Social Organizations Are Serious about Learning

14er PortraitThere is a theme that runs through the book, Humanize, that Maddie and I are writing, and it has to do with being all talk and no action. We’re writing about elements of a social organization (or human organization, as we say in the book) that have been covered in the blogosphere already: transparency, openness, trust, ownership, inclusion, learning…the list goes on. And what we have noticed is that lots of people talk a good game on these subjects, but we’re not collectively making much progress in DOING any of it.

We hope that our book will help change that (for each of our main chapters we will have a downloadable worksheet to get you started). Because we feel like we’re running out of time. We need to get serious about all these topics and start making them happen in our organizations, rather than just talk about them.

Learning is one of them that I happen to be writing about now. Social organizations need to be serious about learning, but I am afraid it is something we usually only give lip service to. Sure, we have our “post mortems” after the meeting where we analyze whether we put the signs in the right places or not and write it down for the file so we remember next year. We do our surveys to uncover the preferences and desires of our members and customers. That’s learning right? Yes, but it’s not deep enough.

Peter Senge and his colleagues call that “reactive learning.” It’s where you do stuff and think about it (that’s learning), but you don’t really challenge your mental models and assumptions. It’s mostly relying on what you already know, or habits you have developed. This is fine for doing simple things, but our organizations need deeper learning than that. We need to take the time to really understand our organization’s action and think about it deeply, challenging our assumptions about how things work or why things are the way they are. We each individually need to reflect deeply on the role we play in what’s happening, and how each of us could do that differently as part of getting a better result. We actually need to think about the way things are evolving, not just the way they “are.” Senge et al. argue that the action that comes out of that kind of learning is more likely to serve the whole, and take us to that proverbial next level.

I think we need that next level, and we need it sooner rather than later. So we need deeper learning in our organizations, and that responsibility belongs to each of us (in other words, not just your boss or your colleagues who “don’t get it”). YOU need to figure out how to start engaging in deeper learning.


Jeff Hurt May 26, 2011 at 8:59 am

Amen! Of course I suspect you thought I would agree.

In the education profession, teachers/professors long for deep learning. Deep learning is learning that takes root in our long term memory and understanding. It is embedded in our meanings of what defines us and what we use to define the world. It rewires our brains and thinking.

So much of our learning is superficial. It is fleeting and temporary. It’s when we cram for a test and little has deeper meaning to our lives. It doesn’t take root or application to our lives.

Yes, associations need to strive for deep learning. They need to create cultures of lifetime learning. They need to understand change management and how to unlearn as well as learn and relearn.

Thanks for reminding of us of this!

Maggie McGary May 26, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Double amen.

This is something I’ve been thinking about after attending a bunch of conferences within the past 6 months, as well as the never-ending parade of webinars, twitter chats, and other non face-to-face learning sessions. And basically I’m pretty much at the point where I’m deciding I’m done with all of it. What’s the point? The dynamic is always the same: a chorus of “we all must ___ or else” with the ___ being something having to do with social media or innovation or mobile apps or transparency or governance or whatever. There are endless “musts” and nothing ever actually changes–nobody does anything different. Or they do, but at such a slow pace that by the time whatever it is (build an online community, change the way an event is done, etc) is done and unveiled, the world has moved on yet again and nobody cares. So I think I’m giving up on learning for now–it’s too frustrating in the current association space. What’s the point of reading “The Race for Relevance” and getting all fired up when, in the end, the people at the top of the association management food chain are doing just fine with the status quo and have no intention of letting their boat be rocked. When/if I ever move to the corporate world where failure to innovate actually costs people jobs and is therefore actually essential, maybe I’ll re-dedicate myself to learning.

Tinu May 26, 2011 at 9:34 pm

I think you’re right, but I also think it’s hard for people to break out of that mode of reactive learning because that’s what we’re taught learning IS in the States. I’ve had the lucky privilege of having been taught under what some would call unorthodox systems here in the US, as well as having been educated abroad for some time. And it has given me clarity on this matter.

The first issue is, we are taught here during our primary school years to consume knowledge, memorize it to pass tests, then discard it as if knowledge were some kind of food to be digested and pass through our system, until we need to know things again.

In other systems, we’re taught to slowly dive into concepts, and learn by applying them, then seek to truly understand them. Once we understand something, we never forget it.

I strongly feel the former system permeates into our adult lives. We read something, feel we have “learned it”, remember some facts about them, ponder them, and move on. Then when our knowledge hunger strikes again, usually because some part of our personal or professional lives isn’t working, we find a seemingly new thing to learn, consume and discard.

To change that pattern, a worksheet is going to be immensely helpful to your readers. But they’ll also need some kind of paradigm shift. Not a large one, just enough to prod them into taking some kind of repeated action for at least as long as it takes to form a new habit, which if memory serves, is 21 days. If you can get them there, I’m betting they will build on each block of brilliance I know you both are bringing, forming what you teach them into a mental ecosystem that they actually live in rather than just paying lip service to in passing.

Jamie Notter May 27, 2011 at 8:02 am

Awesome comments, folks.

@maggie: Don’t give up on learning! And don’t confuse “conference” with “learning” either. @tinu’s point about diving deep I think is key here (and is what Senge et al were talking about). Each of us needs to make deep learning a priority–regardless of the higher ups. That is where leadership starts.

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