Melanie de Vries, HAN, The Netherlands and
Daryl Powell, SINTEF Manufacturing, Norway

The way many of us are approaching learning may be inhibiting our learning outcomes. In this article, Melanie De Vries and Daryl Powell suggest that we try an alternative approach…

In the late-20th Century there was a noticeable shift from industrial economies to knowledge economies. Where capital is the dominant economic force in industrial economies, learning is the critical asset for knowledge economies. In today’s society, knowledge can be deployed as a competitive asset and can increase both productivity and profitability. That is why more and more firms are focusing on creating and retaining valuable knowledge within the organization. In this article we discuss two different approaches to learning and knowledge creation. We believe that the common mechanistic approach to learning should be transformed if we really want to learn to become a learning organization. First, an outline of the mechanistic approach to learning is given, with its corresponding problems. Secondly, we present an alternative, organic approach to learning. 

Learning is often defined as the process of acquiring new knowledge and / or skills. But creating new knowledge is just as, if not even more, important. In that respect, organizations must learn more than ever if they want to triumph in the market. Organizations with a winner’s mindset must strive to become learning organizations. A learning organization is an organization in which creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge is central. That sounds like an appealing idea, but in practice there are few organizations that achieve this ideal. Toyota is the prime exemplar. Several aspects within Toyota, which reinforce each other, contribute to the learning capacity of Toyota. For example, the cornerstone of the managerial approach is ‘go and see’ by which the distance between management and the shop floor is reduced.

The learning organization should not just apply to large, established firms. We believe that start-ups also have many characteristics of a learning organization. A start-up must constantly sense the (dynamic) environment and determine how to position itself and what the next steps (learning challenges) should be. The leaders and employees of start-ups must constantly ask themselves critical questions and reflect on them, thereby discovering new learning opportunities and creating new knowledge.

In this respect, we believe that the dominant mechanistic approach to learning is unfortunately self-inhibiting. I.e., the way we observe and think about learning often limits our learning potential. It is common to think about learning in stages. We try to capture learning in a systematic way, for example by using a standard online form in which learning outcomes must be written down. In this way learning can be captured, but we often lose sight of the essence of learning. For example, learning frequently happens when we have no intention of learning. It also has a tendency to happen when we feel uncomfortable. Learning is an unstructured, messy process, and our attempts to mechanistically structure learning may be doing more harm than good.

The mechanistic approach to learning

The most common approach to learning is the so-called mechanistic approach. We approach learning as if it works as a machine. First a learning need has to be created. This is the gap between what we know we know and what we want to know, but do not know yet (input). Then one goes through a set of structured steps (process). These steps are to a great extent predetermined and therefore the process is largely predictable. This offers comfort to the person who is learning. Once the steps are completed new knowledge is acquired and hopefully the gap is filled (output). Usually, and at predetermined times, one reflects on the choices made and the process as a whole. Almost by looking in the mirror, we continue to examine our ways of doing, and try to learn from them so that the same mistakes will not be made next time. Questions like “did we reach our goals?” and “did we do things right?” are central in such evaluative activities. A mechanistic approach is perfectly suitable for solving simple problems (puzzles) which do not demand the creation of new knowledge. Because one stays within his or her own assumptions and comfort zone, there is little or no room to create new knowledge. So how should we go about solving complex organizational problems?

The organic approach to learning

As opposed to the mechanistic approach we present the organic approach to learning as a means of solving more complex problems. We advocate that real learning often happens by surprise, where the things you learn are things we didn’t know that we knew (unknown-knowns) or things we didn’t know that we didn’t know (unknown-unknowns). As opposed to the mechanistic learning, the start, the middle and the end of the process are often unclear. You do not know where you will end up, nor how you will get there. It is therefore a messy and iterative process. This means that visualizing the learning process is also chaotic. One will encounter and uncover many unforeseen obstacles and greater opportunities for learning during the learning journey. This will also be uncomfortable for many learners! But only when we step out of our comfort zones are we really open to new experiences – and this is often a prerequisite for creating new knowledge.

During the organic learning process, the questioning and reflective process is crucial (adding questioning insight to existing knowledge, to discover the unknowns and create new, actionable knowledge). One should constantly ask questions and reflect on what is encountered. An organic approach to learning demands that learners not only reflect on what has been done, but to be reflective of one’s self. In doing so, everyone becomes aware of their own beliefs, judgments, and existing mental models. It is crucial to take these into account and reflect on how these basic assumptions impact the way we otherwise think and act.

  Mechanistic approach Organic approach
Moment in time Certain points in time Continuously  
Scope Are we doing things right? Are we doing the right things?
Type of reflection Reflection Reflexivity
Process Structured. Comfortable. Messy. Uncomfortable.
Predictability Predictable. Known-knowns.
Known-unkowns.
Unpredictable. Unknown-knowns. Unkown-unknowns.
Focus Learning Learning-to-learn

Conclusion

For any organization, both mechanistic and organic approaches to learning are important. A mechanistic approach is suitable for gaining existing programmed knowledge in a relatively quick and easy way. This is often enough to stay in the game, but to win, we believe that an organization must be willing to go a step further. What is often missing in the organizations we meet is the organic approach to learning. As well as acquiring existing knowledge to solve puzzles, to solve complex organizational problems, an organization must add fresh, insightful questions and create new, actionable knowledge. Successful organizations continuously create new, valuable knowledge, because they continuously learn from their actions, keep asking questions, and are aware of the underlying assumptions of individuals involved. An organization-wide learning-to-learn capability must be developed if the firm shall become a winning, learning organization.

Categories: Lean Learning

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