Searching for the secret class

permanent whitewaterThere was a time when I wanted to get my hands on the syllabus for the “secret class;” the secret being how to navigate the real world outside the classroom. Think of me as a male version of Hermione Granger; annoyingly book smart and otherwise pretty clueless. Classes were easy; life not so much.

Most of us spend enough time between classes in hallways and playgrounds to soak up the necessary experiences to get a clue. Through a peculiar set of circumstances and events, I was late in encountering and absorbing these experiences. My wife is on record that she would have crossed the street to avoid that earlier me. My therapist assures me that these lessons are learnable as long as I put my heart in circuit between my brain and my mouth.

Because this arena was foreign to me, I had to study it much as an anthropologist might; observing, cataloging, and making sense of what I see. The biggest risk for an anthropologist is to “go native”; to leave the edge and to immerse themselves in the action. Life demands immersion.

I make no claims about life in general. Life within organizations, however, is a place I understand. Thinking about secret classes and learning in organizational settings turns out to be a fruitful path. Really smart people, like Chris Argyris and Donald Schon among others, have thought a great deal about the things people need to learn within organizations. They talk about skills and perspectives that are effectively secrets and acquired by way of experience rather than classrooms.

Experience alone is rarely sufficient to impart these lessons; managers and executives become effective by way of reflective practice. They must process and digest experience to transform it into effective managerial practice. Classic examples of this deliberate reflection are Chester Barnard’s The Functions of the Executive and Alfred Sloan’s My Years with General Motors.

These are valuable and insightful analyses of complex organizations and executive work. They also highlight critical ways that reflective practice must evolve. It’s a common trope that organizations operate in an increasingly fast and complex environment. It’s common because examples to demonstrate it surround us. In the early days of my career, we were still converting paper-based business processes to electronic. Today, we’re knitting together digital processes spanning multiple

That plants us in a world where the volumes of digital data threaten to collapse into a wall of noise and this wall feels more like  the leading edge of a tsunami rather than a fixed landmark somewhere “over there.” Simply coping with the onslaught consumes our attention and drives too many of us and our organizations into reactive mode. We become driven by events. Planning feels like a luxury and the notion of reflecting seems an unrealistic, academic, dream. Peter Vaill makes a compelling argument that we now live in a world of permanent whitewater and have to learn to operate accordingly.

We have a conundrum then. A changing world demands changed responses, yet the pace of change leaves no time for the reflection needed to transform experience into new practice. What are the elements of a strategy that might even our odds? How do we make reflective practice work in the organizational environment that now exists?

Peter Vaill offers a clue in the title of the book where he talks of permanent whitewater, Learning as a Way of Being. Learning is not something neatly distinguishable from practice; we pursue learning while doing. Elsewhere, I’ve discussed the notion of observable work as a pre-condition for making that kind of learning possible. Then, there are various techniques, such as after action reviews that should be in any knowledge worker’s toolkit.

There is no “secret class.” Even it one existed, it wouldn’t make sense to take it. Instead, we structure experience so that learning is a continuing parallel element of doing the work.

Learning is harder in the digital world

Snowboard lesson Most of us have crappy theories of learning. The better you were at school the more likely your theories about learning are distorted. I ran into this phenomenon while I was the Chief Learning Officer at Diamond Technology Partners in the 1990s. My partners were full of well intentioned advice about how they thought I should do my job based on their school experiences years or decades earlier in their lives. I had my own, somewhat less ill-informed, theories based on my more recent school experiences convincing my thesis committee to let me loose on the world.

Fortunately, I also made the smart decision to go find several people smarter than I was and hung around with them long enough to soak up some useful insight. Two in particular, Alan Kay and Roger Schank, were instrumental in shaking me free from my poor theories. Very different in temperament, they did agree on fundamental insights about how learning worked.

Learning is what happens when our expectations about the world collide with experience. As we adjust our expectations to be better aligned with reality we learn.

Schools are dangerous places for learning because they are too isolated from the real world. On the other hand, the real world can be straight up dangerous if we haven’t learned how to behave correctly in the situation at hand. All learning is learning by doing, whether we’re learning to turn on a snowboard or solve a differential equation. If we had unlimited time and were invulnerable, we could figure anything out on our own. As it is, it helps to have someone who knows more than we do to arrange the experiences we can learn from in a reasonable and safe sequence.

The name for this strategy is “apprenticeship” and remains the most effective from a learner-centered perspective. All other approaches are compromises to make the economics work or to solve scale mismatches between the number of those needing to learn and those with mastery to pass along. Anthropologist Lucy Suchman showed how to extend this notion of apprenticeship to all kinds of learning beyond the trade/craft connotations we attach to the word. She talked of learning and apprenticeship as a process of “legitimate peripheral participation.” You learned how to repair copiers by handing tools to the senior repair technician and carrying their bags. You learned how to handle the cash register by watching someone who already had it figured out. You learned how to put a budget together by doing the junior-level scut work of helping your boss transform a handwritten budget into a typewritten one.

It’s become a cliche that learning has become an ongoing requirement in all kinds of work. The problem isn’t simply that work demands more learning more often. The changing nature of work also makes learning qualitatively harder as well. This was never a problem for physical work and for much of the knowledge work of the 20th century. Nearly everything you might want to observe was in sight. You could watch how a repair technician selected and handled tools. You could see an editor’s corrections and notes in the margins of your manuscript.

As work has evolved to be more abstract and more mediated by technology, the task of learning has gotten harder. Whether we call it apprenticeship or legitimate peripheral participation it becomes difficult, if not impossible, in environments where you can’t see what others are doing. Previously, the learning called for within organizations occurred as a byproduct of doing work. It now takes conscious and deliberate effort to design work so that it is, in fact, learnable.

Technology in the Classroom

There’s a nice piece over at Studypool talking to a dozen “experts” about effective use of technology in the classroom. I put experts in quotes mostly because I was deemed one of those experts. Kidding aside, the end result is a nice overview of productive ways to think about incorporating technology into teaching and learning environments. Better yet, it offers pointers to a diverse group of folks thinking about this problem.

This advice is more broadly relevant when you consider that, as knowledge workers, we are all tasked with learning on an ongoing basis. From that perspective, we need to have more effective strategies to incorporate technology into our learning whether the classroom is in an ivy-covered hall, an office conference room, or somewhere in cyberspace. None of us have the luxury of working in stable environments. We all must operate on the assumption that we need to assimilate new ideas and techniques into our work practices and do so on technology platforms that are also evolving.

Practice and Performance

Cpl. Derek McGee, USMC MEU15 TRAP 2013

How do you strike an effective balance between practice and performance? In many realms we draw a distinction between performing and preparing to perform. Actors and musicians rehearse. Athletes practice. Soldiers train before they fight.

In other, equally demanding, realms the boundary is fuzzy; at times non-existent. Where does a sales rep or project manager practice? Where does a brand manager practice market segmentation? When does an investment banker practice designing a deal?

The notion of an apprentice observing and mimicking a master is one proven model that blends practice and performance. What troubles me is that this model works best when it is explicit. There needs to be some recognition that some performance settings are about both performance and practice; some fraction of your focus and attention needs to be tuned to learning.

My sense is that we have abandoned the notion of practice built into apprenticeship and favor performance exclusively. If we substitute performance only in place of practice and performance, do we abandon the possibility of achieving peak performance? How do we recognize situations that call for effective apprenticeship models? How do we design organizations so that they meet their performance goals and provide the necessary practice opportunities so that tomorrow’s organization can perform as well or better than today’s?

DIY Learning Advice from Jay Cross

 

JayCross-real-cover.jpgJay Cross is at it once again. He’s launched the Real Learning Project, an exploration of DIY learning in today’s organizational environment. Here’s his description of the effort:

The Real Learning Project helps people who are taking their professional development into their own hands and shows them how to learn to learn.

My new book, Real Learning is for all those people we’ve made responsible for their own learning. This is the missing manual.

Real Learning explains self-assessment, setting goals, dealing with feeds and flows, improving retention, curation, working out loud, social learning, and more. Each technique is backed with a practical exercise.

Real Learning reveals how to:

• Learn from experience

• Take advantage of the latest findings from neuroscience

• Save time by accelerating how you learn

• Remember things faster, better, deeper

• Adopt sound learning practices as lifelong habits

• Form a sustainable, nurturing community

• Use shortcuts, cheatsheets, and rules of thumb

Real Learning is about how to learn for yourself. No classrooms. No instructors. No training department. Little in the way of theory. Just stuff that works.  (Although learning with your team is encouraged,)

The core focus is experiential learning and tacit knowledge. It’s learning to be all you can be rather than amassing more content.

This matters for two reasons. One, DIY learning is something we are all going to have to get better at. Organizations won’t have the time or the resources to invest in time-consuming formal training efforts. But the need to learn new things will only continue to increase. Two, Jay is one of the key people thinking about this problem in organizational contexts.

There are a number of resources to take advantage of with this effort:

The Real Learning Website

The Google Plus Community

• A blog that Jay describes as a Plog—A personal progress blog

I’ve purchased the e-book version of the book in its present beta form and hope to follow along and contribute as it evolves.

Two spaces or one; change and persistence

Selectric-ElementI learned to type before I learned to drive; now nearly 50 years ago. I was taught that you put two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence. Eventually, I left typewriters behind and began to write with text editors and word processors. I learned a little bit about proportional fonts and typesetting and, at some point in the somewhat less distant past switched over to using a single space.

This morning, i came across the following link in my Facebook newsfeed – Space Invaders: Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period. – posted by Andy McAfee. It’s an old item and it’s an old controversy (for example, see Why two spaces after a period isn’t wrong (or, the lies typographers tell about history)).

What I find interesting about this is what it reveals about change and habits. The very first comment in response to Andy’s post was from someone who had also learned to type a long time ago. In their view, the controversy was a silly waste of time and they intended to happily continue to insert two spaces until the end of time. I’m sure that if I went back to the thread. someone else will have weighed in otherwise. There will be yet another impassioned argument over a convention. How do you get new knowledge into an established system of practice? How do you get from new knowledge to new practice?

We are now three hundred years or so past the Enlightenment. How long do you think it will be before reason triumphs over tradition?

duckrabbitgod

Saving Lives with Systems Thinking – Atul Gawande and the 2014 Reith Lectures

A three-year old drowning victim is alive and thriving today because someone in Switzerland cares about systems. Atul Gawande, surgeon, polymath, and author of The Checklist Manifesto, recounts the tale as the second of four BBC 2014 Reith Lectures on the future of medicine. The podcast of “The Century of the System” is well worth 40 minutes of your time. 

Gawande’s central point is that the power of design, coordination, and collaboration trumps heroics. This is so terribly hard to pull off because it runs against the stories of heroics that so capture our imagination and our egos. How we get to good designs in a world that honors heroes is the challenge. 

Using Moore’s Law in Reverse: Alan Kay on Invention vs. Innovation

I’m an unapologetic fanboy of Alan Kay. This can be problematic given that the average person has no idea who Alan is even though they benefit from his work on a daily basis.

Earlier this year, Alan presented at the Demo 2014 conference, offering his reflections and insights on the relationship between invention and innovation. It’s about 45 minutes in total and well worth the investment of time and attention.

Although Alan doesn’t say so explicitly, he suggests that we have become so enamored of innovation that we are systematically neglecting invention. If you spend time reflecting on Alan’s observations you get real insight into the difference between strategic and tactical thinking.

Learning to see systems – wolves and rivers

Systems in the real world are messy and complex. There’s a reason that Aldo Leopold was so cautious about interventions:

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” ― Aldo Leopold, Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold

Feedback loops and interactions can be subtle and hard to see. This short video is a nice example of that complexity presented in an accessible and understandable way. It’s been making the rounds in various social media settings. I wanted to post it here so that I can find it and share it more easily.

This video was developed from materials in a TED talk by biologist George Monbiot:

Which rules? Teaching or Learning?

Another thought provoking cartoon from the good fools at xkcd. There are actually two interesting thoughts in this one. Yes, humans are pretty good teachers at that. More importantly, however, we manage to get by even with less than stellar teachers because humans are so supremely gifted at learning. Computers demand extraordinarily adept teachers because computers are such obtuse learners and that is the only possible way they will learn.

Humans, children in particular, are such natural learners that they can survive in spite of the most mediocre of teachers. Which may be one of the reasons we’re too willing to tolerate mediocrity.

Progeny