Saturday, January 13, 2018

Learning More and/or Better

The following string of thoughts comes out of recent readings and meetings.  As always, more questions to ask than answers to provide.

We can think about learning in two dimensions, quantitative and qualitative.  Learning MORE is quantitative.  Learning BETTER is qualitative. 

I am inclined to think (or hypothesize) that learning MORE is a very incremental process whereas learning BETTER is potentially an exponential process.  I don't really want to use the word "exponential" here and I certainly don't want to use the word "transformational".  What I mean is that learning BETTER, addressing the qualitative dimension of learning is potentially more impactful than learning MORE. 

It's the difference between the idea of continuous learning, which is simply about learning more over time, and the idea of learning HOW to learn, which is about becoming a better learner.

This manifests itself currently for me in terms of something as simple as reading.  The number of books I will read this year is somewhat irrelevant.  I am much more interested in developing, nurturing my capacity to engage in deep reading and deeper learning.  There is some tension there because I could benefit from reading more broadly, which might translate into more books.  The compromise might be scanning more books from a broad spectrum of disciplines but reading deeply a smaller subset of those books.

Reading now:  Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age, by Edward D. Hess and Katherine Ludwig.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Why We Need Contrarians

I don't make New Year's resolutions.  I have a variety of reasons for not doing it, but at least one of them is that I like being a contrarian.  When the crowd is doing something just because everyone in the crowd seems to be doing it, I resist.

More seriously, and in a professional context, being aware of the fact that each time I write publically about monitoring and evaluation (M&E), I run the risk of never getting hired to do M&E work, simply because of my skepticism and at times contrarian opinions.  And yes, these are opinions. I don't claim to be correct while everyone else is wrong.  I just wish people would stop and think rather than follow the crowd.  Admitedly, following the crowd is much easier.  You get pushed by its forward motion, going downhill like the little grey people in the picture above.  When going in the other direction, not only are you going uphill but you have to fight your way through a crowd of opposing views.

Today, I will point to research that may support at least some aspects of my thinking and validate my conviction that we need contrarians.  Not surprisingly, it has to do with a cognitive bias, the resulting fallacy.

I first encountered this fallacy through a simple case study run by NASA and developed in collaboration with academics researching decision-making.  The case study describes a mission that was ultimately successful but was considered a near-miss.  In other words, it benefited from a certain amount of luck and it could have been a complete failure. The learning objective of this case study is that people draw conclusions about decisions made based on the outcome.  The mission succeeded, therefore the decisions must have been good.   People studying decision-making and focusing on the resulting fallacy say, "not so fast." You cannot say much about the quality of a decision based solely on the outcome.

What does the resulting fallacy have to do with being a contrarian you ask.  It points to the need for more in-depth analysis of cause and effect and the thinking behind our decisions.  We need more contrarians who are ready to raise their hand and say "not so fast." 

Why be a contrarian?  Someone has to.  When 99% of the people in a particular industry or discipline are jumping on a bandwagon, I like to be the one standing back and watching.  It's not that I don't ever jump on bandwagons.  I do.  There are some bandwagons however where I get tickled and I go, "wait a minute... something is fishy.  I don't know what it is yet but I'm not getting on that one."

I like poking and prodding when I see the bandwagon passing by.  Being a contrarian doesn't make me right.  I can make me useful.  There's always a role for a devil's advocate, a skeptic who will force others to articulate their positions and assumptions.

This is also related to the importance of allowing dissenting opinions in organizations, but that's a topic for another post perhaps.


"Do you have a contrarian on your team?", Insights by Stanford Business, November 13, 2015, by Elizabeth MacBride.

"The Resulting Fallacy is Ruining Your Decisions," by Stuart Firestein, December 7, 2017.

"Understanding Near-Misses at NASA," ASK OCE, August 17, 2006, Vol. 1, Issue No. 12.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Lifelong Learning, Learning & Development, Organization Development, Organizational Learning & Knowledge Management

Lifelong learning  has been mostly "sold" as the responsibility of the individual, a pursuit of learning beyond formal education, throughout life, sometimes as a means of strengthening one's employability in changing economic contexts, as a way of keeping up with new advances in one's professional field, as a way of staying engaged, even as a way to build cognitive reserves and ward off Alzheimer in old age.

Beyond personal responsibility, lifelong learning is often integrated into the vocabulary of Learning & Development (L&D) specialists.  In more traditional L&D approaches, lifelong learning may be advocated as a way to encourage employees to keep building their credentials by signing up for and attending courses, especially when the organization has invested in the development of corporate training.

Increasingly (and it's a good thing), learning has been broadened to cover much more than formal courses, whether in formal educational institutions or corporate environments (see the work of Jane Hart and Harold Jarche in particular).  As technology has evolved and penetrated learning and training departments, formats have evolved as well. For example, the recognition that time is often a constraint has led to the development of micro-learning, which can happen at any time using conspicuous mobile devices.  The alternative explanation for the development of micro-learning is that our attention spans are decreasing and we need bit-size learning moments to accommodate shrinking brain power.  That's scary.

This expansion of opportunities for learning has been accompanied by the recognition that most of our learning comes from first-hand experiences.  When we learn from experience, we essentially teach ourselves what no one else could possibly have taught us.  This learning by doing (and learning by reflecting on our experience) is still not well integrated in most models or framework of workplace learning. Harold Jarche's work is probably the notable exception.

From an organizational learning perspective, we often emphasize group/team learning, and the learning organization.  Yet group and organization learning cannot truly happen unless the individuals within that organization are themselves, learning.  Organization Development (OD) as a field of study, does pay much more attention to the different levels of analysis (individual, group, organization).  Knowledge Management, on the other hand, tends to neglect individual learning and focuses on leveraging knowledge for the organization with a strong focus on benefits to the organization's mission.

In the end, it is unfortunate that professional disciplines end up digging deep tracks and creating their own vocabulary when it's all connected and challenges would be much more effectively addressed with a broad systems approach.  I don't even want to say cross-disciplinary because it reinforces the fact that there are disciplines with artificial boundaries that need to be crossed.  In a systems perspective, the boundaries disappear.

We need a framework that speaks to the connections between individual learning, team learning, and organizational learning and addresses the dynamics of such a system in the context of a rapidly changing world where individuals AND organizations need to increase their learning agility in order to keep up but also to stay ahead and innovate.