This was originally intended to be one of my Learning Solutions Mag columns (Quinnsights). Sadly, that platform is no longer an option. Guess this is part of the extreme times! It’s a bit long for my usual posts, but I didn’t want it to go to waste.
In 2004, I co-wrote a chapter with Eileen Clegg for Marcia Conner & James G. Clawson’s Creating a Learning Culture book to accompany the event they held on the topic. Eileen’s husband was doing research on ‘extremophiles’, organisms that survive in extreme conditions, and we were looking at biomimetic inspiration from those mechanisms. Titled The Agility Factor, I think the lessons we wrote about are all the more important now in these extreme times.
Sure, at this point everyone is touting solutions for working and learning at home. With most of the population under some form of lockdown, there are a lot of prescriptions, to the extent there’s already a backlash! Even I’ve been guilty. But here I want to talk a bigger scope than just learning. People are worried. Organizations are struggling.
At the time, our commentary was largely reacting to the crash of the internet bubble circa 2001. Times were tough, and organizations were wondering how to cope. Fast forward to 2020, and we’re in even more dire circumstances. While then we had economic turmoil, now we’re adding in a lethal disease. Uncertainly abounds. Our employees, our managers, our executives are all scrambling to make sense. And so, I thought it appropriate to revisit those lessons in this new era, and consider the technology/human intersection in these times.
Coping with Extreme Times
One of the main issues that contextualizes this conversation is that different organizations are at different places in their digital transformation. And, as I opined recently, it’s about getting the culture right first.
It’s easy to think of organizations that just haven’t yet started using digital, and are faced with the need to change. They’re going to struggle. There is a lot of guidance out there, but if you haven’t got your mind around the technology, or what communication, collaboration, and learning are all about, there’s more to it.
If you’ve started with some experimentation, it should be easier. You’ve tried out some things, and so you’ve had some technology experience. You may well have tried and failed, but the knowledge from losses should be useful too! That’s what a learning organization is all about.
Which means that another organization type that will struggle is the one that’s rigidly hierarchical. One that’s had all the thinking done up top, and filtered down. They may well have dictated technology practices, but they’re likely more about making things more efficient. And so, trying to be effective at scale at distance is a different issue.
Instead, the organizations that thrive are those that are continually experimenting, learning, and moving forward. I reckon many folks are wishing they’d tried out some things already, rather than scrambling. Of course, this is different not just quantitatively, but qualitatively, and that means we’re going beyond just adaptation. We need to go big in extreme times!
Across the globe, and presumably the universe, conditions vary from desiccating heat to crippling cold. Environments may have high toxicity owing to chemicals, salt, and more. And, as circumstances change, organisms need to adapt. And yet, life somehow exists in many of these circumstances. How? Through a variety of mechanisms. Not all are unique to extremophiles, but each is used and provides some insight. Here are the suite we talked about:
- Ionic bonds: while all organisms have proteins connected by ionic bonds, extremophile organisms have more and stronger bonds.
- Environmental monitoring: here, the organism is in tight coupling with the environment, the better to respond, though sometime the responses are unusual.
- Heat-shock proteins: special proteins are released under threat to help protect other proteins.
- Equilibrium: extremophiles can not only attempt to expel any toxicity, certain extremophiles work to neutralize the toxic element internally.
- Symbiosis: certain organisms create unique relationships that allow them to mutually coexist in extreme conditions.
For each of these there are organizational corollaries that we can consider, and then we can look at how technology and learning & development can help. We need to go beyond the usual and think about how to do these in a big way.
How do translate these? There are not direct transfers, but inferences we can make. Just as organizations been using inspirations from animals to guide new thinking in products, here we’re looking at inspirations for how to work together better. What do organisms that adapt to environmental extremes mean for organizations coping in extreme times?
First, strengthening the bonds is about building trust in the organization and believing in the organizational mission. First, of course, it’s about connecting people, so that they care about one another. And having managers work as coaches, using data to improve folks, not censure them. Then, as Dan Pink, in Drive, helped us know, it’s about connecting people to purpose. That means an organization has to have a meaningful purpose, one that people feel proud to align with. And everyone in the org needs to understand how their role contributes. Yes, this is all work, but the point is that these organisms invest extra effort to be able to withstand extraordinary conditions.
Environmental monitoring isn’t new, as most organizations track market trends, competitive analysis, customer sentiment, and more. Here it means going further, with everyone being active in their community of practice and actively monitoring trends in related fields for implications to improve practice. The organization needs to be sensitive to what’s happening in rich and deep ways. This has to not be done as a special operation, but permeate the organization.
Heat shock proteins suggest a proactive approach to trouble. One form is internal monitoring for problems. Health initiatives in the organization are not just promoting healthy behaviors, but also actively developing the skills to notice and watch out for your fellow employee. It’s about caring enough to look for signs of struggle and reach out and try to help. In times like this, it’s more, ensuring that as people face changes, they have support to understand, act differently, and persist until it becomes a new way of doing things.
Equilibrium is an interesting one that suggests taking in new ideas, trying them out, and seeing what they imply. Think “let’s try it out and see how it’s re-contextualized here and then what it might mean that we can do better”, not “that’s not how we do it here”. It’s about experimentation, and internalizing new ideas. It’s got to be more than just copying (e.g. best practices), and going beyond to understand the underlying ideas and modifying them to work in this context (e.g. best principles).
Finally, symbiosis implies working with other organizations in a radically more integrated manner. Instead of just consuming things, you look at the practices that were instituted by Toyota. They looked at their supply chain partners and assisted them in becoming more effective and efficient. It’s about radical cooperation.
L&D Technology Role
So, given that we’re about eLearning, what’s the role of technology here? At core, it’s about communication. It’s about moving to showing your work, including mistakes and lessons learned (always together). And there are lots of ways to do this.
One of the most important steps is to have bosses, managers and executives, share their thinking. I know, it seems risky, but it builds trust. If ‘the boss’ is willing to admit mistakes, it makes the environment feel safe. And that builds those bonds that will help an organization weather tough times.
It also means helping individuals develop active monitoring skills. There are tools that track outside news and filter it for particular interests. Everyone can tailor their own feed. And this is part of building your personal knowledge mastery. Everyone should be looking for new ideas to improve.
The new ideas need, of course, to be coupled with experimentation, such as equilibrium suggests. And this may involve collaboration to make it work. So collaborative tools are important to develop testing plans and evaluate outcomes. Building in an expectation of lessons learned, and having scheduled sharing events for these lessons, is a complement. And, if not digitally moderated, at least capturing and sharing the outcomes for others to learn from.
It’s important also to support people in these new ways of working. Don’t just expect them to get it, but build support into and/or around the tools. Don’t just train, but anticipate struggles and build support. And have support for unanticipated struggles! This also includes quick references about what to do when you’re worried about someone or even yourself. This is the heat-shock approach of preventing breakdowns during the transitions.
And, of course, building a network that includes your partners along the supply chain is the symbiotic approach. It’s about building a sharing community that can help them be better, and they can do the same for you. It’s also about collaboration, working together on problems rather than casting blame. This builds bonds with them too!
The L&D role is to facilitate all this communication and collaboration. In extreme times, L&D is part of the solution. Continual learning is required, and building a strong framework for keeping people together to work and learn is critical. We’re increasingly learning that working together is better; bake that into your own operations!