The Manager’s Core Work in the New Economy

Peter Henschel,
Executive Director Emeritus,
Institute for Research on Learning

Beyond the Buzzwords

In these crazy, on—the-edge times of accelerating change and unnerving uncertainty, it is not enough to rely on "empowered high-performance work teams" to succeed. Nor do the buzzwords and platitudes around "knowledge management" and "empowerment" give us much insight. What the new realities demand is a deep understanding and belief in the ways people actually and naturally learn and to act based on one’s understanding.

The manager's core work in this new economy is to create and support a work environment that nurtures continuous learning.

Was it not ever thus? Even if so, our organizations rarely give this the attention it deserves. Now, more than ever before, it's an imperative, and will be so "for the duration."

In this brief essay, I shall lay out some of the principles that should serve managers well as they explore their new roles and responsibilities. I believe these principles can help us breed the innovation and unbridled creativity that will make all the difference in the competitive world in which we live and work.

In the past we often substituted training for real learning. In fact, the behavior one sees in the field would suggest in many cases that managers often think training leads to learning or, worse, that training is learning. But classroom models of training that happen episodically are not how people really learn. They are only part of the picture. Asking for more training is definitely not enough - it isn't even close - and often obscures what's really needed: lifelong, continuous learning in work and at work.

At the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL), we study learning in all of its facets and we design for effective learning. We do that work in a participatory design approach with myriad partners, both in the world of K-12 schools and in the world of work. In the area of workplace learning — my focus here — we do collaborative research and design with lots of partners, mostly from the corporate world. Those partners include Xerox, Hewlett Packard, Steelcase, and some major financial services companies. But half our work is also in our schools, with support from foundations and the federal government. Out of all our projects, we have evolved a set of enduring principles of learning that we consistently recognize in all of our work.

From Apprenticeship to "Communities of Practice"

Shortly after our founding in 1987 by a generous multiyear grant from the Xerox Foundation, IRL began to examine various models of apprenticeship, upclose and personal.

We discovered that apprenticeship is actually quite widespread, is usually deemed to be successful, and — very important — usually works because it requires becoming a member of a cohesive, informal community that goes beyond one master or mentor. Wanting to become "one of them," to be accepted into a community, is a powerful dynamic of apprenticeship. Further, we came to understand that newcomers learn best as they become members of these communities. Moreover, they continue to learn as they, in turn, teach, mentor, and participate "in the practice." Continuing to learn, we discovered, is an equally powerful prerequisite for continuing membership in those communities.

Out of that early work, IRL researchers developed a term, "Communities of Practice," that has now gained recognition and encouraging acceptance in the business literature. The Institute is proud to have coined the term, to see it spread, and to work with our partners on practical applications of the concept.

"Communities of Practice" are simply those highly informal groups of people that develop a shared way of working together to accomplish some activity. Usually, such communities include people with varying roles and experience. Every organization has them. Though they don't appear on "orgcharts," they are the largely invisible network of people who get the real work done. They are also the place where people tend to learn the essentials of their job — just as apprentices do — by participating in them. One might even say that a community of practice is like a super apprenticeship system that continually feeds even the most knowledgeable members the new ideas and feedback critical to continuous lifelong learning.

Much of what individuals know depends on their local environment. What an organization knows, however, is what's embedded in and among its communities of practice. Recently much has been made in business literature of statements like "if company X only knew what it knows," referring to the difficulty of capturing what many individuals know. That does not surprise us, since we have come to understand that much of what any of us know is "tacit knowledge" embedded in the practices we share with others. So, if we want to know what our organization knows, we should start by identifying our communities of practice and see them as the well spring of what the organization really knows.

That is one reason why preserving the integrity of these informal communities is so important. The worst effects of downsizing and reengineering come from their complete disregard for communities of practice. The fact that training deals only with explicit knowledge while the value is often in tacit knowledge is another reason training can get at only part of what is understood to be effective.

There is another dimension to the community idea that is seldom discussed but critically important: Learning is powerfully linked not just to motivation but also identity. What we choose to learn is often a function of who we are and who we wish to become. Not wanting to be like "them" can be enough to keep someone from learning. That fact seems to hold whether we are talking about company apprentices, high school gangs, or seasoned software engineers.

If those social dimensions of learning are as powerful and enduring as they appear to be — and our work strongly supports such a contention — then this is important news for organizations. Most organizations implicitly know they need to be continuously innovative through continuous learning. However, again, training alone does not even come close to addressing the challenge.

Seven Principles of Learning

From our extensive fieldwork in myriad workplaces and educational settings, IRL has developed a set of Principles of Learning that we believe are important guideposts for organizations. These are not "Tablets from Moses;" rather, they are evolving as a "work in progress." However, it is already clear that they have broad application in countless settings. Think of them in relation to your own experience.

As an IRL trustee, Paul Allaire, Chairman and CEO of Xerox, once said "To do things differently, we need to see things differently." As managers think about what to do differently, it helps to see through the new lenses the above principles provide. The challenge for each of us is to put on the new eyeglasses and look through them at the realities we face every day.

Communities of Practice in Practice

Some examples in practice that IRL team members have observed:

All these examples make clear that training is not equal to learning. They also show that learning does not always go in stages, especially when we are exposed to rich environments in real-life situations. Also, simply specifying skills or competencies does not usually provide what people really need to know — and will learn — even if they are placed in the right environment. The principles also help us understand that much of what we often see as "low-level" work is not as routine or as low-level as it may seem. There are essential connections being built, strengthened, and honed among different members of the community.

Leveraging Communities of Practice: The Manager's New Core Work

What does all this mean for those who are in positions of coaching, shaping, and leading in the world of the new economy we are now in?• The new work of managers is all about creating the enabling conditions for continuous learning, which is best done by supporting the informal communities in which it most effectively happens. That requires less control, more listening, more facilitation, and an enormous degree of support for policies and practices that, without the benefit of the lenses of the seven principles, may not appear to be efficient.

To accomplish the above, managers will also need to shift their focus, perhaps changing their own identities as well. The shift needs to be

– From teaching and training to coaching, mentoring and ultimately continuous learning

It all boils down to some eternal truths, which many of our corporations need to remember or learn for the first time:

If we do not pay attention to the new management work - and what it demands of us — we face the reality expressed by Intel's CEO, Andy Grove: "There is at least one point in the history of any company when you have to change dramatically to rise to the next performance level. Miss the moment, and you start to decline." The truth of that statement is shown over and over in Smart Business.

Finally, the author expresses his boundless gratitude for all of the work and insights of IRL and its people that informed his perspective in this essay.

Exerpted from "SMART BUSINESS", by Dr. Jim Botkin, published in June, 1999 by The Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

© Peter Henschel, 1999

Peter Henschel
Executive Director Emeritus
Institute for Research on Learning
E-mail: henschel@mcn.org


Back to top

Back to Window into Talent and Learning