4 minutes

The learner survives. Will that be enough? Reflections on change in organizations

How the theory of punctuated equilibria can inspire us in shaping learning mechanisms for the hybrid organizations of the present and future.

“Questions about change have been capturing the attention of organi­sations for several years. […] Understanding the processes of change is especially critical now as people in organisations are struggling to keep up in the face of dramatic alterations in the economic, technological, social, and political environment.” In a few lines Connie J. G. Gersik perfectly encapsulates the challenge we face, the sense of urgency, the need to understand, then lead, demanded of our organizations. There’s only one thing, though: they are thirty years old. Does this mean we should question the organisational changes of recent decades or the magnitude of the current challenge?

Change as a punctuated equilibrium

Gersik offers an interesting answer, drawing on the evolutionary biolo­gy theories of Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, she conceptualises change as punctuated equilibrium: an alternation of long periods of incremental adaptations and short periods of revolutionary level leaps. Here we are, in a revolutionary leap, somewhat exhausted by the chang­es of the last few decades that only now appear incremental to us when compared to the breakthrough triggered by the pandemic. In this con­text, the role of learning is vital because with our leap, we have just taken our feet off the ground. When and where we will land are the questions to which each organisation will have to design the answers in the coming years.

When learning is not enough

Linkedin’s 2021 Workplace Learning Report contains an encouraging set of data on the centrality of learning in terms of resources dedicated and training hours used. Indeed, in recent months we have learned, yes, learned a lot. Will that be enough? I think not, and I have at least two good reasons to think that.

1. In the absence of a solid model to which we can anchor ourselves, we have often engaged in self-learning dynamics, which are indispensable in emergencies but now show all their limitations. On the one hand, we have a wealth of valuable experimentation that, however, we struggle to bring out and disseminate. On the other, ineffective ways of working have emerged that are taking root and risk generating a deep divide within organisations.

2. At the same time, we have sometimes been involved in excessive training initiatives in an attempt – not always effective – to support us in the transformation. Listening mechanisms to identify training needs, ways of grounding, measurement and redesign tools are not adequate to deal with a challenge of this magnitude. Beware: offering too much of something that doesn’t turn out to be helpful will only make us impervious to upcoming training initiatives.

Towards hybrid organizations-proof learning cultures

A revolutionary leap in organisations and work models requires an equally revolutionary leap in learning systems, from goals to method­ologies, from engagement models to user experiences. A leap played out at two levels of complexity.

1. To enable people to live everyday life. To make it easier for people to select and put into practice the good they have experienced due to the sharing of new models, however immature and unstable. To build and enhance skills that have an immediate application, which enable new tools and methods of interaction. To create convergence towards shared rituals that make individual and teamwork fluid. The aim is stop an abuse of subjectivity that limits critical thinking. We can then re­build shared practices that generate positive automatisms and release energy, which gives shape and strength to everyday working life.

2. To accompany the reshaping of the organisation. To build a mindset and a set of capabilities that enable people to experience transformation. To generate strong poles of attraction capable of con­tinuously transmitting the organisation’s identity, purpose and chal­lenges. To design contexts that foster sense-making, creativity, prob­lem-solving, dissemination of knowledge. To shape mechanisms of exchange and relationships that generate strong connections at all lev­els of the organisation. And, finally, to create reference points capable of orienting towards a shared workstyle and at the same time generate singularisation processes. In this case, the goal is to create the basis of a robust culture in which stable elements (e.g. values, mission, etc.) coexist harmoniously with a transformative dimension. In this way, we can live in a future with uncertain traits, ensuring value for people, business and the community.

A unique opportunity

Where to start? The first step is to fully immerse ourselves in the prob­lem, embrace it in all its complexity, and then break it down and address it in all its dimensions. At the same time and without stopping to do it.

Easy, isn’t it? Not at all, and that’s precisely why it’s a unique opportunity.

Article by Jessica Aroni, Partner e Learning Coordinator Logotel – Published on Weconomy 15 – UFO. Unidentified Future Organizations