Katri Kolesnik
Jun 18, 2014
Posted in category: 2014 Member Articles

Learning by Doing

I gaze out at a glittering sea where white sailboats are pushed gently home by a light summer breeze. The glass of sparkling wine in front of me takes me back to a long and fruitful discussion I once had, in a company party with a colleague, regarding learning.

Our discussion followed similar paths with those of Spencer Johnson, a thought leader in change resistance. In his praised motivational book “Who Moved my Cheese?” the writer tells a story of four characters, each reacting differently to change, living in a maze and looking for their (unexpectedly?) lost cheese. One of them, Hem, is unwilling to adapt to the change that took place in his environment. His friend Haw on the other hand, has accepted it and overcoming his fears, is learning new routines that will allow him to come out as a champion.

In my opinion, one of the story’s lessons is that no society can develop independently of the environment. In the story, a cycle of change begins with a change in the environment: there was no more cheese. Another valuable remark is that adapting to change should not necessarily be reactive, but rather happen with anticipation. Did the cheese really disappear unexpectedly?

This analogy is all too easy to apply to the ICT industry, and how the role expectations of all of us related to it, have changed. Firstly, the way in which organisations lead and outsource their ICT, or substantial parts of it, and secondly the acknowledged potential of ICT bringing competitive advantage, places greater and more diverse challenges on our work. This change is rapid, and people’s attitudes and skills have a hard time keeping up with the pace.

A change in behaviour is a result of learning. Mere information is rarely enough to change our behaviour. Have you ever for example participated in an interesting training session and thought about memorising some of the contents for later use? Yet, if someone one day prompted you about it, you would probably not have changed your routines. This is hardly surprising, since learning and developing your own thinking and know-how is a slow process.

In the same way we know for certain that the role of IT has changed over the course of time, and that it is not easy for people to change with it. To develop, we need to internalize the new information and in other words connect the implicit, experience-based knowledge with the more clearly defined explicit information. This is not only the key to learning, but also to innovating.

Educationalist John Dewey’s idea of learning by doing is now taken for granted, but it was quite progressive in his time. Yet even now, it is not such a no-brainer as one would think. The discussion with my colleague, who works as a CIO, led to the topic of a simulation session held during a management training program. Together we pondered how one exercise, what first seemed a nonsensical game, resulted in learning of a new idea, and even allowed objective analysis on one’s own actions and thoughts.

The forming of new knowledge is a communal process. Nonaka and Takeuchi have modelled the streams and interaction of explicit and implicit information in their famous work The Knowledge Creating Company. In that also the fantastic idea of learning by doing is somehow unfolded: implicit and explicit information turn rather endlessly in cycles so that what first was implicit, is transformed to explicit, and so forth. When an entire team or community is a part of this process, we allow behaviour to change in harmony with the environment and enable a learning organisation.

A ship’s whistle brings me back from my thoughts. I fill my glass and re-join the joyful discussion that is still ongoing around me. I realised in my thoughts that, in addition to doing, an interactive dialogue (dia = through, logos = speech) is one of the most important enablers of learning.
”Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” – John Dewey

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