Organizational Learning & Performance: The Science and Practice of Building a Learning Culture

smerek-book-coverMy colleague Ryan Smerek‘s book – Organizational Learning & Performance – The Science and Practice of Building a Learning Culture (Oxford University Press) – is now available. If you are a learning professional, or a leader who wishes to develop a deeper understanding of the link between learning and performance, read this book.

I am biased, of course, because I have the pleasure of teaching with Ryan and being with him every day in the office. But for those of you who now and then get a little appetizer from me about the work we do at the Master’s Program in Learning and Organizational Change, this book is an entree. It reflects the essence of our program’s perspective on learning and performance (Ryan teaches courses in this area), and how we try to get to that perspective by being scholar-practitioners.

For me, one of the most interesting concepts in the book is mental complexity. Ryan also writes about it in his blog post Forget Intelligence, Aim for Mental Complexity:

“…when trying to explain any kind of mental development, we often attribute that development to an increase in “intelligence.” Researchers in the field of adult development discuss a different form of intellectual competence—mental complexity (see Kegan & Lahey, 2009). Mental complexity is the variety of perspectives, concepts, and vocabulary we have to make sense of the world. With greater mental complexity, we can perceive more and take more effective action.”

In his book Ryan makes the case that, to continually attempt to make sense of things in complex environments like organizations, we require a rich variety of perspectives, concepts and vocabulary to meet the challenge. He then demonstrates how to do that with a critical eye focused on the sources of items we might add to our sense-making toolkit. In his case, it is primarily research from a variety of branches of psychology and organizational science, interwoven with case studies that illustrate or enlighten the concepts.

For example. In Chapter 2, Ryan describes and develops three metaphors for individual learning:

  • The mind as a computer, where learning = storing and retrieving information.
  • The mind as a developing author, where learning is how we develop as we construct meaning, and craft the stories of who we are.
  • The intuitive and reflective minds, where learning is a tension between the intuitive mind, which generates quick, persuasive answers, and the reflective mind, where more careful, effortful reasoning takes place.

He walks us clearly and carefully through the foundations of academic research that support these three different metaphors for individual learning. None of the three are presented as better than another. They are simply different, each with its own strengths and blind spots. Imagine how taking one or another of the perspectives might help make sense of individual learning in organizations with entirely different insights emerging from each perspective. That is the benefit of mental complexity when examining complex environments.

He gives similar treatment to several “thinking dispositions” that foster individual learning before moving on to look beyond the individual to the organization. Here, he explores research and cases on transparency; big picture thinking; learning from failure; and innovation. He summarizes it all with a look at what it means for leadership and building a learning culture.

One key to leading development of a learning culture is an appreciation for what Ryan calls Learning Mechanisms. After Action Reviews are a good example. They are observable routines deliberately implemented by an organization to foster learning. I like this label – Learning Mechanisms – because it takes us away from debates about formal vs. informal learning, or “rules” such as 70-20-10, and instead broadens our view to see (and create) a variety of mechanisms that work in the context of work and workplaces.

But for me, the key takeaway is the concept of mental complexity. It reframes what it means to be a leader focused on learning, in this way (emphasis mine):

“Although expanding our own mental complexity helps us diagnose complex issues, in building a learning culture we also work to build the mental complexity of others.” (Smerek, 2018)

That is a tremendous “how might we?” motivation for the field. How might we build the mental complexity of others, by exposure to a variety of grounded and well-reasoned metaphors, perspectives, concepts and vocabularies?

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