LagomWorks Research Series: September 2020
Learning for Transformation in a Distributed Organization
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‘Learning, the alteration of behavior as a result of individual experience. When an organism can perceive and change its behavior, it is said to learn’ (www.britannica.com)

Overview: This article is intended for Business and Talent leaders who are in the process of evaluating and redesigning their learning strategies or actively working towards ensuring better learning outcomes for their teams, especially within Distributed Organizations. Distributed organizations are built for agility, allowing autonomy and local leadership to pursue common goals, while being governed by a central organization which focuses on defining the frame of reference and overall strategy. The success of this style of functioning requires a pivot in learning strategies (built on the foundation of skill, will and thrill) and a focus on creating an everyday culture of learning. With increased access to knowledge enabled by technology, learners in organizations will benefit immensely with active encouragement of inquiry and discovery, creation of dedicated spaces for critical thinking and dialogue as well as adoption of ‘nudges’ as a strategic tool to drive commitment. This is essential for organizations to become more ‘reconfigurable’, wherein leaders can move work to where talent, capabilities, and capacity are, regardless of where they are in the world. (read more)

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It was my first day as a young management trainee in a global consulting firm. There were eight of us, sitting in a conference room, listening in to the leaders. We were told that our six month long intensive induction process would entail cross-functional exposure. During the next six months, we unraveled the mysteries of statistics and tinkered with SPSS, experiencing the joy of gleaning insights from data.

Our CEO had just finished the first draft of his book on the topic of Research and one of my first assignments was to proofread that book. The Fifth Discipline by Peter M. Senge was often seen in the hands of our leaders, with excerpts being discussed over cups of hot, steaming filter coffee. Post this experience, it was not very difficult for me to relate to the concepts of blended or experiential learning when I was later introduced to them. I was lucky to have discovered the joys of learning early on in my career.

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Learning within the frames of reskilling or upskilling has gained much prominence in recent times. However, a survey conducted by McKinsey in May 2020 covering 190 chief officers and functional leaders across industries (refer Figure 1) reveals that COVID19 led business pressures could potentially lead to a decline in investment on learning for 38% of the organizations.  If we look at the 5 R's of workforce planning (CIPD, 2018) - Right skills, Right cost, Right size, Right location and Right shape -  as well as related research on engaging the new age workforce, it is safe to conclude that any strategic workforce planning or engagement intervention is incomplete without a clear philosophy and emphasis on learning. 

How do humans learn?

It is important to reacquaint ourselves with drivers of human learning behavior before we discuss the specifics of learning strategies for distributed organizations. 

In his seminal work on educational psychology, Edward Thorndike promulgated the ‘law of effect’, which held that responses were connected to, or disconnected from a situation depending on the effect produced from those responses (Malone, 1991). While satisfiers reinforced connections between situations and behaviors, annoyers had a reverse impact and weakened them. In order to highlight the difference between ‘satisfaction and annoyance’ more sharply, he articulated a behavioral definition defining situations as ones that an organism will  ‘do nothing to avoid’ or ‘will definitely avoid’.  He supported this with the ‘law of readiness’, which states that the effect of satisfier depends on state of preparedness, that is, existing, ongoing behavior. Thorndike later clarified that ‘annoyers’ should not be equated with punishment, as punishment does not lead to alteration of behavior in the long run.

Let me explain this further with an example. A person needs to be hungry (high level of readiness) to enjoy his or her favorite pizza. As the person starts eating the pizza, the first slice acts as a ‘satisfier’, but the 12th slice, if forced upon can be classified as an ‘annoyer’. On the other hand, for a person who does not like pizza (low level of readiness) or whose stomach is full, the first slice itself is an ‘annoyer’. Thorndike acknowledged the importance of prior experiences in determining the learning of an individual. Building on the above research, John A C Hattie & Gregory M Donoghue (npj Science of Learning, 2016) evaluated numerous learning strategies to articulate the core construct that drives effective learning.  They reiterated that learning strategies enhance performance most effectively when they are matched to the requirements of tasks and internalize the following three critical input variables. 

#1. Skill of an individual

The heredity, past experience and current level of knowledge & skills have the biggest impact on how one learns and responds to a learning stimulus.

#2. Will of an individual

Will refers to the dispositions that an individual has towards learning. The traditional skills approach has focused on cultivating knowledge, while disposition is an evolutionary paradigm which recognizes that people will be differently disposed to use a particular skill or ability, and the degree of disposedness changes over a period of time.  Psychologist Carol S. Dweck, differentiates the ‘fixed’ vs. ‘growth’ mindset, as "the passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the ‘growth’ mindset.”

#3. Thrill of an individual

This element is linked to intrinsic motivation, which drives the learning behavior. It is best understood as a combination of why an individual learns and how he learns (Biggs, 1993). An individual might immerse oneself in a learning process to either achieve mastery or enhance performance. The learning itself might happen at three levels  - deep (when the learner is seeking to make sense of what he/she is learning and create his / her own ideas), surface (when the learner is focused on acquiring and reproducing information without looking at inter-connectedness of ideas) and achieving (when the learner intends to achieve a desired result like marks or certification while putting in minimum efforts).

Learning in distributed organizations

As mentioned earlier, the key to managing Distributed Organizations is to acknowledge that it is the individuals and teams, which hold the key to performance, innovation and next level growth. The design of organizational systems, policies and processes must enable and empower these ‘micro-systems’ to perform and grow optimally (read more).

Clearly, learning needs to be taken out of the boundaries of temporally distinct phases of need analysis, identification and calendarized programs - to a continuous flow where the learning and work streams become intertwined and subsequently, indistinguishable.

We believe that learning for transformation, especially in distributed organizations, will involve focus on:

Process of inquiry and discovery to expand perspectives.

Conscious creation of spaces for critical reflection and dialogue.

Shift in everyday language around ‘learning and need for learning’.

Powerful nudges to push individuals towards excellence, enabling them to become ‘unstuck’.

"We design the training calendar and offerings based on the Training need analysis. But when we offer the programs in-house, we do not get enough participation and lots of people who sign up for the program do not turn up in the last minute. Have you faced this challenge as an L&D manager? Do you have insights on what would be the real problem and what might be the solutions?" (questions posed by an L&D Manager on LinkedIn)

While the recent upsurge in online learning and blended learning models will ensure access and inclusion, we believe that clues for meaningful shifts could lie in the Transformative Learning Theory popularized by John Mezirow in 1975. Transformative Learning is a 'deep structural shift in basic premises on thoughts, feelings and actions ' (Kitchenham, 2008; Transformative Learning Center, 2004).

Focus on human consciousness

The study of human consciousness outlines three levels that could explain the openness to leverage inputs and experiences. The lowest level of consciousness growth is the ‘intransitive thought’ where an individual feels that his or her actions is unlikely to produce the desired results and there is a pervasive sense of hopelessness. The next level of ‘semi-transitive’ consciousness involves thought or action for change. However, the individual views the problem one at a time, rather than seeing them at a holistic level. In this state of consciousness, the individual prefers to follow a leader rather then considering oneself as a leader or change agent. In the highest state of consciousness of ‘critical transitivity’, individuals view a problem critically and adopt critical thought and action to drive change.

Success of learning in a distributed organization will be determined by whether it is able to drive higher levels of consciousness within the organization at large, leading to increased levels of inner drive and initiative to propel its growth journey. ‘Nudges’ can be an extremely important lever in the hands of the business leaders in this journey. The context in which individuals live and work has a significant impact on their state of consciousness and associated emotions (ranging from fear to anxiety to confidence). Leveraging the principle of behavioral economics, nudges are small inducements, which are designed to enable people to circumvent their biases and make better decisions, without taking away the freedom of choice. (Thaler and Sunstein, 2009)

Space for critical reflection and critical dialogue

In 1991, Mezirow outlined that ‘meanings exists within ourselves, rather than external forms like books, and the personal meanings that we attach to experiences are acquired and reinforced through a process of human interaction and communication’. An under-developed perspective leads one to view reality in a way that arbitrarily limits what is considered, adversely impacts ability to differentiate, makes one less open to inputs and prevents an individual from integrating his or her experiences to take an informed decision. Keeping in mind the dynamic shifts that organizations are facing, this limited view could lead to suboptimal decisions and associated results. Critical reflection and dialogue are required for individuals to make sense of their actions, the origin of those actions and the overall premise governing those actions. It is essential that learning strategies and daily conversations in distributed organizations encourage deep-dive into assumptions and beliefs that impact individual actions by providing people a safe space to voice their thoughts. This process also enables organization to build on the ‘power of the collective’ encompassing intrinsic energy and extrinsic knowledge.

We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience. And right action is freedom.
From past and future also. (T.S Eliot,  Four Quartets)

‘Systems thinking’ as a core building block

Systems Thinking or forest thinking is an epistemology that emphasizes a 'view from 10,000 m rather than focusing on local trees' and considers 'how the system influences systems on the other side of the line and how these latter systems influence the former system' (Richmond 2000). It was propounded as the ‘The Fifth Discipline’ by Peter Senge, in which he emphasized that individuals need to look at a problem holistically, rather than bits and pieces of it. Learning design within organizations needs to support systems thinking across all learning domains, blending it in such a manner that it becomes an invisible thread.  

‘Mastery’ as the driving force

In Japan, there is a notion that if you are master of one thing, then you are master of all. American anthropologist, Ruth Benedict talked about Muga, "a state of expertness in which there is no break, not even the thickness of a hair between a man's will and his act." As elucidated earlier, mastery goals contribute significantly to the ‘thrill’ of learning and facilitate high disposition towards the learning journey. While performance goals are equally powerful, they could have a short to medium term impact on behavior and would need a reset once the goal is achieved. On the other hand, mastery goals enable an individual to constantly push himself or herself towards a state of excellence and long term evolution, setting the base for exceptional contribution at an individual, team and organization level.

In 2019, the ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work stated, “Today’s skills will not match the jobs of tomorrow, and newly acquired skills may quickly become obsolete.” (HBR, 2020). ILO has called for establishment of lifelong learning systems in order to meet the expected volatility the role opportunities available at large. Combined with the high performance expectations within organizations and the rise of the gig economy, talent that exemplifies learning agility (high disposition towards learning) and quest for excellence will be in demand. Transformational learning will be a key tool in creating this talent pool for the future, driven by enabling culture, talent frameworks, policies and processes. Finally, “it’s about learning in service of an outcome, which is usually the successful transition into a new job or the ability to successfully take on new tasks” (Glenda Quintini, senior economist at OECD).

How Might We then reinvent the journey of learning rather than making incremental improvements, to enable individuals to excel in their roles, in particular, and life, in general?  

Written by: Gitanjali Saksena
Written by: Gitanjali SaksenaDirector, LagomWorks Consultinggitanjali@lagomworks.com
Management Consulting professional with 21+ years of experience. Core expertise in Scale-Up strategies, Digital Workforce Capacity and Capability Enhancement, Leadership Alignment, Assessment and Development. Previously worked with Gallup research. Masters in Business Economics from Delhi University. Stanford certified Advanced Design Thinking specialist.
Peer Reviewed by: Abhilasha Jha
Peer Reviewed by: Abhilasha JhaDirector, LagomWorks Consultingabhilasha@lagomworks.com
Human Capital expert with 18+ years of experience across pharmaceuticals, information technology and consulting. Expertise in the areas of People Transformation, Change Management, Rewards, Service Delivery and Mergers and Acquisition. Previously worked with Accenture Technology India as a Vice President. PGDM (HRM) from XLRI. Certified by ICF as an Associate Coach. Visiting Faculty for Design Thinking in HR at Xavier University, Bhubaneswar.