Episode 36 – Featuring Suzanne Jackson
Are schools really set up for learning? Conversations with Nick Little.
Episode 16 - Featuring Nick Little
In this podcast, I am joined by Nick Little, Head of School from the International School of Aberdeen. Together we explore what it means to create a learning organisation by drawing upon the example of schools. On the face of it, it should be obvious that schools are a learning organisation but as we delve deep into the topic, we will find out that this is not always the case. Part of the problem, as we discuss in this podcast, is the way in which staff performance is understood and measured in the schools which in turn undermines the ethos of learning and learning organisations. How do we change that? Find out more in this podcast.
- A tool for reporting systems for a learning organization
- Books for a learning organization by Nancy Kline
- Purpose of a reporting system: Insights by Steven Shorrock
[00:00:00] Nippin Anand: Welcome to another episode of Embracing Differences with me Nippin Anand. This podcast series is meant to bring you different perspectives and concepts in safety. The idea really is to create space for thinking and reflection, not to reinforce any grand theories or our prior knowledge on a subject. The aim is to learn and grow, not to remain stagnant. And of course, as I keep saying there is no reason for you to believe me or any so-called expert but keep an open mind and be prepared to challenge your beliefs if you truly want to learn more than what you knew yesterday.
Allow me to start this podcast with a quote from an OECD paper. It reads:
“Today’s schools must equip students with the knowledge and skills they’ll need to succeed in an uncertain, constantly changing tomorrow. But many schools look much the same today as they did a generation ago, and too many teachers are not developing the pedagogies and practices required to meet the diverse needs of 21st-century learners.”
So why is it that professionals who we turn towards for learning at the very start of our lives are finding it difficult to fulfil our expectations as a society. What makes it so difficult for them to provide the skillsets that we need for the future?
In today’s podcast I am joined by someone who is gifted with the unique skill to articulate his thoughts in a very intelligible manner. He is widely read holds a passion for culture and anthropology. Mr. Nick Little, the Head of School of the International School of Aberdeen joins me today and together we will find out if schools are really set up as learning organisations?
Let’s hear it from Nick.
[00:02:03] Nick Little: I’m the head of school at the International School of Aberdeen and I’m coming up to the end of my third year here. Prior to that I was at an International School in China, just outside of Shanghai called Suzhou, where I had had many positions. I have gone up through the ranks and latterly I was head of school there before coming here and I think it is it was a very interesting experience for me being in China and then being in the UK and having a contrast of two fundamentally different cultures. Although some similar practices when it comes to bureaucracy but different thoughts behind it and I think going and living in a system and having to work in a system which has an entirely different set of assumptions really makes you question your own. Makes you kind of think more deeply why do I do things this way because I wasn’t surrounded by people who automatically assume the same thing, I was surrounded by people saying that’s odd why would you do that? It really gives you a perspective I think living abroad not just in another culture but your own one as well and my wife is Chinese so I kind of have these cultural conversations as an ongoing thing.
We have three children and now my eldest is 26 years old and my youngest is 20. They’re all in their 20s and they were all educated in international schools which are these transitional places. People often don’t stay for very long in them. Expats have contracts for say, three or four years that places where lots of different cultures meet so that they are this great opportunity to observe lots of different ways of doing things. That’s me.
[00:03:57] Nippin Anand: I can relate with you given my own experience of travel and work around the world since I was 17 to the extent that it’s difficult to relate back to who am I to start with, Such an interesting thing. So right in saying what you say that unless you live in a different setting it’s very difficult to know yourself ’cause the funny thing about assumptions is that we don’t know where we’re making an assumption point of reference.
[00:04:29] Nick Little: Yes, Kipling says something like those who have only England don’t know England. If you only know your own country you don’t really know your own country. You have to add some contrast to see it properly.
[00:04:48] Nippin Anand: It’s nice to have such a wonderful introduction. Nick, tell me what is it that you would like to talk about?
[00:04:52] Nick Little: Learning organizations. I think people often assume that while schools are the classic learning organizations. As they’re set up for learning. But the curious thing about schools is that they’re set up for student learning, not necessarily adult learning. Anyways adult learning instead of schools looking at kind of what do we do is, what we do with our pupils. What can we learn about that from how do we learn ourselves? We’ve looked to the same sort of management techniques that most other industries have and we’ve thought about how do we develop our own staff, not in terms of how do we teach our pupils but what do other industries do and I think it’s this same sort of thing that I was talking about of living in China to know England which is my home country.
I think seeing how other industries approach learning and being in a very different learning environment with children is really sort of made me think about many of my assumptions of learning because these two very different cultures.
[00:06:12] Nippin Anand: What’s the question we’re trying to explore or what is that key argument here?
[00:06:16] Nick Little: Establishing a clarity about what we’re actually trying to do. Having a learning organization and that is something that I mentioned to you before as it’s a bit like the philosopher’s stone. If you have a learning organization, you have this constantly rejuvenating, this constantly improving organization in which people are getting better at their jobs. They’re learning to do better jobs. It would help increase productivity whatever you think productivity is. Whether it’s better exam results or its better sales targets – you’re going to get better constantly at what you do. So, a lot of organizations have an interest in apparently doing this well. If we look at UK productivity growth over the last 30 years, we haven’t really improved our productivity despite most organizations seeing this, is clearly an important thing investing an awful lot in it.
[00:07:13] So, I guess part of my argument would be well let’s have a look at what we do at the moment and what we do to apparently promote learning – Is that really what we are doing? If we’re honest with ourselves is that really in fact, what is all about? I want to start by looking at the performance review because to me, I think in most organizations the performance review is sort of central to the idea of how are you going to encourage an employee to improve what they’re doing. Before talking about well how can we build a learning organization look like I want to talk a little bit of why have we got one at the moment when this is apparently such a great thing to have.
So, I don’t know about you, Nippin but when I entered the teaching profession in the 1990s, performance reviews were fairly new and quite a substantial part of what my job would be influenced by. I knew that I was going to get reviewed as I went along and I was told that the purpose of the review was to help me. I would have a manager who would systematically look at what I did and would be able to offer advice and perhaps offer training schemes which sounds great like just the kind of thing that you should have in entering the profession. Now if there was a difference at that time is it wasn’t just for new people coming in and it was everybody.
[00:08:50] Everybody had these! That went through this process of apparently making them better employees, checking out that they were OK in the first place and apparently making them better and the way the performance review worked I think probably fairly typical. I was introduced to externally given data. I would be measured against this externally given data. This was for me a set predicted grades for my exam classes. I had several exam classes so GCSE classes which is the exams you take is 16 years old and children had taken basically amounts to intelligence tests a few years before hand and on the basis of these intelligence tests they were fed into an algorithm of some kind and out came they based on this child IQ, If you like, that wasn’t said quite explicitly but that’s what they meant based on this child’s IQ in your subject we expect them to get a C or a B or an E and then I was judged against this. They did the exam course and at the end of the exam course if the child who was expected to get a C, got a B, Well done, you’ve added value.
[00:10:13] If they go a D – slap on the wrist you haven’t done as well as you should have done. If I fell below I would be offered some kind of some kind of support which would be training of some kind we were cool that I would learn how to be a better teacher and if I got above the results then I would get performance related pay I got a pay rise which was incentive I guess over that two year period for me to be constantly thinking how am I going to get better at this because I knew that if I had the dreaded support, the training that would be a black mark against my name and my career. But if I lived well then, I would be financially rewarded for it so you know in that sense it seemed to be a system that would motivate employee learning you know I don’t think that was exceptional for schools or for education. I had this model was a management model taken from other industries. In sales, it might be a sales target, in hospitals it might be a survival rate target, but you would be given a measurable target. I guess we could say this seems quite a reasonable and rational thing to do. Part of my contention is it didn’t work and it doesn’t really work within the industry.
[00:12:00] As a whole, as I said productivity doesn’t seem to have massively increased. Many companies have adopted this, but companies have risen or fallen in much the same way as they always do within education. Ironically grades did improve. We might say that was an improvement but then we had the whole debate about grade inflation as universities and employers said well, we actually don’t think the graduates were getting more any better than the ones they had before so my first question is why wouldn’t this work as a way of motivating to pick people to learn and improve what they’re doing? Everything seems to be in place for it – It’s a rational system, there’s data, it’s easily measurable, you’re rewarded for improvement, you’re punished for lack of improvement. First of all, problems are the use of this externally exposed data. As soon as you have it, as soon as you choose a data point it doesn’t become a point of neutral observation because the observed reacts to it -I know I’m being judged by this, therefore I will not just simply carry on what I’m doing. I’m going to do something else which is partly the point but you get the law of ‘unintended consequences’ because I’m not looking to improve in any way whatsoever, I am looking to improve the data point. I’m looking to improve the measurement of it so for me that means I’ve to improve the exam grade.
[00:13:31] So, what do I do for two years? What I do what I do is here are past papers, here are marks schemes, we just going to look at the exams, I am going to teach you how to be great exam takers. Well, this was to improve education and if education was all about being effective for taking exams that would be fine but we stop taking exams around about 21 years old and we move into a whole set of other things. Exams are meant to be evidence of our abilities. They’re not meant to be an end in themselves and so I stopped doing things like class discussions or collaboration which are really useful things to learn and used to be involved in because this isn’t really going to contribute to that data point. Again, I don’t think this is unique to education. Somebody I know well works for insurance company and has to make sales and they were judged on the ratio of calls to the sales they made and the motivation if you had a run of luck in the morning with some sales the motivation was to make us fewer possible calls as you could after that and you could say well you know that’s a faulty metric and all we have to do is fix the metric.
But you’re always going to have this problem in some way because you’re dividing the motivation. It is about the metric and not about the activity itself. It is about the measurement so you could give lots and lots of examples of metrics that work and you can always come back and say yes but actually what is needed is a better metric. I would say that the reason over 30 years, 40 years of this system that we haven’t really developed fantastic metrics is the nature of the system themselves that divides the measurement from the activity and measures the person.
We’ve apparently got rational ways of measuring improvement and learning but it doesn’t really work, I guess my first point of why? Because the metric doesn’t work.
[00:15:46] My second point about it is the nature of the relationship that it creates you have a manager who gives the performance review and you have an employee at the end of that performance review as an employee what am I trying to do well I’m trying to give evidence that shows that I have reached the metric that what I’m doing I’m not in fact trying to learn so much. I might be more productive -that’s one way of meeting it but not necessarily the only way of meeting it because it could be all kinds of extenuating circumstances that make the metric not as effective as it as it might be.
We have a system with adults which puts adults on the defensive from when adults are presented with data or insights into their job their first reaction is not to engage with this with that “yes this is interesting this is insightful” but to defend, to justify. So yeah, within my own profession if you gave a group of teachers’ exam results and how kids did in different subjects and how they did in different papers, their first reaction won’t be – let’s carefully look at this data and see what it says. The first reaction will be if I’m the English teacher would be to say yes of course, English results aren’t very good. We have lots of English as another language learners. Math results are better because everybody gets a Math tutor and the math teachers will be saying no mass results are really good because we’re great teachers and we know what we’re doing.
This isn’t a learning environment because this is an environment that’s been set up to justify because you might get performance related pay or you might get the dreaded support which is really a statement of you are somehow deficient. That’s the first part of my argument looking at this performance review model. But it has these two problems –
- One, these metrics use of data that we work to the metric to the data which has a law of unintended consequences and
- Two, it sets up a relationship between manager and employee where the employee feels defensive and their job is to justify their current practice rather than to examine their current practice.
Most companies also do training as well which you would say well this is the big part of the learning process not just the performance review as much as much as
[00:19:38] So first of all I think you’ve got this this model at the center the performance review which is about monitoring employee’s productivity and encouraging them to improve and apparently giving them incentive to improve – an economic incentive. Now, let’s come to training. For me, training has different forms within an organization. One form can be something fairly informal or mentoring. So, let’s go back to the example of the sales where there is a conversion metric – if you got these many calls and you’ve got to have this percentage of conversions and an employee starts to perform badly at it. What then happens? They have an interview with their manager saying this isn’t working very well, I will link you up with the top salesperson that we’ve got and they will give you some tips to do it better. Now without going into an argument of well are they the top salesperson have they had a run of luck or whatever, do they really know what they’re talking about? Are they able to explain it to somebody else even if they are let’s imagine that they really are the top salesperson and they are quite good at explaining their job?
[00:21:11] As an employee, I’ve been told the reason I need to learn something is I am deficient I’m not very good at it. So, we’re already casting learning as something that people who are not that great at what they do that’s what that’s what they have to do they have to learn rather than anybody in any position would want to learn to get better. I think it kind of sends a message about learning presumably this top employee isn’t talking to somebody else and reflecting on how they can do better at sales but no it’s the person that’s being found to be deficient that that’s one form of learning that can take place – the deficiency model learning, that you are not so good. And really from the point of view of an employee Why do you do it? What are you doing is because you.ve been told to do it and if you refuse to do it you don’t know what the consequences will be? But there probably won’t be that good because things aren’t so good for you at the moment anyway because you been found to be deficient. So, you comply with it.
[00:22:28] Now, for an employer why do you do it? Well, partly why you do it is you hope the person get better, that they become competent but also you are being compliant because you have offered support and if this employee doesn’t work out for whatever reason they don’t get to the standard and you have to let them go, if anything ever came to a tribunal you could show the evidence that you’ve gone through all the right processes of offering support to both from the employee and the employer there is a big compliance side of it.
Now other training you get is the standard training for everybody and in a lot of organisations the standard training for everybody is health and safety training and as you probably have your own views on the quality of a lot of health and safety training and you know and I know you talked about this because sadly a lot of health and safety training isn’t about engaging people’s brains. Isn’t about really think about what you’re doing it is a kind of a list of instructions that you should follow. I know from my experience and going on one of your training courses this is trying to get people away from doing. But this is the reality of a lot of internal training on health and safety. Now the interesting thing about this internal training on health and safety for a company’s point of view, what you’re interested in doing is that somebody has sat in front of the video that says don’t stick the toaster in the bath or whatever mad thing that nobody’s ever going to do, this is how you pick up a box or whatever.
[00:24:32] They are only interested that you sat through it and you signed off on it. Again, it’s a kind of a compliance. Most awful lot of these external trainings in the health and safety I’ve kind of highlighted because I think in some ways, they can be the laziest training that a company does. If you are starved for feedback or if you get feedback what do you do you have the survey and you have the survey that says did you like this training, do you think you learn something? Why does a company do a survey like this? Well because it comes up with lovely numbers. Did you like this out 10? People answer 7, 8, 2, or 3 and then you’ve got a metric that allows you to pass some kind of judgment of whether the training was any good. That’s nonsense.
We know that if I said to a group of children, “Did you like this lesson? and I brought in a circus clown. They would have said yes it was a great lesson. Did you like this lesson and they had to learn to add double digit numbers? They might not give it such a high rating as the clown but they might have actually done something useful in that.
[00:25:58] The kind of how did you receive this model of training is again nothing about the learning. So why do employees sit through it? Well employees sit through it because they have to. An employer offers it because they have to let’s say with health and safety, is about compliance but even if you have well intentioned training, you can have the same problem that nobody actually learns anything. So, I was in a previous school and the school being an International School handle lots of children who had English as another language that is they spoke another language at home frequently. They spoke several languages; this is why it’s not good English as a second language because they might have several languages. Especially in a country like China where you have your local language and then you have Mandarin on top of it so English just another language. You could be teaching a subject like mathematics or you could teach you something like history or science. So, you’re not teaching English as another language to them you’re teaching your subject. But you have to take this into account.
The school organized a large-scale training for teachers on how to teach students in your classroom your subject but English is not their first language how do you do that? This was identified as a need because generally there were a lot of kids who fell into this category, we know it to be a problem and we know that the organization hasn’t offered this training before. So, it’s offered and at the end of it do the usual surveys and everybody likes it they think it was a great time it was a great training. I went on in myself very professionally done, lovely books, we all have certificates at the end of it as employees we were very happy because you know it was a little bit of a break from the routine, we’ve done something but interesting we talked about our trade with colleagues we weren’t marking books you know it was it was a break we were also very happy we got a great looking certificate we can put it our CVs that we done this. The school was happy and spent a bit of cash on it which was OK but it was something that mostly made their employees happy. Also, they could tell external auditors hey we’ve done this! Look at what we’ve done. An interesting thing the school did is a year later it did an audit not at the end of the training session but a year later and the audit was what is practice in the classroom? This training course suggested certain practices within the classroom certain ways of doing things let’s go round and see how much it’s done? Virtually nothing at all has changed. Very little in practice had changed certainly in proportion to the money spent and with the people involved very little had been done. Now the only thing surprising or unusual is that the school did an audit in terms of how is this changed actual practice because generally speaking, most companies who offer training wouldn’t do that wouldn’t say a year later while this training suggested specific changes to practice and these changes to practice are only way they’re going to happen is if the employees themselves change that practice.
[00:29:57] We’re not introducing a new computer system then of course there’s a change practice ’cause your new system. Or there’s a new set of rules instead of coming to work 8 you know coming to work at 7:45. They suggested practice that the employees themselves initiate and again we have to sort of ask the question why not? I think my answer is it’s very similar to the performance review of where we say all these things are about learning. We say that the performance rule learning performance review is about being accountable for our we do and trying to get better and it motivates us to get better and the training scheme is an opportunity to increase our capacity at our job. But actually, is that really is that really the case about a sense of compliance? This is what we should do. We are proving it to somebody approving it to ourselves or an outside agency that we’re doing this outside.
Agency comes in and audits and says I can’t believe you’re not doing any training programs that’s terrible – black mark against your name! OK we will do training programs because we’ll get a black mark if we’re not doing them nor is this in fact the best way to learn and are the training programs that we are using in fact useful or have changed anything? ’cause in a way that’s incidental that doesn’t really matter to you so I guess that’s my criticism of a system where just like being in two cultures of going over to China and coming from Britain I felt I was in two cultures of learning the one which was about management techniques and adult learning and what one where it’s a school and it is children.
[00:31:56] Nippin Anand: Fascinating! There’s so much to think about, Nick, I don’t even know where to start asking questions but I mean just listening to you it feels almost like you talk about performance review and I see almost like the way you describe it as an instrument of power. The point is that we try to legitimize what we already know in this instrument of power because it’s very uncomfortable learning by its very nature is an uncomfortable thing because you might encounter something that you can’t control or you might because we say I learned something today it’s a famous expression and what it really means is that perhaps I know something today that it didn’t know yesterday and this is a classic problem we see in accident investigations that investigators – what they do is when they’re investigating they’re constantly trying very hard to reproduce what they already know to preserve the status quo and that’s precisely what you’re talking. So, I think in my view, what you’re trying to say is that here is a tension between creating a thinking organization where people are allowed to think on their own and reflect on their own as against a confirming organization which is just feeding people what they should be knowing or deciding for people what they should be knowing and I call it infantilization in some ways. It’s so interesting that there are so many parallels with my world Nick.
[00:33:28] Nick Little: I think that’s absolutely right. Let’s face what do we really want? Because we say we want people to learn and improve but there is something essentially disruptive about that because if you learn, you can’t just know it in your head, if you know in your head and it doesn’t translate to something you do, OK that’s fine! Technically you’ve learned something but what does that learning actually mean? I mentioned this guy a few weeks ago when we first started talking about this Richard Huskey he is an educational writer and he talks about when you measure the effectiveness of teacher learning in student learning in terms of what the students are doing. That’s how you measure it and you could apply that to I think any profession you know it I have learned to do this how does this translate to my actual practice and how people respond to that? Otherwise simply knowing it is not enough but I think we need to be honest about what we’re doing. Real learning is disruptive because it will change practice. I think a lot of our systems are in place are exactly what you say there about maintaining a status quo there about reminding people of the hierarchy and reminding people to stay within prescribed terms – I’m going to tell you what you should know, what you should learn, how to do your job and don’t forget that.
[00:35:14] That’s the hierarchical element of it and people often get great performance reviews year after year after year they’ve never changed and let’s be honest they are not all terrible but then average but that’s not reflected in the performance review and I think part of the problem with that is it’s very difficult with the manager and the employee in front of them to say well you’re less than perfect because our system is set up to justify why you’re really good at your job, you’re not really having a conversation where you want to get better so yeah I think the status quo is really important and I think this is sort of predicated on a lack of trust of the employee. We feel that unless we can sort of controlling them or reminding of them of their place in the hierarchy who knows what they would go off and do.
Actually given half a chance, they would do their job badly and it’s only because we are giving them the prospect the carrot of increased pay for doing it well or the stick of you will be punished or even fired for doing badly. That’s the only reason that they want to do this job well we don’t trust them. For me station the first thing that you need is a trusting organization and you have to look at your culture. Is this a culture in which there is trust in which there is openness, transparency, in which people do not feel threatened by managers? Because if you don’t have that you never really going have a learning organization you can have justifying organisations have a status quo that’s sort of my first argument for creating a learning organization, is you have to create an atmosphere of trust. For me, in most professions now we are educating it a generation of students to ask themselves what is meaningful? Why am I learning this? Why is this important to me? When they will choose jobs, which are just their ideal job will not however well-paid is will not just be about earning a living and then their real life is something else. They will want jobs that are personally meaningful to them and just I trust I think we have to provide meaningful jobs and helping people understand they’re doing and why it’s meaningful. Teaching is an obviously meaningful job but I think one of the interesting things about the past year and the pandemic is it’s highlighted how many other jobs are in fact extremely meaningful. Working in a supermarket so people realize “Hey actually this is something that we can’t do without” and having a pride about doing this job and stacking the shelves neatly and interacting with customers effectively become something important because it’s meaningful. A transport worker, bus driver or people working in stations. Again, suddenly it’s really confronted us of “Hey! these are meaningful jobs we can’t just shut them down”. So I think the idea that a job can be meaningful is not restricted to jobs like teaching or nursing where we all agreed for a long time that this is meaningful. Lots of jobs can be.
[00:39:05] But I think we create that the atmosphere of trust we also have to create that atmosphere of meaning because when we’re engaging something meaningful, we naturally want to do it better. If we have a hope here, we’re doing it for the sake of it and we love doing it playing the guitar or it’s doing the gardening we kind of we look on YouTube tips on you know how to change chords from C to E a little bit quicker or you know how to grow terrariums a little bit more luxuriously. We are naturally interested in getting better at it. We don’t have to be forced. If I grow my terrarium a little bit better somebody’s gonna give me performance related pay. No! We just like it because it’s central to our identity.
What we want to do I think jobs that affirm people’s identity people naturally want to get better at it. But the other side if it is their identity and you have something like performance review which is asking them to justify, they don’t they’re going to become extremely defensive because saying I’m a poor teacher is like saying I’m a poor human being because this is so important to me is central to who I am so I’m naturally going to reject that feedback because it’s an attack upon me personally. However, if you say well you doing this thing that you love doing do you want to get better at it? Of course, they’re going to say yes and if you have a conversation with somebody who’s also enthusiastic and so you know what I struggle with getting the shy ones in the class to debate things. I do myself because you’re saying this could you care about, I want them to be good I don’t want it to be dominated always by a couple loud boys, I want everybody to engage and not someone coming to me and saying well look you’re not very good at your job because at the debate wasn’t very good.
[00:41:41] You’re having a conversation about how I could be better at something that’s more important. It’s a total change of focus, I think. Suddenly, you become willing to learn. So, I’m not saying now somebody says my debate wasn’t very good it’s an attack on me I say yes of course the child was very shy they never going to say anything that’s not my fault. I push it away. I’m a great teacher the problem is them. Now of course the question in a learning organization is well how do you create this environment? it’s very easy for me to say this. But I think one of the shifts along with trusts rather shifts is learning away from being a hierarchal thing saying a manager comes in and says what are you doing you have common interest groups that are working on things that are thinking about things that you discussed with colleagues.
Lots of lateral groups don’t work because they end up in swapping anecdotes or discussing administrative items. So, the role of management is to create a structure in which these conversations are directed towards learning. Once you’ve done that, management themselves don’t have to be present. Where is the initiative coming from? Look at the data points, that’s very different to where it’s come from us, we are observing that these things are issues and the management might want to suggest a group of workers. We think these things are issues we don’t know we think they are workers and employees can have a look and say yes, I think they agree with that or they might come up with their own things so this is why I don’t think it’s working properly and then conversation with management can then be well how do we do this? You’ve identified this, you are looking at it so how can we facilitate you learning more effectively about this or indeed how what lessons are here for us as a whole institution? Then the learning becomes a collaborative process with managers learning alongside employees because there is a recognition that management have that different perspective in the system as a whole.
[00:44:15] Some of the feedback might be that we need to embed some practice we’ve learned here, but we need to pass it on to other people. So you need to change that relationship you know I think the obvious model is Toyota you know and their factory floor where instead of the workers being controlled by the managers the workers were giving feedback and well on the assembly line these are the problems and in that conversation workers could specific problems with the assembly line or their part of the assembly line of their path what they wanted to do and the managers could have an overview of the system or process as a whole.
I think one of the classics was it was to do with bolts and nuts with many car companies use different size bolts and nuts and this was a constant frustration for the people on the ground because they might get the wrong size delivered to them and they might not be able to fit it and it was like a very small thing but it slowed up production. Now if you had the performance review model you would go in and say well, you’re not being very effective for this you need to be more effective you need to quicken things up. Well, if you have the genuine discussion of what can we do? Some of it might be well the worker learns to do something but the worker also feeds back on the process and add Toyota standardize all their notes and nuts and bolts and really increased the production speed in response to worker feedback which other car companies didn’t and pretty sure that was Toyota.
But you know that’s the kind of thing if you’re working collaboratively between managers and workers believe that culture of trust also needs the culture of lateral integration or just vertical workers forming their own groups, their common interest groups often is this is something we personally are identified.
Lastly it facilitates a very different relationship to date and I think that is really important you know I seem to slack off data. The exam data with the law of unintended consequences – that data is fantastic but the question is where does it come from who’s provided it and how’s it being used. We can use lots of fantastic data, quantifiable data, you know we could use quantifiable data when we look at say debating skills in the classroom, who put up their hand, who was the teacher interacted with, lots of data points there but needs a data point generated by the employees themselves in the pursuit of learning not impression outside in pursuit of justifying what you’re doing. People are much more likely to be honest about day trips they feel that they have an element of control over it and they feel that he is being used to further understand not being used to further judge them.
[00:47:43] Nippin Anand: It is so fascinating to hear that and I wrote that in the feedback paper to you also when unfortunately, you couldn’t get access to it. We started the journey a year and a half ago trying to understand what can be learned from organizational communication. So what I did was that I took some 31,000 reports from different organizations and these were reports of operational failures, technical failures, safety reporting, systems non-conformance reporting systems and so on we didn’t ethnographic study on this we started off and four data scientists and what we came to realize was very similar to what you’re discussing here is that a lot of communication is very much a reinforcement of what the organization already knows to the point that a lot of conversation that goes from the top has very little appetite to engage with people and it’s mostly about reinforcing what people in power already know. We showed that through content analysis of the data with very interesting terms like remind, ensure comply as a means of response from the top. Very fascinating! We also saw learning as something which is very sporadic very infrequent and only happens when something really big happens so you have to really justify but the reason to invest in learning and change and it has to come through some catastrophe, some big failure. some big customer complaint.
[00:49:21] It is not something that happens frequently on a regular basis. Forget about what we found what is important is where we’re going with all this now is that we found that and exactly what you say so the new way of thinking and working communication is to actually create a more conversational system of communication where you have communication not just between the line manager and the worker but also a more lateral conversation which goes across workers and creates what is called the community of practice when people engage, they actually discuss, they talk about perspectives that they bring different perspectives, different colors to the conversation and what they could quickly realize in this journey was that how a simple thing like somebody did not set up the table properly or somebody did not close the manhole cover properly create such a rich discussion and you start to understand the context of what this is all about and what you come to realize is those things that you talked that you want to remind people or tell them what they should be doing in such a counterproductive way of communicating because not only you’re not solving the problem, you’re actually creating much bigger problems.
When you create this richness of conversations you will almost always find somebody will be out within the organization or a group of people who have a very good solution to the problem and I call it ‘amplification of expertise’, not expert with expertise as a relational thing. So how you come together and you actually are able to understand the problem better and by understanding the problem better you can come up with a better solution.
[00:51:25] Nick Little: It’s so interesting you say that because one of the things you know schools are doing and you know I’m not saying we’re unique with that is the ‘skill-share’. Don’t bring in an outside expert actually acknowledge the people within the building that have worked out a solution to a problem that is right in front of us and on a training day you can have a series of these some of them can be 30 minutes long and some of them could be an hour. We’ve all been struggling with this COVID-19, we’re doing online learning we’ve all been struggling with this particular thing I’ve been talking with a group of others about it and we’ve discovered this and this is what we do and they teach their colleagues and people love it.
You don’t have to pay them, you don’t have to bribe them, they just they enjoy talking about that practice they enjoy the discovery. These training sessions themselves become conversations their colleagues who say Oh yes interesting you’ve done this and it’s not by the external provider where they’re telling you this thing that they always told you that they told 50 other organizations and you can say what you like and they’re going to say, “you know what I do this all the time I’m the expert, you don’t know you think you know but you don’t”
[00:52:55] Nippin Anand: This is so interesting because you talked about data points and what we’re realizing in this journey is that these data points are so much more contextually relevant because now you’re getting data in terms of narratives in terms of stories that have worked in a particular setting in a particular situation and when you start to collect stories and narratives and the data around particular context it becomes so much more meaningful because then that automatically leads to where you have constraints and where you have capacity within the system when you start to understand these stories.
[00:53:23] Nick Little: I think this so goes back to the AOL training I was talking about, this wonderful program with this great certificate and its books and it’s great trainers. It didn’t actually require any conversation about what we actually did in the classroom. It came in a bunch of experts from University said we have looked at a lot of places we have done that work and now we’re telling you this is how you should teach without any reference to how you actually already teach. I’m not against this and I do think you know I again I’m not anti-expert I do think you can learn a lot from experts obviously and I do think you know reaching out and I’m reading around really important but you should do it on your own terms you should do it as part of your own voyage of discovery rather than having imposed upon you. An expert says I know how to do your job better than you listen up it is the kind of deficiency model again you know the end of the day you don’t do this very well you’ve got to do this it’s not the discovery model. I do this profession, I’m proud of what, I do I enjoy talking about what I do with my colleagues and I enjoy thinking about how to get better at it and a colleague might say oh you know what why don’t you read a chapter of this book or an article here and that’s another thing we, in management I think where you can help is pointing people to bits and bobs.
Very few people read an entire book this week of an aspect of their job then they go home and they want to read a novel or do a jigsaw puzzle or watch TV. They chose and they know that committed some people are but they are willing to YouTube video and article, a chapter.
[00:55:23] Nippin Anand: You make such an interesting point because my PhD was looking at knowledge economy and one of the things that I came to understand and it was my very starting this school of social Sciences coming from a very technical background and what I realized in the western model of education you probably recognize it better than me that is that the notion of connecting education with the notion of employability that you educate yourself because you have to find a better job. So that sets you in a very narrow state of mind as against some of the confusionist thinking or the thinking of the Hinduism for example, that education is all about or on development of mind so suddenly your relationship with education changes completely. When I came first came to this country, I found this idea education services very interesting actually the term ‘education service’ as if a service industry and it took me a long time to come to terms with this term.
[00:56:47] Nick Little: It’s interesting you should say that’s the service industry so how do you get feedback on how good the education is when you have these surveys at the end of the training session which basically said what did you feel about it because that’s what matters not well how are you different or what did you learn. It could be those questions but what’s important is your attitude towards it not yeah, I had to say how this has changed you as a person because education is an act of consumption which I think is another problem and credential is related to this so well I’m not doing a Masters or a doctorate because I’m really interested in this and I love it and I want to explore it but I’m doing this because I think it’s more likely to give me a job. Then you can see people with Masters or doctorate and in industries outside of medicine who are no better than somebody who hasn’t got one because what was the motive for them doing it? The motive for them doing it was its gonna get me a better job rather than I expected it to change me.
[00:58:08] Nippin Anand: Credential inflation as you will likely see it doesn’t serve any purpose. That’s such a fascinating discussion the other thing I found interesting was the whole idea of what you came towards the end that bring by bring back pride in the profession because I think that pride is certainly going away in professions. People don’t feel proud anymore. I remember being a captain for 20 years ago and being a captain now are two completely different things and people just don’t feel associated with the profession and unless you feel associated and you feel proud about the profession. It is very hard for you to go that extra mile to internalize that learning I think that’s a real problem and in many ways. It’s the crux of the problem that we have created that we are taking away and I just love the idea what you said about this pandemic has taught us that even something as trivial as it may seem from the outside as stacking shelves can be a really meaningful job so our society has in a way taken that meaning and created a very narrow understanding of the meaning that unless you earning a 6-figure salary it is not really something that is recognized. So we see very little joy or satisfaction in kids actually trying to explore something new something I put them too much into far too many activities because we see that as an investment in the future.
Such an interesting point you make. These are some random thoughts I had as you were talking.
[00:59:34] Nick Little: The other interesting thing of how are we expected to get satisfaction and pride? well it’s through consumption we earn a lot of money and we buy these trinkets and we buy the big car or we buy that you know the fancy phone and this shows that we have been successful. But there is another view of work is it isn’t about producing the money to buy these consumer goods but we take pride as you say, we do this and we do it well and that’s where we get our sense of pride and I very much agree with your point there of we are also there’s also a danger of trivializing complex jobs. So, you know take within teaching – you know increasingly you get these almost like this is the formula here’s the textbook people tell the teacher this is what you teach first this is what you teach second each so it takes all judgment away and I’m sure the same with your profession of the here’s the checklist you follow this and you don’t need to engage your right but we also don’t acknowledge me going back to the way we learn other professions are meaningful but take the bus driver. The bus driver is making goodness, who knows how many decisions on a daily basis customer comes in they’ve gotta check that somebody hasn’t popped in at the back of the same time that this person, they pull out, they have to look around, they need skills in customer service, they need skills in defusing tension they need driving skills to do this job well is a complex and difficult task. Acknowledge that a meaningful job and actually as a society we would like it done while we do care, it does matter to us and we recognize that you are exercising judgment and we can’t just give you a list of this is how you do it and off you go.
[01:01:53]: In fact, we’re extending that approach to kinds of other professions because again it’s about maintaining the social groups the status quo that you talked about and about the people in the top giving the knowledge and telling you this is how you do the job even if the reality is they haven’t done it a long time themselves and that is something I’m conscious of is a head of school. I tried to keep my hand it was doing some teaching but the best will in the world I’m not I’m doing a fraction of the teaching of many of my colleagues. I’ll be frank with you they of course become better teachers and they I mean why wouldn’t they be there talking all the time their talented people you know, I have to be careful of how dare I tell them how to do their jobs. We frequently have managers in professions who either not never done the job themselves. In Germany for example head teachers are often trained separately and then not necessarily ever being teachers or being teachers for that long, they’ve never done the job themselves or if they have done the job themselves it’s a long time since I’ve done it and they’ve done everything in their power to forget how to do it in the meantime. That’s the other problem with this this model.
[01:03:16] If I were to sum up, I would say if you want a learning organization be sure that that’s what you want. When I was a young man, I smoked and I read a book on how to give up smoking and then it was very short book it said if you wanted to give up smoking, you’d give up smoking but you don’t really want to that’s why you don’t. I think I quite liked it and the same learning organization is that really what you want is it really what you want are you willing to accept everything that comes with it because if people are learning they are improving an improvement means change which is disruptive. So be honest with yourself and if you don’t want it fine then I was not a learning organization it is about compliance about status quo is about power structures remaining in place but face up that’s what you want if you do want a learning organization it’s going to come with a certain culture it is asked to come with a culture of trusting your employees it has to come with a culture of having conversations with them, encouraging conversations, in celebrating what they do and pointing out to them the meaningfulness of what they are engaged with so that they themselves want to learn. Humans are learning animals, it is intrinsic to us we don’t really need carrots and sticks to learn, that’s our default position. It doesn’t stop at 18 or 28 of 38. We actually to our own devices will continue to do it but we need the culture and environment where we are trusted and where were supported with this.
[01:05:16] Nippin Anand: What do you think?
Suppose you have a child that goes to school. How would you know that your child is doing well?
You would look at her grades to find out how well she is performing when compared with her peers in her class. What if the child is not performing well? You will talk to the child, try to find out where is the problem, you will then talk to the teacher, listen to their understanding of the child.
But we don’t do that. In today’s world, when the child is not performing well, first we think that there is something wrong with the child, then we push the child to work harder. And then we arrange meetings with teachers and push the teacher to push our children to work harder. And in doing so as parents and as consumers of education services (funny term by the way when we start to see education as a service industry), we do not realise how much harm we are doing to the child, the teacher and the entire education system.
Together all of us create an education service whose success depends upon how well the children grade in the school, which then creates an extremely flawed education system where we end up measuring what is convenient rather than what is meaningful for the development of our children.
We create an army of conformist children who must think alike (because they are all measured against a standard curriculum) and we kill the creativity in the child. But then we do something more. We destroy the soul of teaching and teachers who would otherwise try hard to understand the uniqueness of every child and help them become happier people, better citizens of tomorrow as they grow.
Because teachers who focus on child centric education don’t score high in this model of education, they become seen as poor performing employees. And then these teachers are often sent for training courses to improve their performance. Imagine what would happen to their performance?
What is more, the effectiveness of any training courses to improve the performance of teachers is more of a political exercise. How powerful those in position of power would feel when the teacher asks can I please enroll in a training course because that would look good on their CV? This moral superiority keeps those in position of power in control but it does not do much good to improve the performance of teachers, teaching and the education system.
Nick believes that the time has come that we start to challenge this idea of a ‘deficit employee’ as we see in every teacher who needs training and support to perform better and take a good, hard look at how we understand and measure individual performance if our goal is to genuinely promote learning in our schools but more widely in every institution in our society.
A learning organization does not need external evaluations and meaningless performance measures. It requires building a culture of trust in employees and more importantly creating a workplace where people take pride in their work. Once people feel proud about what they can do and what they can achieve, you won’t need external validations and meaningless productivity measures to tell us if our people are learning or not. The willingness to learn and improve will come from within, it becomes internalized, even normalized.
But for all the buzzword around learning organizations that we see today, Nick warns us that be sure this is what you really want. Do you really want people to learn when they come to work? Yes, that would improve productivity but it also means people will start to think, reflect and ask questions that may require changing certain practices, certain ways of working, and it may be uncomfortable for those in position of power.
So be honest to yourself when you say that you want a learning organization.
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A series of podcasts with thought leaders and safety scientists.