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Social learning accelerates innovation faster than innovation processes

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Anna Carlson lays out a case for what she calls networked learning, which I am (humbly) renaming social learning. She suggests that it is fear in hierarchically oriented businesses that block people from opening up to ask questions or seek guidance from others, and perhaps that this fearfulness is an almost built-in aspect of a leveled organization:

From Carlson’s, “Hierachical vs Networked Learning

So, if you’re at a particular level, to ask questions or for help from ‘above’ or ‘below’ you may make you feel exposed.

This logic might also explain why colleagues may sometimes not offer help; perhaps it implies a lack of confidence in the abilities that are needed for their position.

I would suggest that the alternative style of learning to this is networked learning. This would be most prevalent in naturally less hierarchical organisations like ourselves [NixonMcInnes] or other consultancies or creative businesses, or at forward-thinking hierarchical organisations.

Why forward thinking? Because I think that hierarchical learning isn’t conducive, in fact is obstructive to creating businesses fit for purpose for innovating within disruption. I think the behaviours it creates slows down people’s learning as they go higher up ‘the ladder’, limits their behavioural flexibility and creates a culture where people are afraid to challenge the status quo.

And what do I mean by networked learning? I think this has something to do with letting go of words like ‘expert’ and accepting that we are all learning, all of the time. And I think if we can do this, and ask any question without fear, we can shake things up and make things happen.

I maintain that fear is perhaps the biggest barrier to innovation, creativity, and resilience in organizations, so the first point to draw from Carlson’s piece that work to reduce the culture of fear that exists in so many organizations.

Anna goes on:

Societally and in the media we celebrate the beauty of youth, we see this as being fresh, open, malleable, exciting and open to opportunity. Whereas old age is seen as stale, stuck in our ways. What if we adopted a youthful, open, curious mind in business?

I am reminded of one of the most powerful influences on my thinking, which is the masterpiece of Zen literature, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki, which opens in this way:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.

To paraphrase, we need to devise a learning culture based on the premise that we are always beginning, never finished. Each of us is constantly developing new observations and new premises, concocting new explanations for what is going on. And our business culture needs to support that and not suppress the curiosity that animates the beginner’s mind.

Note that the business is never finished either, at least if the people in it keep learning and taking action based on what they learn.

There is a great deal of interest in social learning, and it may be this is the core: We get more from building on social relationships as the natural channel of shared curiosity than by attempting to dissect the give and take in innovation and to pin it down like an assembly-line process.

I believe there is much to gain from large-scale crowdsourcing of ideas, but social mechanisms need to be used to foster innovation, rather than simple brute-force process management. One hundred 9-year-olds typing randomly will not yield a single Shakespearean sonnet. However, the curiosity of the 9-year-old is what we need to tap into. Remember, Shakespeare was a 9-year-old once, too.

To find our collective beginner’s mind, first we need to build a culture without fear, where we can turn and ask for ideas and feedback from anyone and they in turn learn from our questions just as we learn from their answers.

I have often said, “I am made greater by the sum of my connections, and so are my connections.” Perhaps learning is the area where this is most abundantly clear.