Learning subverts business entropy

When Harold Jarche says work is learning and learning is the work, I think he’s suggesting that for a business to thrive, it must place learning at the heart of everything it does. Purposeful learning. Learning that is not “training” as we have visioned it up till now. Any training that is disconnected from the people is not sufficient. Learning that is not about the work is not sufficient. Real 21st century learning must change how we think, behave and interact with each other, as well as what we know. It must be relevant to purpose, activity and relationships. Not just one of those: all three. A business, which is a living system, requires relevant learning in order to subvert that thing which happens to all living systems: entropy. - John Wenger: A Matter of Life and Death

Why do I say that work is learning and learning is the work? Because it’s been obvious to me for a long time that learning is THE critical business skill, whether you work for others or yourself. By learning, I do not mean education, or the ability to get good marks in class. Here is an update of my pitch on why I think learning is so integral to working today.

How work gets done in the network era:

  1. our increasing interconnectedness illuminates the complexity of our work environments
  2. simple work keeps getting automated
  3. complicated work usually gets outsourced
  4. complex work gives unique business advantages, while creative work finds new opportunities
  5. complex work is difficult to copy & creative work constantly changes:
    both require greater tacit knowledge
  6. tacit knowledge is best developed through conversations and social relationships
  7. social learning networks enable better and faster knowledge feedback loops
  8. but hierarchies constrain social interactions … so traditional management models must change
  9. learning amongst ourselves is the real work in business today … so management’s job is to support social learning
  10. social learning is how work gets done in the network era

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12 Responses to “Learning subverts business entropy”

  1. Richard Childs

    So true, but organizational learning is so dangerous too without balancing governance or balanced scorecard considerations. There countless examples of organizational learning to the detriment of civilization. Think of Hitler’s Nazi organization and the holocaust, Enron, Wall Street’s mortgage manipulations, the BP Gulf oil disaster or Japan’s ‘scientific’ whaling…

    Unconstrained organizational learning is worse than entropy.

    • Harold Jarche

      Richard, all your examples are where leadership went awry and the system helped to create these bad outcomes. As Geary Rummler said, put a good person in a bad system, and the system wins every time. Organizational learning, based on net work principles of transparency, narration of work, and shared power, would be a mitigating factor to these abuses, I would think.

  2. mark oehlert

    So Harold, here we are again at Senge’s learning organization right? I’m Waaay over on your side but when I look at the landscape from any view (ISD, company/client, etc) I despair at the lack of the interdisciplinary approach that I think this requires. I mean, just in that short text above there is no mention of courses, or changing slides to Flash, or any of the myriad things that are considered critical to constructing “learning” (like someone else can actually construct learning for someone else).
    I mean don’t we need change in curriculum so we start to produce designers with a more holistic awareness and then we need to also change business minds to understand that this is a critical organizational skill and then we need to have vendors and conferences that also understand this and produce tools and collective gathering opportunities that support and strengthen these ideas?

    Am I overstating the case?

  3. Harold Jarche

    Hi Mark! Course designers are like scribes after the advent of the printing press. They had better get skills for the new world of business communications or they will be out of work. Many others fields (KM, IT, HR, Comms) are looking at networked collaboration & knowledge-sharing as their turf. L&D does not own this space and has to prove it can add business value. I am not seeing much leadership here, from professional associations to “learning gurus”.

  4. Jon Husband

    So Harold, here we are again at Senge’s learning organization right?

    I think much of the resistance that more and more people are noticing more and more often is operating at something like the unconscious level of antibodies in the organizational corpus and psychology ?

    Unlearning FTW !

  5. Jon Husband

    This:

    How work gets done in the network era:

    – our increasing interconnectedness illuminates the complexity of our work environments
    – simple work keeps getting automated
    – complicated work usually gets outsourced
    – complex work gives unique business advantages, while creative work finds new opportunities
    – complex work is difficult to copy & creative work constantly changes:
    – both require greater tacit knowledge
    – tacit knowledge is best developed through conversations and social relationships
    social learning networks enable better and faster knowledge feedback loops
    but hierarchies constrain social interactions … so traditional management models must change
    – learning amongst ourselves is the real work in business today … so management’s job is to support social learning
    – social learning is how work gets done in the network era

    .. is such a damned good distillation.

    I honestly do not know if it can be made any clearer. Fuck the metrics and business cases, this is it.

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks, Jon. It’s the nth version of something I have been working on for a couple of years. As I tell people, my blog is where I put my half-baked ideas. It seems that sometimes, they actually get fully cooked :)

  6. Jon Husband

    .. and sometimes you achieve the results of a master chef, as well.

    Again, thanks for this, Harold. I’ll be interested to see if you ever think you can improve on this / distill it into anything even more clear.

  7. manoj

    Harold, can u please explain a bit more on what is meant by complex work , if complicated work means something which involves multiple steps alongwiht document flow

    • Harold Jarche

      Complicated, in which the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or some other form of investigation and/or the application of expert knowledge, the approach is to Sense – Analyze – Respond and we can apply good practice. [e.g. an airplane is complicated, as all its parts can be known]

      Complex, in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe – Sense – Respond and we can sense emergent practice. [e.g. weather is complex, as the entire system is not knowable, though patterns can be sensed]

      Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynefin

      Complex work is dealing with complex situations, phenomena, or problems. These are sometimes referred to as tough problems http://www.jarche.com/2005/06/old527/ or wicked problems http://www.jarche.com/2012/06/a-wicked-problem/

  8. Sam Marshall

    Hi Harold

    I like the way you lay out your argument as a series of assertions. However, it would be good to know what evidence you would point to to justify them. In particular:

    Tacit knowledge is best developed through conversations and social relationships

    And

    Hierarchies constrain social interactions

    Neither of these are obviously true to me.