive in these times of supercomplexity (that I talked of last week). I also agreed that it is a strategy that has already been observed and has the potential to be effective in healthcare practices.

So I was off…. there must be more written on a concept so easily to visualize. How did/do Engestrom and his colleagues define this concept?

Knotworking is characterized by a pulsating movement of tying, untying and retying together otherwise separate threads of activity. The tying and dissolution of a knot of collaborative work is not reducible to any specific individual or fixed organizational entity as the center of control. The center does not hold. The locus of initiative changes from moment to moment with a knotworking sequence. (1999)

Professor Yrjö Engeström, recently spoke of ‘knotworking’ as a space where separate actors can quickly come together and tie a knot and work together and solve a problem or design a task in the most efficient way possible (IFLA August 2012). He spoke of using the concept to transform our work cultures – allowing workplaces to be more flexible, fluid, and agile. The ability to form evolving partnerships and to work more closely with our clients.

The concept requires a shift in how we think about teams and our traditional organizational cultures. It requires managers/leaders to give up control and empower those around them who have the expertise. As Blackler and McDonald found, we must act in ways no longer bounded by the knowledge, practices and relationships that normally regulate our work. Decision making becomes less hierarchical; we create new cultures that moves across boundaries sideways – instead of having to ask for permission from above (Engestrom lecture).

Those who thrive are those who are tolerant of less structure, those able to tolerate the permeable open shape and everyday improvisation (according to Fenwick). It’s a self-reflexive process – where those moving in and out of knots are able to shape their own environment, rather than having it shaped for them. Knotworking also recognizes that in today’s society, expertise is often not held at a local level and is often inter-organizational. It encourages us to ask the question – who best to address this problem/opportunity – moving experts in and out as needed. And its a society where patients/clients are partners on the team – we actively listen to their perspective and what they might want from our service or product.

For those better able to visualize a concept graphically, Blackler and McDonald, help us to think of ‘inter-subjective’ sense making and identify quadrant four on their diagram (a rather new addition to org. learning).

The diagram addresses the complex collaborative requirements of today’s workplace and the importance of lateral, rather than hierarchical relations in the organization of technical work…..

There were a number of interesting accounts of knotworking in educational and healthcare practices that I reviewed, but I was best able to visualize its use when I listened to Engestrom speak of this concept used to examine the role and future of the academic library. The traditional home of knowledge. Where learners and researchers had previously gathered BUT where chairs now often sit empty. He spoke of how researchers have disappeared from the physical space and how they now sit at home retrieving sources and texts on-line. That the relationship is now often anonymous and the expertise of librarians is often underutilized….. he spoke of how all stakeholders had agreed that traditional services weren’t working and that a new concept with new ways to serve customers was needed.

So if the historical library evolved, what might a knotworking library look like?

What the group envisioned was that the client would become part of a research group – no longer an individual but a partner in co-configuring ongoing services. The role of the librarian would not be static but they will move from group to group and create knots to solve problems in a rapid and fluid manner. They’ll offer expertise where needed on resources, data management, publishing activities, while still providing traditional student services, etc. Everyone agreed that it will be demanding work, it will require quick learning and the ability to quickly adjust to new tasks, new clients and new groups – however it has the potential to be extremely rewarding work and it becomes a continuous learning process.

That example, helped me reflect on the practical application of this model and metaphor.

SO NOW WHAT: As I tell my own students…. break it down, pick just one thing that you can reflect upon and use to positively impact your practice.

For me, as I researched and reflected on the metaphor, I had many examples where teams that I’m involved with are approaching ‘knotworking’ and opportunities where we can take this to the next level….. However, one nagging relationship kept creeping into my thoughts. A situation where the knot is  double or triple tied …. it’s the knot that just won’t give way; there is no option for the ‘pulsating’ movement of tying, untying and retying together. No wonder that this is an area of discomfort, where we continue to have ‘conflict’ and ‘mis-communications’.  I’m seeking fluidity, I’d like to see these employees move in and out of our teams, take ownership, address the needs as they arise…… and this team is still embracing current hierarchical culture. More comfortable with Fayol’s traditional  management style – plan, direct and control activities – following traditional discursive practices. Perhaps what’s needed is a new approach – an understanding of the tensions. A meeting with this manager to ask how we might encourage more flexibility, support to adjust the locus of control to where the work is being done…. a time to pilot a few new practices.

Why not, for this group perhaps we can change what’s not working into ‘knotworking’…..

I think the concept has promise in today’s cultures where we are learning to work and working to learn….. what about you?

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Is it ‘learning to work’ or ‘working to learn’

This term I offered my students the option to blog on their journey as an assignment alternative; to reflect on one or two concepts that we talk about in class each week and  how they might apply these principles. How what we discuss might influence their current/future practice and how they might be able to ‘transfer’ academic learning to their clinical practices.

So, I thought…..why not try this concept out myself since I’m studying independently this term. Why not get back to my own blog, reflect on my own readings and think about changes I might make to my own practice….. AND even better if my own Prof will consider it for an assignment option :). So here goes……

I picked up a copy of Understanding Learning at Work edited by Boud and Garrick. The title is a bit dated, but when I hit chapter three and started reading about “learning to work and working to learn” by Ronald Barnett…. I found myself nodding in agreement. We do now live in conditions of supercomplexity. Learning in work does take on a new urgency, and the framework that we use for making sense of the world is fragile or as the author suggests ‘dissolving’.

This concept of supercomplexity intrigued me…. so with the luxury of the tools afforded to me in this complex time, within seconds I was able to search the term and find out more. Barnett (2000) tells us its an “epistemology for living among uncertainty” p. 409. It really is (as he suggests) a time when knowledge is produced both in and across society. We now have quicker forms of accountability, it’s a time where industry has sophisticated research capacities, and where everyone can gain expertise with access to the internet.

Leaving academic research and looking at what colleagues were writing about the term, I thought wow, yes there is a lot happening on the world wide web every 60 seconds. And even though all the sources aren’t listed – the video brings home the point of how quickly knowledge can now be changed and be transformed.

I concur with Barnett’s concept (Understanding Learning at Work) that organizations who aren’t embracing and embedding learning into their work have found themselves ‘out of kilter’ in this time of supercomplexity. It is a different framework to become an ‘organization which knows how to learn’. He writes:

We learn not by responding to supercomplexity but by contributing further to it. We can never get on top of supercomplexity, as it were. Instead, we cope with it by intervening in the world, learning as we are doing so… We learn not just by acting and evaluating but additionally by bringing to the party and inserting into the world – through our thinking and our acting – multiple frames of understanding… life itself remains our best university but only through our best critical, active and creative efforts that we bring to bear in the process. (p.41)

So, if we are going to change our organizations to know how to learn, where do we start? Well, how about by reading an article called “When is it OK to Learn at Work” by Sheers et al (2010). This groups’ interests lie in why the discourse of learning is taken up at one place but not another. They believe when learning becomes a legitimate part of everyday work, when it is part of the practice memory of the organization, when it doesn’t occur only when there are teachers, trainers or managers present – then we are working to learn. The authors offered up Delors (1996) four pillars of learning as helpful in this time. The first two pillars are familiar within the workplace – ‘learning to know’ and ‘learning to do’.  They suggest however, that the latter two – ‘learning to be’ and ‘learning to live together’ had been reserved for our lives more holistically and not thought of in a work context to this point. Learning to be – helps us to develop autonomy, judgement and personal responsibility but also recognizes that learning takes place in a social context and is culturally loaded. Learning to work together – helps us to gain an appreciation for interdependence, the need to work together on projects and manage team conflict.

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills, in the journal Praxis (how fitting a name), also supports the need to recognize workplaces as a site of learning, and the need for learning to be built into our everyday work activities. These authors support the creation of ‘expansive’ learning environments where employees are encouraged to be flexible, questioning, creative and independent (which supports the earlier concept of ‘learning to be’).  And they propose the concept that learning is fostered through social relationships, and interactions with resources and ideas in the workplace (which is similar to ‘learning to live together’). Their ‘Working as a Learning Framework’ helps us to understand the productive system and the constituent parts that determine if we’ll create a ‘recipe following’ culture or a ‘freestyle’ productive system. Successful organizations, according to the authors, are able to balance the regulation of work (at all levels) and the stages of production. These organizations have engaged employees, who are encouraged to share their ideas alongside job specific skills, that are supported to develop informal communities of practice and rewarded for positively engaging in work tasks.

So now the hard part, how do we take these concepts and create environments where employees are comfortable with change, and able to transform what they know and do today into what will be coming at them tomorrow – which might look quite different. How do we complete a radical rethink of our practices? How do we create environments where along with learning to know and do, we also learn to be and live together?

At a meeting this week, I heard a senior organizational leader comment that we need to become ‘a living lab’. I quickly scrambled to write the concept down – because it’s exactly what we need to thrive in supercomplexity. We need to brand our organizations as such. At interviews and orientations, we need to let employees know that doing a good job includes examining and refining our work practices every day. Rather than paying lip service to the concept of teamwork it becomes an expectation that employees will collaborate with colleagues (from all areas). We’ll try to understand what others do and the interdependencies between our roles. We’ll become comfortable with the fact that new knowledge will constantly be available and that best practice may evolve between coffee break and lunchtime. We’ll seek out leaders who believe in working to learn. (The questions on p. 19 of Praxis – serve as a great starting point for discussion).

But as I tell my own students – it starts with a small step. As Barnett’s quote earlier suggested….. we must insert our selves into the world – intervene….. SO HERE GOES…. In my own world at work, I lead a team that facilitates learning at work in a lab setting. We have a variety of complex equipment in our lab that allows us to ‘practice danger safely’. It’s a perfect setting for us to work as teams, and to practice complex problem solving and ask ‘what if’. So far however, we’ve asked everyone to book lab time, fill out forms, etc – so I guess I’m suggesting that we are still steeped in tradition, we are more of a ‘restrictive’ learning environment. Some of this is required to avoid complete and utter chaos. BUT, to be truly helpful to the team we support, we also need to be flexible enough to allow staff and students to ‘work to learn’.  We need to build some flexibility into our schedules, letting leaders and teams know that its OK to drop in and solve a current work problem, refresh a skill that they might need later in the day, come down with a colleague who wants to share their expertise in a safe and private setting…. We need to commit to learning to be and live together. This week our team will start to talk about how we support this concept in our lab.

What about you? What small step can you take to start ‘working to learn’?


Barnett, R. (2000). University Knowledge in an Age of Supercomplexity. Higher Education, 40: 409- 422.

Boud, D. and Barrick, J. (1999). Understanding Learning at Work. Routledge: New York, NY.

Felstead, A., Fuller, A., Jewson, N. & Unwin, L. (2011). Praxis: Working to Learn, Learning to Work. UK Commission for Employment and Skills, 7: 1 – 22.

Scheeres, H.,  Solomon, N., Boud, D. & Rooney, D. (2010). When is it OK to learn at work? The learning work of organisational practices. Journal of Workplace Learning,  22:1/2, 13 – 26.

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