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Nine Essential Learning Principles

 Tim Leberecht
 Suggested by Ariadine Varreira

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Management guru and Fifth Discipline author Peter Senge was ahead of his time when he postulated that companies are learning organizations. Thirty years later, that thought-provoking notion is accepted wisdom, and organizations’ capacity to learn is considered crucial to their vitality and longevity. Furthermore, they know they will only be able to attract and retain top talent if they offer compelling learning opportunities.

Similarly, professionals are expected to become constant learners themselves, as technical expertise can quickly become outdated or obsolete in times of rapid change. Constant learning, or life-long learning, is imperative for both organizations and individuals.

How can you get started today? Here are nine essential learning principles that will help you learn anything the future could possibly throw at you.

1. Learn everywhere, anytime

Life-long learning starts with everyday learning. That means that any learning must be easy, simple, and seamlessly embedded in daily routines and workflows. Sure, expert lectures, workshops, and retreats can help inspire and change perspective, but to truly internalize new insights and cognitive or emotional capacities, hands-on experience and regular small touchpoints are key.

Louise Kyhl-Triolo, who heads up the Leadership University of plane maker Airbus in North America, believes that “exponential leadership” must emulate the very qualities in which business-as-usual is being disrupted by exponential technology. In her view, learning must be everywhere, anytime, rather than being “the thing you do” or the program you take part in. In fact, the most valuable learning, she suggests, often occurs outside of your organization, which is why she forged partnerships with Singularity University, the X Prize Foundation, and others to keep Airbus on its toes.

2. Create negative space for pausing and reflection

Martin A. Ciesielski is the “head of nothing” at The School of Nothing in Berlin. His school doesn’t have a building, nor staff or a curriculum. It has and is — nothing. That’s the very point. The school is more than a practical joke though; it is an artistic provocation to get us to challenge our traditional ways of learning. Ciesielski wants to direct attention to the fact that learning takes place in the unknown, when you let go of long-held beliefs and old habits and truly open yourself up for the unexpected. Amidst the information density of our (wanna-be)-know-it-all cultures, that “negative space” is increasingly hard to find. With the School of Nothing he hopes to raise awareness for the value of erasing our hard disks and surrendering to being a blank slate (again). “When you press the pause button on a machine, it stops. But when you press the pause button on human beings, they start,” as the author Dov Seidman once put it.

Sophie Devonshire, CEO of The Caffeine Partnership and author of the new book Superfast — Lead at Speed, agrees and stresses that today’s leaders must learn to embrace an apparent contradiction: to think slow and act fast. They must empower their workforce to follow this mantra, too. Only with enough thinking-time, with ample space to reflect and refine our intuition rather than being super quick studies, can workers become confident in their decisions and make them swiftly without having all the data at their fingertips (in reality, the information they can draw from will always be incomplete). Sophisticated learning organizations are thus mastering different paces for different cohorts, Devonshire suggests.

And indeed, this is what personalized learning really means: not the customized spoon-feeding of content, but allowing every member of the organization to learn at the pace that works for them. This is too often forgotten in companies desperate to catch up with the pressures of digitalization. Offering a string of mandatory seminars on, say, agile working to make employees fit for the new work requirements will never be as effective as employees discovering the meaning of agility for and by themselves. Instead of pushing knowledge, organizations should give their members the time to pull it whenever they’re ready. Learning is not an activity, it’s a mindset.

3. Don’t gamify, play!

Gamification is the latest trend to hit the workplace, but critics have lambasted it as an effort to assert social control and coax employees into temporary behavior change while glossing over underlying structural and cultural issues. To truly learn something about others and ourselves, they insist, we must not gamify, we must play. Play is to gamification what love is to liking: the real deal. It has an agenda, but no destination. It has a desired outcome, but only limited control over it.

Toy designer Justyna Zubrycka, who creates digital playthings for early childhood learning at her company Vai Kai, contends that play is imaginative and explorative rather than goal-driven. If we play as adults, she says, it connects us with our child-like capacities and often reveals a profound creative power we had forgotten or neglected.

Along similar lines, a recent paper by the Boston Consulting Group argues that the core components of play — improvisation, imagination, and inspiration — are increasingly important in today’s unpredictable, malleable, and interdependent business environments. Many innovations, e.g. Play-Doh and Google Maps, are the direct result of play, the authors point out. To establish play as an integral part of business, they call for companies to de-risk play, suspend goals, and create zones for play at the workplace. In play, we learn by testing alternate world and identities, and experiencing “what if?” propositions first hand. If the whole point of learning is learning, then the whole point of playing is not winning — it’s playing.

4. Learn and share, or don’t learn at all

Several studies have proven the so-called learning-by-teaching effect: students who spend time teaching what they’ve learned show better understanding and knowledge retention than students who spend the same time re-studying. This is the reason that smart organizations encourage mentoring and reverse mentoring, and have devised programs that require participants to verbalize their new insights and share them with colleagues in the form of talks, written reports, or ad-hoc classes. Retailer Otto Group asks participants in its top executive training program to present their learnings back to the entire staff in the form of concise 6-minute talks. Other companies demand employees who attend a conference to present their key take-aways or write a blog post.

The idea of externalizing and passing on knowledge is also the principle behind Working Out Loud (WOL), an increasingly popular workplace collaboration practice that invites workers to gather in small circles on a regular basis, openly share what they’re working on, and ask colleagues for help with their individual goals. WOL has struck a chord with employees worldwide, and organizations from Germany to Brazil have adopted it. Its success is based on a simple but important truth: learning is social and needs trusted relationships in order to take place.

5. Be an amateur

The word “amateur” originates from the Latin amator, which means lover. This makes sense because when we fall in love we usually don’t know better — we lack information. Similarly, to learn, we must forget what we know. We must un-learn and jump into the unknown, simply spurred by our curiosity and desire to uncover something essential about ourselves. Learning must be life-changing. If it’s not life-changing, then why would we want to learn about it? Hence learning often benefits from extreme circumstances, and it is always personal. Consider the digital marketing firm Syzygy, which sends its top executives to a barn “basecamp” high up in the Alps where they must quickly learn to cope with the lack of amenities and function as a team together. Or the firm FutureShift that designs fully immersive learning expeditions for emerging leaders in exotic locations far from their headquarters. You learn about the map when you are in the territory.

6. Use the power of awe

It is now widely accepted that we learn through experiences, especially if they engage all our senses, involve our full selves, and are different from our established routines. It is less well understood, however, what role awe — defined as “reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder” by science writer Jessa Gamble — plays in these experiences. Gamble points to the relatively nascent field of awe research which claims that awe has the effect of “shrinking our selves.” When we are overpowered by awe, we appreciate the greater context we’re in. Awe creates a moment of transcendence that invokes our aspiration to be part of something greater than ourselves. We’re humbled, we stretch — and begin to learn. Awe can be generated by exposure to nature, the grandeur of art or architecture, an emotionally gripping movie or theatrical performance, or stories of heroic deeds. Gamble argues that awe has two key components: perceptual vastness and the “need for accommodation.” The latter involves a desire to interpret that vastness by learning more about the world. The architects of Oxford’s dreaming spires used this effect in Medieval times, and today’s learning practices would benefit from taking their cue. So the next time you’re trying to teach someone a new skill, make sure they have goosebumps when they are first exposed to it!

7. Be a neo-generalist

Kenneth Mikkelsen, co-author (with Richard Martins) of the book The Neo-Generalist, posits that the future belongs to neo-generalists. He claims that our business lives are infinite loops intersecting generalist and specialist roles. By his definition, the neo-generalist is someone who’s actually both a generalist and a specialist, a “restless multidisciplinarian, who is forever learning,” a renaissance man or woman who constantly reinvents himself or herself. These are people who, as Mikkelsen puts it, are not necessarily at home anywhere, but local everywhere, whether that is a geography or a field of expertise.

8. Know thyself

Whether it is acting classes for business people, social presencing theater, or constellations work, many inward-looking practices teach us about ourselves and our place in a team, an organization, the world, and how we got there. These tools have never been more important. As machines learn to learn at breakneck speed, it is important for us humans to remember that the purpose of our learning is not to acquire knowledge but to become someone. We learn so we can transform. And we transform to form an identity. In a time when knowledge is a commodity that’s readily accessible on the internet, becoming ourselves by knowing ourselves is the only remaining unique value proposition. Learning is now more apparently what it has always been: the transformation of ourselves.

9. Learning is not a journey

Finally, it is time to rid ourselves of the notion that learning is a journey that serves an ultimate goal of “arriving” at a specific destination at which we eventually apply the knowledge to an acute or pertinent business challenge to great reward. The goal of learning is learning, and to get better at it. This, and nothing else, is the most important skill of the 21st century, if not the very essence of being human. The wise words of British philosopher Alan Watts about life fully apply to learning as well: “When we think of it as a journey, we miss the whole point. It’s a musical thing. We are supposed to dance while the music is being played.”

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