May 24, 2019

How to make widespread learning as widespread as it should be

This is a guest post from Jay Newman, Director of Strategy and acting CFO at Jump Associates, a strategy and innovation firm. 

By nature, we are learners. We create and adapt by exploring ourselves, others and how the world works.

We’re also natural organizers. We come together to cooperate on problems. We share experiences and values. And when we’re together, we care even more.

Future frontiers remain available to us as we create new ways to learn faster and organize more massively. But our most common approaches to learning at scale are insufficient. We’re not getting nearly enough collective learning out of our largest organizations – including education institutions, governments and businesses.

These organizations are tuned for repetition, replication and the controlled production of ideas that already exists – the industrial revolution’s model for learning. They aren’t built to learn in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous conditions we face as we look toward the future and consider change.

Ironically, these approaches are perfect for how machines create value but are not great for how people grow. We develop. We grow by learning more persistently and becoming more adaptive.

I’m optimistic. Despite getting inadequate help from our institutions, the curious and hopeful are still out there, discovering insights and trying to spread them. The next revolutions are happening in knowledge and technology – and some will transfer into organizational designs as well. To name just a few examples:

  • Education is more democratic. Only 6,700 undergrads pay to live at Harvard each year – but 14 million people take its free online classes.
  • Collaborators are networking beyond conventional boundaries. A recent Nobel Prize winning paper reporting the discovery of gravitational waves cited 1,000 co-authors.
  • Experimentation is less costly. Capital One ran 80,000 marketing experiments per year. And that was back in 2014. The rest of the internet must be running millions more.
  • We’re listening more frequently. SAP acquired Qualtrics’s customer and employee feedback platform business for $8 billion.
  • And the science and the tools for helping people learn more deeply and change more readily is coming online. Transformative Tech Labs supports these entrepreneurs and reports $1.6 billion raised from impact investors across 11 related technology areas.

All of that adds up to so much greater potential for learning at scale–but only if we can organize around it. Fortunately, we’re also discovering more about how organizations can help their members flourish. It turns out organizations can learn and gain agility, just like people can. Groups of people–from corporations to communities–develop and grow based on new insights. There are three types of insights that matter: external, internal and individual.

External insights are what’s collectively learned and shared about the external environment, like the needs of customers or stakeholders. Internal insights are what’s collectively learned and shared about the organization itself, like its talents, structures, biases and blind spots. Individual insights are all the insights that people in the organization are learning about themselves, like their skills, strengths and beliefs.

Basically, organizations learn via the growth of their people. By choosing to link all our efforts to enable individual growth with related efforts to build systems that flex and scale, we can design for widespread learning.

What’s our greatest challenge? In a word, it’s change. While we’re built for adaptation, we are also wired to fear change. Research shows only 16% of people are “future focused.” Everyone else is more oriented toward the past or present.

For a lot of us, the world is changing faster than we’re ready to accept or engage with. And while many of our own teams are filled with optimistic, future-focused thinkers, the people we’re designing for and the stakeholders we need to guide forward simply don’t see the opportunity through the same mindset we do.

Here are three principles to keep in mind when designing approaches to widespread learning that can help move adoption forward:

Link the personal with the collective

Every insight that spreads starts at the individual level and goes from there. So build highly personal moments of learning into as many shared experiences as you can in your organization. You can start small. At the end of classes, meetings or trainings, ask people to reflect and write one personal take-away in their notebook.

This also works at larger scales. One core offering my team at Jump provides to clients is what we call the Executive Immersion. It’s a two-day facilitated strategy session. As part of it, we take individual executives or board members into the homes of their customers for 3-hour long interviews. Sitting in a customer’s living room, on their couch, gives the leader a personal learning experience — some individual transformation — that a whole team of executives or board members are having simultaneously. They then bring individual learnings into the collective experience of the working session as part of making shared decisions on new strategies.

Create common environments for external, internal and individual learning

In most large organizations, the people responsible for these three different types of insights rarely work together. Customer insights groups, UX researchers and product teams focus on identifying unmet needs in the outside world. Operations groups, People Operations and HR focus on learning how well internal processes, systems and culture are working. Learning and Development teams focus on helping individuals grow in their skills and understanding.

But whether we’re aware of it or not, this is a choice we’ve made. It’s an organizational design. At the individual level, every person is naturally integrating these insights for themselves as part of the way they make sense what they do every day.

Start by creating moments and meetings that bring these types of insights together. This could mean supporting a more cross-functional environment. But it could also be any chance for people to come together across functions and mix together, like activities, events and communication platforms. At the best of the executive immersions I referenced above, HR leaders have offered critical voices to ensure new insights about product strategy are talked about in the same discussion as insights about culture. And operations leaders have integrated opportunities related to things like supply chain.

Become obsessive over psychological safety and trust

There’s no doubt about it. Learning that drives adaptation, change and transformative growth is hard. The learning zone is by definition outside of people’s comfort zone. Typically, our deepest learning comes in our most uncomfortable moments.

Last year, I read 20 books and interviewed twice as many teachers, leaders, coaches and entrepreneurs – from curriculum designers at Pixar University to early education innovators to tech ethicists – in a quest to discover who’s breaking the rules and doing big things for the future of learning in organizations. The most centrally agreed-upon principles in all that research is the importance of trust, vulnerability, transparency and direct/honest feedback to a thriving culture of learning.

Feedback and coaching have pan-developmental impacts on learning. They work for individuals as any stage of their personal and professional development. Creating cultures that feel both physically and emotionally safe to learn new things about oneself and think new thoughts about the world is the most important and most constant step to take towards widespread learning.


It’s on us. To get out there, to create communities that want to learn, to build movements and organizations that actually adapt. And then to design approaches that don’t just work for us, but also help to coach, guide, advise and support people who see the world differently.

Jay Newman is Director of Strategy and acting CFO at Jump Associates, the strategy and innovation firm.




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