October 2013

Expert opinion: moving from the Learning to the Teaching Enterprise

In a post published on the Harvard blog, Bill Taylor notices the rise of the Teaching Organisation, as an evolutionary step of the Learning Organisation model. According to his observations, the most innovative companies are not just committed to continuous learning : they are strongly committed to teaching as well, sharing their ideas and best practices with their clients, partners and competitors.

By Jérome Coignard, former CIO of CrossKnowledge

Although philanthropy is a classical behaviour of successful American entrepreneurs, moving to Teaching is a pragmatic and well considered strategy, which brings 4 benefits according to Bill Taylor:

  • Put pressure on the competitors,
  • Be perceived as the leader of ideas on your market,
  • Build loyalty and a strong community, passionate about learning from you,
  • Forcing your organisation to keep learning, as the findings of yesterday won’t stay a competitive advantage for long, as they’re made publicly available.

Beyond these 4 advantages, this vision of the Learning Enterprise can be helpful to cope with the complexity of our world, recently outlined by Jeff Immelt, General Electric’s CEO, in a remarkable speech on renewing American Leadership. In fact, a Teaching Enterprise can proactively organise its ecosystem (clients, partners, competitors), aligning it according to its own lines of force, reinforcing its strengths and leadership.

This vision of the Teaching Enterprise is also aligned with the rising value of sharing, which is one of the foundations of the Social Media and Web 2.0 culture: « You are what you share », claims Charlie Leadbeater in the 1st chapter of its book called ’We Think’.

When committing to Teaching, an Enterprise can expect strong and beneficial effects on its Learning processes and behaviours.

A Catalyst for Social Learning

By encouraging its employees to teach, the enterprise will lead them to make their learning and findings explicit, releasing and sharing them with their peers and getting their feedback. As John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler explained it in their Minds on Fire article, we move progressively from the traditional Cartesian view of learning (« I think therefore I am »), according to which knowledge is a substance to be transferred with the help of pedagogy, to the social view of learning (« We participate therefore we are »), claiming that knowledge is first and foremost a social construction.

By defining objectives and incentives for teaching outside of the company’s boundaries, the enterprise will thus cause changes of behaviour inside the company, developing its own learning capacities, inspiring new values of sharing knowledge and networking to its teams, ultimately improving the learning process and its value for money.

Training, Teaching and Employer Branding

Famous and praised companies like McKinsey & Company, Procter & Gamble or L’Oréal have been building their reputation and attractiveness on the promise of dramatically improving the skills of its young employees, through high quality and complete training, both formal and experiential.

For large or even small companies, sharing and teaching its best practices with the outside world, can help developing their reputation and attracting talents to fuel their growth. Size doesn’t matter, if they have identified and developed a smart and differentiated positioning, as Internet and Social Media bring to the table cheap but powerful tools required to create and sustain a vibrant community of practice. Besides, in the same Minds on Fire article, John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler noticed the rising of a Long Tail in Learning, similar to the popular model built by Chris Anderson. Whereas traditional universities offer a limited number of courses in their catalog, Internet brings the promise of an almost infinite number of learning topics and communities of practice, built by people who are passionate about these topics. These subjects and groups can be niche ones, but any of us is almost sure of finding the community that will match his/her passion and talent.

Social media: Teaching in Perpetual Beta

In a recent post, Frederic Domon presented the concept of Personal Knowledge Management built by Harold Jarche : it is based on 4 repeating and internal activities (Sort / Categorise / Make explicit / Retrieve), combined with 3 external activities to connect and share with the outside world. Harold Jarche then matches these activities with the free social tools available on the Internet, that enables oneself to increase the productivity of the PKM process.

Social Medial tools like blogs, Delicious or Twitter enable us today to multiply and accelerate these interactive loops of learning, making explicit and teaching and put ourselves in a Perpetual Beta mode. This approach offers several advantages in a period of knowledge in abundance, although of decreasing lifetime:

  • Knowledge is made explicit and taught more rapidly
  • The learning formats are shorter and simpler, therefore more digestible by the learners
  • Their shorter size makes them cheaper to produce and to update
  • The approach and the tools promote conversations and the connections between pieces of knowledge

Knowledge and teaching are then no longer frozen : they continuously and organically evolve, together with the evolution of the training needs, with the new ideas that arise in conversations and with new connections between existing concepts and ideas. The process of knowledge creation is moving to a « just in time » approach, very much similar to the Lean Management concepts or to what John Dewey used to call the productive enquiry as John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler reminded us: knowledge is sought when it is necessary, in order to solve a problem or complete a task.

We are all Learners and Teachers

With these tools ant this peer-based teaching approach, knowledge becomes a property shared by a growing community of practice and is no longer the prerogative of the Master, teaching from her dais. As John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler are describing it, the learner is moving from a passive connection to knowledge (Learning About) to an active attitude, progressively integrating and acculturating oneself into a community of practice (Learning to Be). This may sound like the revenge of Socrates over Plato, as emphasise Charles Jennings and David James Clark in their article: ’The core of the Socratic approach is helping (not teaching) students learn critical thinking and analytic skills rather than specific content. It is focused on helping them develop the tools and techniques they need to thrive in the real world.’

With the help of Social Media tools (blog, wiki, microblogging, social network), the learner is no longer required to wait for several years and accumulate large quantities of knowledge, before daring to speak and to teach: each employee in a company becomes a potential teacher, who is legitimate to share her knowledge within and outside of the organisation.

Of course, most of us may remain « dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants ». But modern tools enable us to easily find these giants, in particular the ones that fit the most our passions, then to climb faster on their shoulders. These tools can even constitute a strong shot of growth hormones for who is passionate about a topic.