What Reigns in Your Learning Organization: Individual Preferences or Collective Practices?

What reigns in your learning organization: individual preferences or collective practices? There is a persistent tension in learning organizations when it comes to deciding how to do things. Some argue for a culture that give immense freedom for individual preferences to reign supreme. Others argue for more consistency throughout the organization and uniform practice, calling for individuals to set aside some of their personal preferences for that which is determined to better serve the mission, the learners or the organization as a whole. Still others strive to find a reasonable balance between the two. Regardless, I’ve come to suspect that so much conflict in learning organizations, especially secondary and tertiary institutions, seems connected to this tension. I’ve also begun to notice that how an organization deals with this tension says a great deal about its health and identity.

Over twenty years ago, I was a new student in a graduate program and I went to sign up for my second quarter of classes. I was a night owl for sure at the time, enjoying hours each night reading, writing and thinking. While I enjoyed classes, I enjoyed even more the freedom and free-flowing thinking in those late night hours, exploring a provocative question or idea through half the night. To me, that was my favorite part of the day, even as I valued the traditional classes along with the countless rich and rewarding informal conversations with classmates.

So, when I went to a large room to meet with advisors and sign up for my next quarter of classes, I was troubled when I was told that a required class for me was only available at 7:00 AM, three days a week. At that stage in my life, that seemed like an intolerable option. It would destroy my beloved late nights, getting lost in books and ideas until two or three in the morning. In fact, I decided that it was too much of a sacrifice, and I dropped out of the graduate program that day, in some ways changing the entire trajectory of my life’s work. For some, that seems like an absurd decision. If I were only willing to submit to the systems and processes of the institution, imagine how much more I could have benefitted. Yet for me, at that point in my life, I was unwilling to give up my individual approach to learning for the sake of institutional processes.

This memory highlights the tension experienced by both teachers and learners in many learning organizations. They have individual preferences, personal habits and values, and they also have goals that involve benefiting from what the learning organization has to offer. Then there is the organization with its values, practices, rituals, and expectations. For many, it is possible to find a balance between the two. Some consent to just submit to the organizational preferences, or even the individual whims of individual professors, even when those whims seem unreasonable or an unnecessary nuance. They learn to put up with them, keep their head low, and make it through the program.

What about the educators?

There are usually individual teachers who prefer doing something one way over another. Some have come to these preferences through careful thought, study, analysis, refinement over years of experience, or maybe even through more calculated experimentation. Others are just going with their past experience, comfort, intuition or something else. Sometimes they are well aware that these are just preferences. Other times educators burn these preferences into their fundamental belief systems and philosophies about education, so much so that they are willing to take their final stand on an individual versus collective tension that seems, in the big picture, as strange as my dropping out of a graduate program because I had to take a 7:00 AM class. When it comes to educators, we might be referring to class schedules, classroom procedures, grading methods, assessment and feedback plans, teaching methods, classroom management practices, communication styles, and so much more. From this perspective, teaching is an art, and people might argue that you don’t want to stifle and artist by impressing your rules or expectations on them. Just as often, it is ultimately just about the individual teachers wanting the autonomy to do things how they want to do them. And for many, the idea of accountability, in most forms, is an attack one one’s professional prerogative.

Limited Flexibility

Then there is the other side, the learning organization that gives very little freedom or flexibility to the individual. Everything is spelled out, dictated and directed. You do it the organization’s way or you find a different place to work or learn. It is the same mindset that you might see among some teachers in how they manage the classroom, or in the words of some teachers, “their” classroom. The classroom is seen as the teacher’s domain, and that teacher’s job is to be the benevolent (or at least academically rigorous) dictator.

Top Organizations Work Through This

As I’ve visited and learned from countless learning organizations, the highest impact ones have found a way through this tension. They have at least a small set of unavoidable, undeniable school-shaping concepts that are truly non-negotiable, and that drive common practices. The people in that organization have bought into the distinct mission and vision of the organization enough that they are willing to set aside personal preferences for the collective ones. At the same time, when a practice isn’t integral to these core school-shaping concepts, the organization leaves room for individual preferences and practices.

It seems to me that the organizations that struggle the most with this tension are the ones that are experiencing an identity crisis. There is less of a shared mission, vision, values and goals. As such, there is mistrust, a weak culture, and/or persistent disagreement about what really matters for all people and what should be left to individual preferences. There is no functional forum where the community values working through these differences, discussing them in view of the shared mission, vision, values and goals. “Everyone [does] what is right in their own eyes”, and there is no longer a distinct culture. In the end, what was once a community is now just a collection of people.

Proverbs 29 reminds us that, “When there is no vision, the people perish.” and this seems to represent a truth in learning organizations as well. As such, I am becoming increasingly confident that a key to the success of education institutions and communities in the emerging landscape comes down to identifying undeniable, unavoidable school-shaping distinctives that resonate with and provide significant value to a target population.

For the innovative learning organization, this is even more important. Countless innovations and experiments not tied to some central or shared vision will quickly destroy culture, exhaust individuals, and leave the community uncertain about the ultimate goals or purpose of that community.

There will always be tension between individual preferences or ways of doing things and those that are institution-wide. However, such tensions will destroy the visionless organization, while the very same tensions may end up strengthening the one that lifts up and revolves around a set of well-understood, highly regarded and guiding core concepts or operating principles.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.