SWC Performance and Learning Framework
If learning and development in organisations is shifting away from courses towards social learning – cooperating on solving problems and innovating in the flow of work, enabled by resources – what does this mean for anyone seeking to initiate and support this way of learning? What things might it be useful to know?
This depends on what’s to be done and why, plus a multitude of factors linked to context. But there are some basic themes that I think are vital to understand, whatever the context.
The Performance and Learning Framework pulls together some of these basic themes. Before I start looking at the individual components of the framework, I’d like to explain what I mean by the dashed arrows that connect the blue and pink boxes.
Formal and Social Systems
This is a vital, underpinning part of the framework.
Formal systems are implemented by those with officially sanctioned power. They co-evolve alongside informal, ‘shadow systems’ – this is where people take their own power to act as they see fit, for a range of personal reasons. These may or may not be in the interest of the organisation. Shadow systems is where creative and destructive behaviours emerge.
Ralph Stacey writes in Complexity and Creativity in Organizations about the interaction between formal (legitimate) and shadow systems. He comments on the tension between them and that, behind the scenes, it is the mess and self-organising dynamics of shadow activities that bring about creative change in formal systems.
What determines whether shadow social dynamics are creative or destructive?
Formal systems based on control and distrust can wreak havoc through destructive shadow dynamics. Even so, I’ve seen pockets of heroic efforts, in a factory where management was controlling and distrusting, from people who were attempting to “put things right” despite the mayhem going on around them.
Creating enabling formal systems make it more likely that shadow social systems emerge as creative than destructive. Despite best intentions of people who design formal systems, there is no guarantee that people will behave or use a facility in the way intended – I’ll come back to this in another post when I get to the physical workplace as one of the themes.
Having spent a PhD (decades ago now) exploring how formal systems can enable workforce autonomy, while ensuring coordination that achieves organisational purpose, I know how destructive and ineffective attempts to control people actually are. There’s enough evidence that’s been accumulating.
Formal systems designed around learning and innovation as everyone’s business, where the intention is that it is sewn into everything the business does, is already what customer-focused businesses do. There’s nothing new about that – this is a key feature of process innovation work philosophies, and it’s what I was exploring all those years ago.
Although nothing is automatic or deterministic – social organisations are complex – formal systems are very important in communicating organisational values and culture. Are people seen as the way problems are solved, or are they seen as problematic and not to be trusted? Formal systems give people clues as to what kind of behaviours will be tolerated, both positive and negative.
I realised writing this post that social learning is about much, much more than a change in delivery from ‘courses to resources’. What that represents is interesting, which is the power of informal social dynamics. Ask people what they need, listen and give them resources. What these are might not be what the formal system is offering them.
Despite disparaging remarks about ‘the industrial age’, I’d argue that informal shadow dynamics (creative and destructive) were always active. The very word ‘sabotage’ has its roots in destruction of machines. Since change and learning emerge from messy, emotional, social interactions, effective formal systems give people the resources, choice and opportunity to act together as they see fit.
And if formal systems are not enabling? People will connect and act together in their own interests – as they have always done.
This series of posts are thoughts about supporting social learning. What does all this mean in practice? As I said at the beginning, it depends on context. For me, the key take-away from all this is that people will, if they can, act in their own interests. Those interests might be in the interests of the organisation and they might not be.
Here are two quick examples, both real.
Support in the first case is through personal example. I’m thinking about a senior nurse who set about changing the performance culture on her ward. She did this initially by an uncompromising show of ‘this is what I’m going to tolerate’; the formal system will be complied with. She communicated expectations. Those who didn’t like it left, those who remained approved of her focus of patient care above all else.
She then recruited new staff and the social learning began. I said in the previous post that social learning isn’t just collaborative. We learn by watching and listening. She deliberately modelled behaviours she expected to see. The informal, social culture this established was one where the staff became a team that looked out for each other. They went the extra mile for patients and each other, rolling up their sleeves when they saw a colleague needing help.
Personal relationships among the team were warm and close. They did not need monitoring. For her part, the senior nurse continued to honour their commitment. During times of particular stress, for example, she acted confidently. She knew that this reassured her colleagues.
The second example focuses improving formal systems. The culture here is one where people create exceptional value for customers, collaboratively solving problems when they arise. They are trusted, and informal networks are strong. So much of this good practice is ‘in the blood’, it’s just what happens.
People are indicating that they would find it helpful to know what good practice exists that they don’t know about. The company is therefore currently improving formal systems for capturing, communicating and sharing good practice.
I’ve got ten themes I want to unpack from the framework but I’ll do that in future posts. This one’s already too long.