It's Time to Give Learning's Greatest Failure a Second Chance (Part 1)

By Dr. Conrad Gottfredson

I am blessed to have had a lengthy career which provides me the ability to view emerging learning insights and initiatives with 35 plus years of hindsight. This hindsight has proven especially helpful in recognizing reoccurring patterns of the same or similar ideas. Recently, I experienced this as I read an article in The Atlantic. I recognized in it reoccurring patterns of a transformational set of ideas that should have made their way into every organization’s learning strategy. But for understandable reasons they fell by the wayside. I believe this miss was the greatest failure in learning in my lifetime.    
But now, Jerry Useem in the July 2019 online-edition of The Atlantic (see At Work, Expertise Is Falling Out of Favor) has reopened that door in a must-read for anyone interested in improving how their organization learns.  It’s not the full story, but It chronicles a 30-year effort by the Navy to implement “minimal manning” with workers who have “fluid intelligence” with the mental agility needed to “be all, do all, and pivot on a dime to solve any problem.”
Minimal manning wasn’t a consideration In 1990 when Peter Senge made a compelling case for companies to become “Learning Organizations.” Instead, in his book, The Fifth Discipline he challenged leaders to figure out “how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization.” Although he didn’t use the term “fluid intelligence”, he described that a learning organization is one with the adaptive capacity to learn faster than its competitors.  He proposed that this capability would prove to be “the only sustainable source of competitive edge.”
Unfortunately, even though more than 2 million copies of his book were sold, Senge’s vision failed to gain any real traction in practice. In March of 2008, the Harvard Business Review published “Is Yours a Learning Organization?” The authors of the article attempted to explain why “the ideal of the learning organization”, as envisioned by Senge and others, had not then been realized.  They proposed that an underlying reason was the lack of sufficient market forces to compel organizations to pursue the benefits a learning organization promises.
However, that overarching obstacle absolutely disappeared later that year when the financial tsunami of 2008 swept world markets in a 24-hour period.  Corporate burial grounds, since, have been heaped with the remains of slow learning organizations making Senge’s warning prophetic. And, today, disruptive forces of market upheaval, technological shifts, demographic churn, and political instability are presenting themselves in combinations of speed and complexity that demand companies either become learning organizations or perish. There has never been a time when there has been greater need to pursue this enduring competitive advantage.  This pursuit requires organizations to develop their capacity to respond to adaptive challenge--whether opportunity, threat, or crisis--through the acquisition and application of knowledge and skills. In other words, to become what Senge proposed—learning organizations.  

So, with these compelling market forces in place now for more than a decade, why haven’t organizations repurposed and developed the “adaptive” and “generative” capacity envisioned by Senge?

The 2008 HBR article, after thoroughly vetting Senge’s work, noted three formable obstacles that gave good reason then and continue to do so now:
1.       Lack of concrete prescriptions
2.       Lack of tactical alignment
3.       Inability to monitor and measure business impact

Here’s the good news.  Everything we’ve been doing to help organizations learn at The 5 Moments of Need have placed us in position to fully address these challenges.

The 5 Moments response to obstacle 1: Lack of Concrete Prescriptions
From the HBR article: “First, many of the early discussions about learning organizations were paeans to a better world rather than concrete prescriptions. They overemphasized the forest and paid little attention to the trees. As a result, the associated recommendations proved difficult to implement—managers could not identify the sequence of steps necessary for moving forward.”

Senge described a learning organization as a place “where people continually 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.”  This is a great description of the key objectives of “workflow learning,” and certainly what was happening onboard the Littoral Combat Ship 10, the USS Gabrielle Giffords.  How unfortunate that Senge was unable to connect his work in the 90s to that of Gloria Gery’s. Her contemporary efforts in tactically supporting on-the-job performance is providing organizations today the “concrete prescriptions” they need to be truly adaptive. 2-clicks/10 second support to just what’s needed at the moment of need.  That’s what’s been missing.          
Furthermore, The 5 Moments of Need framework has helped us build upon Gery’s work in crucial ways opening the door to establishing the kind of workflow learning environment described by Senge.  Organizations can now facilitate learning in the flow of work while they actually perform their jobs. This performance support infrastructure enables performers to unlearn and re-learn in the flow of work as they do their work. 

Here are a couple of blogs that provide deeper detail. If you haven’t read them, they’ll reinforce what you’ve read so far.


Stay tuned for Part 2 where I’ll address how The 5 Moments can help overcome the obstacles two and three.   

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