LF02 - Learning

September 19, 2019

Every Company Needs to Learn

Organizations are obsessed with changing. They create big visions of Big Futures that show how the organization will change.

But an organization is ultimately a product of the people within it and the things they do. So if you want to change an organization you need to change the people inside it.

Said another way: for an organization to do new things, the people must do new things.

And these big futures that companies dream up very rarely address the learning environment. How will the organization learn? How will the people learn? What are the essential things that the organization needs to learn?

Our theory of Little Futures is that every vision of the future should be grounded in the changes people can make today. So instead of Big Futures, consider the Little Futures - the things your organization can learn.

And how do organizations learn new things? By doing:

Effective learning makes organizations more able to cope with problems. Learning takes place when organizations interact with their environments: organizations increase their understanding of reality by observing the results of their acts. Often the acts are experimental ones. In other instances, organizations learn by imitating other organizations’ behavior, or by accepting others’ experiences and maps of the environment. - source

This is true for people too - bookwork isn’t the answer but rather obstacle courses.

Gary Chou and Christina Xu have an open curriculum for their Entrepreneurial Design program that is entirely built around obstacle courses in public:

We are undergoing a macro-level shift from the post-industrial era to a world hyperconnected via real-time, ubiquitous, online information networks.[…]

This course is an entry point into understanding, engaging with, and building these networks. You will complete three in-public challenges all of which are designed to help you develop networks relevant to your personal or professional interests, aspirations and goals. - source

Startups are good at this - change is their constant. They are doing all the time and as a result can often uncover insights faster - about new markets, user behaviours, product and customers.

But startups move so fast that they don’t always have good processes for capturing, creating and remembering stories.

They get obsessed with capturing data but not stories:

The basic idea is that a system which values stories, storytellers, and storytelling will be more reliable than a system that derogates these substitutes for trial and error. - source

So how can you recast your Big Futures as a story about people teaching, learning and doing?

And how might you design a set of obstacle courses so that you can change to learn instead of learning to change?

And perhaps now is a good time to reflect: what is the most important thing for your organization to learn?

This week’s links are split into two themes:


1) Designing Personal Learning Systems

We referenced the idea of obstacle courses - and here’s another metaphor for personal learning, from learn like an athlete by David Perell:

Athletes train. Musicians train. Performers train. But knowledge workers don’t.

Knowledge workers should train like LeBron, and implement strict “learning plans.” To be sure, intellectual life is different from basketball. Success is harder to measure and the metrics for improvement aren’t quite as clear. Even then, there’s a lot to learn from the way top athletes train. They are clear in their objectives and deliberate in their pursuit of improvement.

Knowledge workers should imitate them.

David outlines one version of a “personal learning plan” but what if we think in terms of systems instead of plans - how might we design a personal learning system?

This piece from Winnie Lim explores her attempt at building what she calls a personal learning network:

There’s a ton of bookmarking/collection apps but it gets unwieldy when our data grows. There’s no hierarchy, wayfinding, or sense of completion. Most learning content exists as either a flat list of links or a curriculum. […]

Everything in the tree of knowledge is interconnected, yet we don’t have good ways of surfacing these connections. Want to learn philosophy? We can’t neglect the historical context. We can’t understand history without learning what drives a human being — psychology. Right now knowledge is organised in silos of categories, expressed in unending bunches of links with not much context.

And what would happen if you networked all these personal learning systems together to create a social annotated learning system?

Research suggests that social annotation (SA) tools—which allow students to highlight and comment on digital course materials as they read—have impressive educational benefits.

SA tools can help with students’ reading comprehension, peer review, motivation, attitudes toward technology, and much more.

Does this future include Hypothesis inside companies? Will Are.na end up being meaningful for how organizations learn?


2) Corporate Learning & Development

This article from the FT does a good job highlighting problems with traditional corporate “learning and development” programs:

At best, employees are trained to enable them to complete certain tasks they could not previously do; at worst, everyone is thrown together on a “business training” jaunt to a smart hotel, which is treated as ”a jolly”, rather than a serious enabling exercise.

“A big barrier to learning effectiveness is that you give people the ‘what’ before you have built up the ‘why’,” says Mr Bird, who explains that not enough time and thought is given to what the organisation is trying to achieve, and on the strategy needed to accomplish it.

Especially inside big organizations, learning gets pitched as a soft benefit of HR rather than as a core part of business strategy.

This post from Stephen Anderson begins with the problems but then starts to poke at ways we might create a new model for corporate learning and development:

1) Why are trainings the “go to” mode of teaching used to support corporate learning?

2)Why is no one talking about — and holding people to account for — an ultimate, desired outcome?

3)Why do we treat everything as a topic to be taught? […]

Ultimately, I ended up with ‘10 Kinds of Learning Topics’, chunked into four categories:

And finally, if we’re working towards effective models of learning it’s worth noting that increased cognitive effort leads to greater learning but lower experience evaluations:

A carefully done study that held students and teachers constant shows that students learn more in active learning classes but they dislike this style of class and think they learn less. It’s no big surprise–active learning is hard and makes the students feel stupid. It’s much easier to sit back and be entertained by a great lecturer who makes everything seem simple.


That’s all for issue 2 of Little Futures. Hope you enjoyed it!

Brian & Tom


Little Futures is a research and consultancy studio from Brian Dell and Tom Critchlow to make futures thinking less abstract and more grounded - to shine a light on what we call “arm’s-length futures.”

With a background in creative strategy, media, startups & consulting we are experimenting with building a new kind of research studio to navigate new kinds of futures - Little Futures.

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