'It is not knowledge, but the act of learning, not possession but the act of getting there, which grants the greatest enjoyment.' – Carl Friedrich Gauss
In the pre-pandemic days of face-to-face conferences, I stood in front of an audience of about 300 people. They were professional employees from a wide range of companies, many with jobs in and around HR, people development, and organizational change. I was there to talk about learning in a digital age.
I asked the audience a question: 'How many of you feel that in your organization, a lot of time is wasted in meetings?' Over 90% raised their hands. I continued: 'How many of you feel that wasting time in meetings is an important issue because it reduces productivity?' More than 90% of hands went up again. 'How many of you feel that wasting time in meetings has been a problem in your organization for years?' The same hands went up.
Finally, I asked, 'How many of you are familiar with the research on how to run effective meetings?' This time, only around 40% raised their hands, and this was accompanied by some uncomfortable shuffling as many began to realize where I was going with this.
My point was that we were all confronting a common problem but that very little had been done to address it. Lots of excellent research on solutions exist, but most of the audience seemed unaware of it, or unaware of how to apply it. Why?
This is a key example of a broader issue that I perceive in the current digitally enabled organizational landscape, in which new knowledge, information or insights are widely available but are not applied in ways that positively shift our behavior.
One of the most interesting reasons behind this issue is that we are resistant to learning anything new. By this, I mean the type of learning that results in new action – that results in us doing things differently or doing different things. We can browse material on how to run more effective meetings, attend a course, or watch a video on the subject, but unless we take action and deepen our learning through practice and reflection, we haven’t really learned anything new, and our collective productivity continues to suffer.
This matters because unless we learn something new, we are stuck in our old and familiar patterns of thinking, nursing our prejudices, rehashing the same points, and believing that the past is the only guide we need to the future.
In his seminal book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge introduced the idea of ‘the learning organization’. Senge defined such an organization by its ability to be serious about meeting the systemic challenges of a dynamic world through continuously and collectively striving to nurture new thinking and new learning. Although Senge’s ideas were very popular, few organizations managed to create a deep practice around learning, and the concept was more or less forgotten. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the difficulty inherent in learning anything new. People in organizations are learning all the time of course, but too much of what is considered learning is simply reinforcing existing norms, cultures, behaviors, and mindsets, responding to our very human need to belong. This creates rigidity at a time when organizations everywhere are crying out for agility.
Partly, we struggle to learn anything new in an organizational context because learning is seen through an instrumental lens, which claims that learning only counts if it helps a person do their job or fulfill their function. In this case, learning is reductive rather than transformative; it treats people as robots with functions and targets rather than as whole human beings with hearts and minds. Learning is locked into a paradox that expresses an urgent need for transformational change alongside a desire for everything to remain the same largely. As someone else recently put it: ‘We really, really need big change around here, but it must be in a really, really small way.’
If we can’t learn anything new, then what chance do we have to adapt to rapidly advancing new technologies, new opportunities, or new competitor moves? And crucially, if we can’t learn anything new, how can we hope to collectively respond to the global challenges of the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, or growing inequality?
In our recent white paper on the need for organizations to become more human-centric, we argued that companies will only grow if the people within them grow. And the only way that we grow is through learning: learning to gain from experience and learning to integrate new knowledge into new skills, capabilities, and ways of thinking.
As the digital age continues to transform our world, mechanistic, flow-chartable work will increasingly be done by machines and algorithms, leaving humans to do the essential human-to-human work. We are no longer living through an industrial revolution that demands the extraction of unnecessary humanity from the workplace. We are living in an age where our humanity is the route to our collective survival, and this must be reflected in how we design, run, lead and manage our organizations. We can’t do that unless we become collectively more comfortable, excited, and engaged with the challenging work of learning something new. The stakes are too high for us to fail.
Grahame Broadbelt is a communications and R&D expert.