Work & Learning in a Networked World

Brilliant! I just experienced one of those learning vistas, those “aha!” moments when seemingly disconnected ideas and experiences come together to show a beautiful and connected constellation. It happened while starting to re-read a wonderfully insightful text by Jay Cross about Informal Learning. I made it all the way to pages 6 and 7 before setting it aside to frantically scribble in my idea book, sketching out all the possible connections. Then I picked up the book to finish the chapter before writing this.

In this part of the book, Cross provides the following simple visual to illustrate the changing nature of human organizations, business, computers, and learning in the 21st century.

Cross Evolution of Learning - Three Stages


Referencing the work of Tom Malone (MIT) to explain that networks consistently evolve in three stages. The first is disconnected nodes or what he calls bands. The second is a more hierarchical model which he calls kingdoms. The last is largely organic and inter-connected set of nodes, which he calls democracy. Cross uses these stages to explain how human organizations go through these same three stages as we move to a networked society. It is the same for business operations and even learning (the focus of Cross’s book).

This is a brilliant illustration because I can overlay it on a dozen different communities and organizations with which I work, and it provides rich insights about what is working, what is not, why there are seeming conflicts, why things sometimes just “click”, and why some of us just seem to be talking right past each other. We are living and thinking about different stages.

Allow me to illustrate from a formal schooling setting. In the K-12 world, there is the community, the school board,  the superintendent, the principal, department chairs, classroom teachers, and students. For many, they are thinking of this from a stage two perspective. This is a hierarchy. Where do parents fit into the picture? Well, they are part of the community, but I wonder if this is not part of why I consistently see tensions about the role of parents. If parents stay out of the way or just play a role of helping their kids fit into the hierarchy, all is well (from some people’s perspective). If, on the other hand, parents are communicating messages to kids that do not align with what the teachers want or they want to influence what happens in the school, then there are problems. Or, what if a student chooses to learn about things outside of school, by using separate tutors, through self-study, or something else? We have another potential conflict. The teachers thinking from a stage two perspective may well see this as a challenge to their authority and rightful place in the hierarchy. All works well as long as the students do things the teacher’s way, according to the teacher’s timing and standard.

As Cross explains in page 10 of his text, people in different stages have different ways of thinking. Stage three thinking is organic, seemingly chaotic at times, participatory, people are multifaceted, the organization is emergent, cooperation trumps competition, and change is constant and welcome. For a stage two organization, things are carefully managed, linear,  controlled, predictable, deliberately designed, competitive, and change is a concern. The more I think about this comparison, the more I suspect that part of struggle and growing pains experienced by many people and learning organizations today comes from the fact that we have the clash of stage two and three thinking.

I participate in many online communities ranging from Twitter chats to private professional networks, communities of practice to MOOCs. I approach most of them from a stage three mindset. I recognize that there may be a formal leader, but I find myself frustrated when that leader seeks to control too much or wants everything to be siphoned through them. I’ve seen such a mindset stifle the energy and passion of many online groups. These hierarchical thinking leaders are running it like a stage two community, and while I can appreciate lessons and experiences from such organizations, I thrive on the messiness and inter-connectivity of stage three contexts.

There are still authorities, leaders and people with different degrees of influence in stage three communities, but some still function from the mindset that you need one central leader or coordinator who functions almost like a puppet master. That may or may not be true for various communities and efforts, but the presence of a leader doesn’t need to conflict with stage three thinking. They can work together, but it requires a leader with humility who doesn’t need everything to be closely managed by this single person. It calls for a leader who persistently welcomes people to step up and take things in unexpected directions, to network and collaborate in wonderful ways. I’ll be running a MOOC through the month of January. I am clearly the main organizer and leader, but I am hopeful that I will not be the one to dictate and determine who does what, when, and why. Each person comes to the course with something to learn, something to offer, and I treasure their participation in helping shape the community, determine what is learned and how, and improvising, sort of like they are a musician in a Jazz band.

Communication is another clash between stage two and three thinking. A stage two leader might scold people for talking to too many different people, advising them to focus on their assigned tasks and not others. What might be happening, however, is that the one person is doing stage three thinking: networking, collaborating across teams, exploring things from different angles, seeing a broader perspective and deeper insights that inform their work.  Trying to force stage three thinkers into a stage two world is likely to frustrate, and it might cause organizations to lose some of their best talent.

On the flip side, there are stage three thinkers who are crossing traditional boundaries, improvising, and diving into the chaos; but they have missed a critical part of the stage three context. The nodes are inter-connected. In a stage two organization, if I do something different, the communication structure is more carefully controlled. In a stage three organization, the person making a change often needs to communicate much more broadly, developing a nuanced understanding of all the different people impacted by a decision. This is where we get the messiness. I need to be thinking about the thirty people impacted by a decision and communicate to them or have a means by which they become aware of what is happening. They need to be able to give me feedback that might lead to a changed direction. Stage two thinkers are likely to be frustrated with all this “over-communication” and they may also work from more of a “need to know mindset”, being careful not to “bother” subordinates with information that the leader deems unnecessary for them. These two habits of thought clash because different strategies work on one and not the other. Left unaddressed, this leaves people frustrated with themselves, the organization, and/or others in the organization.

It is not as simple as addressing it. We have people with strong convictions about how the organization should operate. People have preferences for a stage one, stage two, or stage three way of thinking. People may not even realize that they are battling over these differences because a certain way of thinking may be all they’ve ever known. As such, one step seems to be surfacing the source of the challenge.

What about learning in the digital age? Some people approach their learning from a stage two way of thinking. They await direction from a leader to shape their learning. Tell me what to learn and how to learn it. Yet, those same people may also operate from a stage three mindset for learning when they are away from school or the workplace. They choose what, how, and when to learn about gardening, playing an instrument, discovering the nuances of having a new house built, finding the best prices for a product or service, etc. It seems to me that we think differently about learning depending upon the context.

The problem is that a person with stage two thinking in the workplace is likely to experience a limit to their growth in an organization. They follow rules well, but they’ve never learned to own their learning and to improvise. They wait for orders. When told what and how to learn, they do it well. What happens when they encounter problems with unclear solutions? They turn to an authority to solve it for them or they are overwhelmed. This is more than just collaborating with their boss and others to explore a solution (which seems valuable and wise). They want someone to direct them. Just tell me what to do.

I see this tension between stage two and three thinking in some of our schools, and I am concerned about it. I’ve read student complaints about professors, and parent complaints about K-12 teachers who did not give students the answers. “How am I supposed to learn something if they don’t give me the answers?” There are teachers who think the same way. They are wonderfully organized, often engaging and beloved; but they are not necessarily helping students learn to be a stage three learner. We have schools that are re-imagining formal education with stage three thinking in mind, and there is much that we can learn from these schools. I’ve learned about and visited dozens of these schools, and I’ve learned that it can be approached effectively in different ways. In fact, I suggest that every stage three school is entirely unique. We can learn from them, but there is no certain recipe for perfectly replicating them (a difference between a sentient living organism and a machine).

It is still important to be able to learn from highly structured and authoritarian contexts. That is a valuable life skill even in an increasingly connected world. I turn to “experts” all the time to sit at their feet and learn from them. I can enjoy a good lecture or keynote. I appreciate the fact that I don’t know what I don’t know and that I sometimes need to trust or lean on those ahead of me to get a solid start to learning something new or complex. This is important, but it just isn’t enough today.

It is why I often refer back to the value of helping students build their personal learning networks. When I interview people, I always ask them what they do to stay current in their work, how they spend unstructured time on the job, how they go about learning something new, how they seek to solve messy problems, how they function in contexts with the goals are unclear, and what they would do if suddenly everything on their “list” at work was complete. I’m looking for self-directed learners, and helping one cultivate such thinking and habits is a wonderful gift that will better prepare them for life and learning in an increasingly networked global society. If we fail to help students become confident and competent with level three thinking, we may be unknowingly setting them up for disappointment and frustration in the workplace and as lifelong learners. If we recognize the reality of these two ways of thinking, we have an exciting opportunity to help ourselves and others learn to thrive in a world where stage two and stage three thinking are frequently conflicting and interacting with one another.