The importance of collaborative reflection as CSR evolves

A theme you will see in my posts is an interest in getting a glimpse into “the conversation” — how groups of people engage in a discussion about the meaning of some new metric or concept or insight. This evolves from my interest in the dynamic and very social nature of how people learn. As individuals, we learn by 1) adding to or 2) rewiring our mental models. It’s a process that is cognitive, social, and action-oriented (e.g., learning by doing). All of those things work together to create expertise.

A critical element in this is reflection — thinking about our thinking and actions. Research into the development of expertise continually points to the important role played by reflection. It seems to help people construct their own individual meaning around specific concepts. That meaning then becomes incorporated in their operating mental models that drive decisions, actions and behavior.

And you can find reflective practices in most successful organizations; it certainly appeared in the success cases I studied when I looked at organizations which are leading the pack in terms of socially responsible business practices.

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to listen in on several presentations by students in the graduate program in Learning and Organizational Change at Northwestern University (a program from which I graduated and am now adjunct faculty). One of the students — Siobhan James — presented the results of her Capstone thesis, which looked at the process of collaborative reflection. Collaborative reflection is (her words) “a social form of reflection that supports individual and organizational learning.”

Siobhan is an experienced professional — which is to say her academic work is tempered by a feet-on-the-ground perspective of real-world commercial enterprises. She went deep into the existing research on reflection, but at the end of the effort came away with what I saw as a profoundly simple (and useful) tool that can be applied to any effort where new meaning and expertise must develop (e.g., the successful execution of socially responsible business practices).

Siobhan presented her findings by using a collaborative reflection approach. After a very brief overview of her research topic, she asked the audience what they wanted to know about the topic of her research. She posted these items on a flip chart, and then personally reflected on each issue. Not really just answering the question — but “thinking aloud” and reflecting on the issue.

From a learning design standpoint, the approach yields several benefits. It was constructed entirely about what the learners (the audience) wanted to know. But it also gave Siobhan the flexibility to think aloud and share her mental connections (i.e., her expertise) between the flip chart topics and her knowledge. It gave much deeper insight into her thinking, constructed in a manner that felt much more like conversation than presentation or lecture.

Secondly, her practical insight was that this type of interaction is in fact a structured learning activity, but it just feels so very natural and comfortable. There was no complicated new social process to learn. It was natural — and engaging.

Let’s cycle back now to the issue I keep writing about in this blog: How managers and organizations develop expertise in socially responsible business practices. At a time when a lot of new learning must occur, when change is emerging and new thinking is developing, I would suggest that reflection becomes more critical as an activity than any structured training program or seminar. If we simply took Siobhan’s collaborative reflection method as an activity that we would like to see happen routinely throughout an organization trying to develop meaning around the concepts of “sustainability” or “social impact,” we will have established a way to track whether the organization is moving the needle forward to deeper expertise.

My recommendation: Make collaborative reflection a common practice, knowing that it will move individuals further down the path from novice to expert.

Thanks, Siobhan.