Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

28 June 2016

Organizational Learning Engineering

Clark @ 8:10 AM

Organizational learning processes – across L&D, Executive Development, Leadership Development, and more of the roles in HR and talent management – are largely still rooted in both industrial era models and myths. We see practices that don’t make sense, and we’re not aligned with what we now know about how we think, work, and learn. And this is a problem for organizational success. So what are some of the old practices compared with what we now know?  No surprise, I created a diagram (a table in this case) representing just some of the tensions:


I won’t elaborate on all of these, but I want to make two points.  The first is that I could’ve gone on; both in breadth and depth.  That is, each of these unpacks with many implications, and there are more ways organizations are not aligned with what’s know about how people work.  The second point is that there are known ways to address these problems.  Systemic ways to get the combined benefits of more effective output and more engaged people. Not surprisingly, treating people in ways that reflect their inner nature is more rewarding for them as well as more successful for the organization.

I’ve argued in the past that we should treat learning design seriously, with the depth of rocket science applied as a learning engineering. Similarly, we should be basing our organizational learning designs – our strategies, processes, and policies – on what’s known about people. That’s not being seen often enough.  It’s time for organizational learning to move into the information age, and start performing like professionals.  The action is at the coal face, not in the comfort zone. There’s good work to be done, and it’s time to do it.  Let’s go!



  1. Hi Clark,
    I’ll be honest. I’m finding the proliferation of old vs new models/diagrams/diatribes unhelpful. Sure, there are elements in any L&D endeavour that can be improved but this positioning of people and/or businesses who haven’t embraced “modern workplace learning” as “old” works against “what’s known about about how people work” as well. They’re not going to embrace the new because they’ve been told that they’re old. They’ll embrace it when they see (or are shown) the value of the new, when those who’ve found it share their knowledge in ways that bring others forward rather than relegate them to anachronism.
    I’ve seen organisational learning constantly moving forward my whole career. I think that’s because it’s part of the DNA of L&D people to keep learning and questioning the status quo and bringing everyone else along with them (some more willingly than others). I’d like to see us thinking through how we can bring everyone along (relinquo nemo post) rather than just pointing out that they’re getting left behind.

    Comment by Neil Von Heupt — 28 June 2016 @ 5:43 PM

  2. Neil, thanks for the feedback. I use other methods too: in my talks I talk about what’s now known, and the potential opportunity for L&D; in my book I not only call out the problems but cite examples and provide frameworks to move forward. Some of my posts provide guidance, and I also occasionally write posts like these, looking to be inciteful! It’s not mere chiding, however; I do think that folks need to see the delta behind much of what is currently in play and what’s now known. Still, we’ve been railing about these things for years now (look back to Rosenberg’s Beyond eLearning and Cross’s Informal Learning, for example), and the evidence is that change is happening much too slowly. Similarly the evidence from the ASTD (now ATD) data that I cite in the Revolution book, and the ongoing data from Towards Maturity, both point to a continuing gap. It pains me to see these missed opportunities (and, frankly, waste of org money), so I occasionally get frustrated. And I too see orgs moving forward, but I see others in, essentially, denial (ambiguity denial syndrome as I cheekily described it in my previous post :). I welcome thoughts on bringing everyone along, but I figure we should try all the levers, as there are a lot of forces opposed to improvement as well (c.f. vested interests). I get that change is hard, so I’m trying to use both carrots and sticks in provoking change. Heck, I’m available for those folks who want assistance, but to really change, first you have to admit you have a problem, and I’m not convinced all see that. Thanks again for being willing to call me out, and I welcome your suggestions of ways to bring all people along.

    Comment by Clark — 29 June 2016 @ 11:09 AM

  3. Seems like a fine table. I think proponents of the Old would consider a few rows mere “straw man” attacks (“learning is recitation” “we can get people to perform flawlessly”), but “inciteful” works for me.

    But let me argue that one New item really belongs in the Old column: “learning is doing.” Roger Schank has been saying lately “learning is conversation.” That makes more sense to me. Doing is critical, but limited unless embedded within conversation about, during and after the doing.

    Comment by Chris Riesbeck — 29 June 2016 @ 11:59 AM

  4. Good point, Chris. I would actually say learning is ‘action and reflection’ (I don’t believe conversation without action will yield learning either), and will need to update accordingly. And they would be straw men if I didn’t still see actions that reflect all of these! Thanks as always for the feedback.

    Comment by Clark — 29 June 2016 @ 3:34 PM

  5. […] Clark Quinn, my Internet Time Alliance colleague, has presented a quick view of old and new ways to address organizational learning engineering. Clark created a table “representing just some of the tensions” between what we still do and what we now know about learning. I have appended these new practices with examples and elaborations of what Clark has presented. […]

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  7. Thanks for your response Clark, both in this post and the one that follows. There wasn’t any question for me about your positive contribution to the L&D dialogue, in one sense I wouldn’t have felt free to make my comment were it not for the broader context you create. It’s the proliferation of that polarisation that I’ve noticed over the last 12ish months that I guess I’m trying to address (here as well: https://divergentlearning.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/polarisers-fundamentalism-and-bathwater/). Whilst your voice on the issue is moderated by your other contributions, it seems to me that there are many who will take a poke at the laggers, an action I find curious given what we know about how people are motivated to change (and common sense even).
    In terms of how do we move people along that’s an interesting and big question! Perhaps one that’s suited to a few twitter chats, with the big players buying in so that the dialogue is broad. It’s easy to identify the problem, much more challenging to create a solution!
    I appreciated your willingness to consider my feedback/ideas, the mark of both a good L&D person, and according to Aristotle an intelligent one “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Neil

    Comment by Neil Von Heupt — 4 July 2016 @ 8:01 PM

  8. […] intelligence. Smart teams are efficient are seeking, sensing and sharing new information. As Clark Quinn puts it, “the room is smarter than the smartest person in the room.” That’s true […]

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