“. . .we can say that Muad’Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It is shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult.” -Frank Herbert, Dune
This quote from the science fiction novel Dune underlines the difficulties anyone involved with training or developing people face.
Very few people say they enjoy learning. Most people dread the idea of school, or formal learning. This fear has roots in everything from embarrassment, fear of failure, fear of ridicule, to our society’s worship of “book” learning over experiential learning.
And even fewer have ever been taught how to learn. For those who know how to learn, learning becomes a fulfillment to curiosity, a way to overcome fear and a process that helps them face the many decisions and dilemmas of life.
Children have the delightful gift of total trust that allows them to freely interact with the environment and learn. They instinctively know how to learn. They experiment, test, challenge, make mistakes and, most importantly, incorporate whatever they learn into their behavior. Unfortunately, as we go through our formal schooling that built-in curiosity and ability to learn is taken out of us. What we learn formally is rarely remembered or used.
Our organizations reflect this inability to learn. Only a few are learning organizations – ones that can invent the future and do so regularly, as defined by Peter Senge. Few learn from past mistakes and many repeat errors and bad decision-making processes.
But IBM, despite its age and reputation, is a highly adaptive learning organization that has managed to survive and thrive for 100 years by continuously reinventing itself. It encourages learning, allows employees to move internally fairly easily, offers a great deal of training, and uses project-based work as a way to stimulate creativity and collaboration. It has made major strategic changes based on what employees have observed and learned.
As adults we continue learning throughout our lives – most often without even knowing it. We call this “getting experience” or “learning by living” and it is how we have always learned most of what we know. We buy a new phone, charge it, and start pushing buttons. Almost no one reads the manual, if it even has one. We learn very little in formal ways, relying much more on asking others, experimenting, and observing. What we don’t do is recognize the power this has to enrich our lives and give us far more knowledge and capability than we imagine. By consciously and deliberately learning to learn we could learn more, faster, and make changes to our lives accordingly.
If organizations want to survive and remain profitable well into the future, they must allow people more time and freedom to engage in projects that stretch their abilities and to interact with people from a wide array of backgrounds and experiences. They need to deliberately avoid groupthink and deliberately allow dissent and open conversation.
By coupling teams or project members with debriefings and discussions about what was learned and what changed in their thinking, people would develop patterns of deliberate learning. Deliberate learning requires feedback, conscious thought, and interaction with others to become learning. The results need to be reflected in actions and changes in behaviors.
Deliberate reflection, fun, and results lead to enduring learning. This is not to make informal learning formal, but to ensure that learning is deliberate and thoughtful rather than, as usual, accidental and random.