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EP10: The Power of Organizational Learning

Join Dr. Yee Lai Fong, Associate Consultant with Capelle Consulting as she shares on The Power of Organizational Learning in this first Capelle podcast in 2021.

Mark: Hello and welcome to all our listeners! Thank you for tuning in to The Capelle Podcast, where you can get insights from Capelle on navigating the recent trends in the business world. I’m your host, Mark Lee, and today we have with us Dr Yee Lai Fong, an Associate Consultant with Capelle Consulting, to share with us about the power of Organisational Learning! Hi Lai Fong – great to have you here!

LF: Thank you, Mark. Appreciate this opportunity to share.

Mark: So, Lai Fong – COVID-19 was and is a wake-up call in recognising how tightly inter-connected and inter-dependent we are as a global ecosystem. It challenged many assumptions that we’ve been holding deeply in the way we operate all these years. You believe that organisations can use these disruptions to their benefit. Could you share more about that?

LF: Indeed. Using the language of “learning organisations”, COVID-19 taught us deep lessons on systems thinking and challenged our mental models in practically every facet of our lives – much like pressing the reset button in our operating system.

Mark: So I’m picking up on a lot of this language about learning and particularly learning in an organisation. Could you perhaps define for us what really is a learning organisation?

LF: By far, I personally found the most inspiring definition of a learning organisation by Peter Senge from his book “Fifth Discipline” published in 1990. According to him, a learning organisation is where “people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

LF: In today’s context, I would extend this definition to include the capacity to weather and respond to disruptions and shocks, like the global pandemic that we are experiencing now; the resilience to bounce back, and the capacity for generative renewal.

Mark: That’s indeed inspiring and empowering. What then would it take for organisations to develop this capacity?

LF: Well, for this podcast, let me break it down and focus on two aspects – adaptive capacity and anticipatory capacity. Let’s start with Adaptive Capacity. To develop an organisation’s adaptive capacity, we are looking at learning that is generated through iterative cycles of adaptive action, experimentation and prototyping. As described by Yrjö Engeström, Professor of Adult Education, University of Helsinki, “people and organisations are all the time learning something that is not stable, not even defined or understood ahead of time. They are literally learned as they are being created.”

LF: Building such adaptive capacity requires us to look beyond the traditional conception of learning as a vertical process of raising competency levels of individuals toward horizontal forms of learning at the collective level, that are integrated with activities at the workplace.

Mark: So, it sounds like we are looking beyond learning that is pre-designed as courseware and delivered to learners to simply develop their competencies. Rather, we are referring to learning that is generated from iterative, that is trial, error and refinement cycles of collective action.

LF: It is therefore crucial for leaders to recognise the value of such horizontal forms of learning in nurturing new and expansive patterns of thinking; and provide the space and time for such learning to take place.

LF: One horizontal form of learning is design thinking, which involves insights gathering, experimentation, prototyping and testing. In early studies on organisational learning, learning through experimentation was one form of experiential learning to facilitate knowledge acquisition. Recent years saw the concept of prototyping entering into literature on organisational studies. Though similar to experimentation, the concept of prototyping is about failing fast and failing early, sometimes in real-life contexts rather than in controlled environments. Today’s dynamic environment calls for a more emergent strategy involving small-scale experiments or prototyping that enables faster learning by failing often and early, translating to faster organisational learning.

Mark: The value of being willing to try things out and learn from the highs and lows of those experiences are invaluable. I wonder if you could share how your on-the-ground experiences put these frames of thinking into action.

LF: During this season, I am privileged to be part of the Capelle team working with the non-profit sector on their productivity and digital transformation journey. Amongst the range of solutions being explored, one example is an online chatbot made available on mindline.sg to help people build mental resilience and learn self-care.

We are experiencing these iterative cycles of adaptive action and learning, bringing in voices and views from a diversity of stakeholders, including policymakers, charities, social work professionals, tech solution developers, donors, volunteers and clients from the community. The value is not just in the process and the product, but also the shared understanding generated from the process of co-designing or co-creation with multiple stakeholders.

Mark: Fantastic stuff, thanks for that Lai Fong. What about developing anticipatory capacity? What would that involve?

LF: I would view developing anticipatory capacity as learning from the future as it emerges. One approach is the application of futures thinking, translating foresight to insight, and in turn, to action. This is particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic as we seek to reimagine new business models in a hyperconnected world, amidst digital disruption and blurring of industry lines.

Mark: And when are good times to develop and exercise such re-imagining?

LF: Developing anticipatory capacity does not happen only during an annual strategic planning exercise. It requires sustained and dedicated commitment to scan the environment and look out for signals, trends and drivers within and beyond the industries that we operate in.

Mark: So rather than a set point-in-time, you are suggesting it’s really more a discipline and mindset to have, to regularly scan the horizon and beyond, to push oneself to consider possibilities for your organisation.

LF: Absolutely! According to the Institute for the Futures (IFTF), the goal of foresight is not to predict what’s going to happen, but to provoke our creativity.

One example is the future of entertainment. Back in 2018, AT&T collaborated with the IFTF to produce the report “Blended Reality: The Future of Entertainment, 5G, and Mobile Edge Computing” Think about the blurring of industry lines; this report drew upon IFTF’s ongoing research in mobile computing, wireless networking, the future of entertainment, bringing in adjacent and intersecting areas of immersive media and artificial intelligence. In this report, I was most fascinated with the idea of ‘floating islands of the imagination’ which offers me the tools to create my own immersive experiences and invite my friends to join me in these “shareable dreamspaces”. Collective virtual reality environments like these will become tomorrow’s art galleries, performance spaces, theme parks and even destination resorts.

Closer to home, the local arts, events and entertainment sectors were amongst those most badly hit by the impact of the global pandemic. In October 2020, the NTUC Freelancers and Self-Employed Unit rallied key leaders in the sector to present insights and ideas on reimagining the future of social and community events. These were ground-up ideas generated from multi-stakeholder engagements, which will eventually dovetail and align with the broader directions set out in the Industry Resilience Roadmap (IRR) for the MICE industry.

Mark: Great insights there, Lai Fong. As we’re just about coming to an end for our time here, I’d like to ask if you have some food for thought for our listeners, some parting words of wisdom?

LF: Well, let me wrap up by sharing something that I learned from the Human Systems Dynamics Institute – which is to “stand in inquiry”. What I learned is that in the absence of certainty, particularly in our current environment, inquiry becomes the only path toward learning and real change. As such, I would like to invite us to begin the new year with a posture of “Inquiry” by considering these four behaviours:

· Turn judgment into curiosity;

· Turn conflict into shared exploration;

· Turn defensiveness into self-reflection; and

· Turn assumption into questions.

Thank you.

Join Dr. Yee Lai Fong, Associate Consultant with Capelle Consulting, as she shares on The Power of Organizational Learning in this first Capelle podcast of 2021.

Transcript

Mark: Hello and welcome to all our listeners! Thank you for tuning in to The Capelle Podcast, where you can get insights from Capelle on navigating the recent trends in the business world. I’m your host, Mark Lee, and today we have with us Dr Yee Lai Fong, an Associate Consultant with Capelle Consulting, to share with us about the power of Organisational Learning! Hi Lai Fong – great to have you here!

LF: Thank you, Mark. Appreciate this opportunity to share.

Mark: So, Lai Fong – COVID-19 was and is a wake-up call in recognising how tightly inter-connected and inter-dependent we are as a global ecosystem. It challenged many assumptions that we’ve been holding deeply in the way we operate all these years. You believe that organisations can use these disruptions to their benefit. Could you share more about that?

LF: Indeed. Using the language of “learning organisations”, COVID-19 taught us deep lessons on systems thinking and challenged our mental models in practically every facet of our lives – much like pressing the reset button in our operating system.

Mark: So I’m picking up on a lot of this language about learning and particularly learning in an organisation. Could you perhaps define for us what really is a learning organisation?

LF: By far, I personally found the most inspiring definition of a learning organisation by Peter Senge from his book “Fifth Discipline” published in 1990. According to him, a learning organisation is where “people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

LF: In today’s context, I would extend this definition to include the capacity to weather and respond to disruptions and shocks, like the global pandemic that we are experiencing now; the resilience to bounce back, and the capacity for generative renewal.

Mark: That’s indeed inspiring and empowering. What then would it take for organisations to develop this capacity?

LF: Well, for this podcast, let me break it down and focus on two aspects – adaptive capacity and anticipatory capacity. Let’s start with Adaptive Capacity. To develop an organisation’s adaptive capacity, we are looking at learning that is generated through iterative cycles of adaptive action, experimentation and prototyping. As described by Yrjö Engeström, Professor of Adult Education, University of Helsinki, “people and organisations are all the time learning something that is not stable, not even defined or understood ahead of time. They are literally learned as they are being created.”

LF: Building such adaptive capacity requires us to look beyond the traditional conception of learning as a vertical process of raising competency levels of individuals toward horizontal forms of learning at the collective level, that are integrated with activities at the workplace.

Mark: So, it sounds like we are looking beyond learning that is pre-designed as courseware and delivered to learners to simply develop their competencies. Rather, we are referring to learning that is generated from iterative, that is trial, error and refinement cycles of collective action.

LF: It is therefore crucial for leaders to recognise the value of such horizontal forms of learning in nurturing new and expansive patterns of thinking; and provide the space and time for such learning to take place.

LF: One horizontal form of learning is design thinking, which involves insights gathering, experimentation, prototyping and testing. In early studies on organisational learning, learning through experimentation was one form of experiential learning to facilitate knowledge acquisition. Recent years saw the concept of prototyping entering into literature on organisational studies. Though similar to experimentation, the concept of prototyping is about failing fast and failing early, sometimes in real-life contexts rather than in controlled environments. Today’s dynamic environment calls for a more emergent strategy involving small-scale experiments or prototyping that enables faster learning by failing often and early, translating to faster organisational learning.

Mark: The value of being willing to try things out and learn from the highs and lows of those experiences are invaluable. I wonder if you could share how your on-the-ground experiences put these frames of thinking into action.

LF: During this season, I am privileged to be part of the Capelle team working with the non-profit sector on their productivity and digital transformation journey. Amongst the range of solutions being explored, one example is an online chatbot made available on mindline.sg to help people build mental resilience and learn self-care.

We are experiencing these iterative cycles of adaptive action and learning, bringing in voices and views from a diversity of stakeholders, including policymakers, charities, social work professionals, tech solution developers, donors, volunteers and clients from the community. The value is not just in the process and the product, but also the shared understanding generated from the process of co-designing or co-creation with multiple stakeholders.

Mark: Fantastic stuff, thanks for that Lai Fong. What about developing anticipatory capacity? What would that involve?

LF: I would view developing anticipatory capacity as learning from the future as it emerges. One approach is the application of futures thinking, translating foresight to insight, and in turn, to action. This is particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic as we seek to reimagine new business models in a hyperconnected world, amidst digital disruption and blurring of industry lines.

Mark: And when are good times to develop and exercise such re-imagining?

LF: Developing anticipatory capacity does not happen only during an annual strategic planning exercise. It requires sustained and dedicated commitment to scan the environment and look out for signals, trends and drivers within and beyond the industries that we operate in.

Mark: So rather than a set point-in-time, you are suggesting it’s really more a discipline and mindset to have, to regularly scan the horizon and beyond, to push oneself to consider possibilities for your organisation.

LF: Absolutely! According to the Institute for the Futures (IFTF), the goal of foresight is not to predict what’s going to happen, but to provoke our creativity.

One example is the future of entertainment. Back in 2018, AT&T collaborated with the IFTF to produce the report “Blended Reality: The Future of Entertainment, 5G, and Mobile Edge Computing” Think about the blurring of industry lines; this report drew upon IFTF’s ongoing research in mobile computing, wireless networking, the future of entertainment, bringing in adjacent and intersecting areas of immersive media and artificial intelligence. In this report, I was most fascinated with the idea of ‘floating islands of the imagination’ which offers me the tools to create my own immersive experiences and invite my friends to join me in these “shareable dreamspaces”. Collective virtual reality environments like these will become tomorrow’s art galleries, performance spaces, theme parks and even destination resorts.

Closer to home, the local arts, events and entertainment sectors were amongst those most badly hit by the impact of the global pandemic. In October 2020, the NTUC Freelancers and Self-Employed Unit rallied key leaders in the sector to present insights and ideas on reimagining the future of social and community events. These were ground-up ideas generated from multi-stakeholder engagements, which will eventually dovetail and align with the broader directions set out in the Industry Resilience Roadmap (IRR) for the MICE industry.

Mark: Great insights there, Lai Fong. As we’re just about coming to an end for our time here, I’d like to ask if you have some food for thought for our listeners, some parting words of wisdom?

LF: Well, let me wrap up by sharing something that I learned from the Human Systems Dynamics Institute – which is to “stand in inquiry”. What I learned is that in the absence of certainty, particularly in our current environment, inquiry becomes the only path toward learning and real change. As such, I would like to invite us to begin the new year with a posture of “Inquiry” by considering these four behaviours:

· Turn judgment into curiosity;

· Turn conflict into shared exploration;

· Turn defensiveness into self-reflection; and

· Turn assumption into questions.

Thank you.

 

 

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