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A Protean approach to Reinvention

In re-imagining the future world of work, we should look back to our mythological past and to “Proteus”, a Greek figure symbolising “elusive sea change”. The adjective protean means "mutable" and "capable of assuming many forms" and we have indeed shape-shifted in 2020 not least to rapidly digitalise our work setting. However more familiar words derived from “proto”, e.g. protocol and prototype, infer the ‘first”, “original” and “foremost’. In reinventing our work-scape, let us not lose sight of the essence and what work is really all about.

What are we working for?

As humans, we are built to be active and busy. Our best selves are found not in isolation or even in comfort but when we balance safety (belonging) with striking out to meet a challenge (purpose). It is less a case of - “I think, therefore I am” and far more - “we co-operate, therefore we think”. In other words, we function best as social beings and achieve more.

As technology advances at speed, we rely on specialists but actually each organisation is best served when the majority of us have intermediate skills that span a range of subjects with an understanding of how these interrelate. Some experts are needed as, equally, novices to create sustainability. We get results when we work together as we integrate both content knowledge and just as importantly. different ways of thinking and knowing. Novices learn from masters, but masters also gain new perspective when socially encouraged to apply a ‘Beginners’ Mind’. Peers learn from peers and this is key to scientific discovery.

Social learning – let’s not kill our ‘Killer App’

Learning is our most powerful way of adapting as it expands our range of behaviour beyond prior knowledge and experience. This happens best within a social context. It is often unstructured, informal and, as already described, reciprocal (Bandura). Now that we are spending less time together ‘in person’ and ‘in situ’, we need to re-invent how we work together to achieve even the same results. The more ambiguity that we are faced with, the more agile we need to be.

Collective I.Q. - “the ability of a group to solve more problems than its individual members” (Heylighen, 1999) suffers from lack of in-person interaction. For one thing, a key contribution is social sensitivity, and this is challenged without cues including body language. It is more difficult to read our colleagues’ reaction to suggestions plus more likely that we will take it personally when an idea is overlooked or dismissed. The most ‘at risk’ work is that which requires evaluation and interpretation of values. For these decisions, we need to merge practice with principles so being ‘out of context’ makes it harder. Communicating better in more limited time requires deliberate practice but finetuning this will reap big rewards.

Learning to learn faster

One way by which we can restore social context is by understanding the why, how and when of remote communication. Apparently, we are now using our mobile devices 56% more than last year. A study of experienced US army personnel engaged in field simulations shows the importance of synchronous messaging for real-time learning (Orvis, Wisher, Bonk, Olson). Here soldiers used texting most intensively at the beginning and towards the end of a mission. Interestingly, almost 50% of interaction during peak communication was purely social rather than task-based in nature. Social bonding is key to aiding subsequent performance by reducing later role conflict i.e. getting us all on the same page. Towards the end of a learning event, it supports our ‘reflection-on-action’ i.e. to generalise what will be useful for next time.

Finally, I suspect that even well-established teams who routinely solve complex problems in-situ and/or in-person now struggle. One explanation is that learning has slowed down without the usual ‘reflection-in-action’ i.e. informally reflecting on what is being learnt during a task. However, by adopting often simple-to-use collaborative tools, it is possible to create a new shared learning space. Otherwise, our fluid intelligence (rate of learning) will simply not keep pace with the pressures to learn.

Transforming how we learn

Training and learning are not the same – for one thing, training can occur without any learning outcome. We only learn when we successfully transform knowledge into experience. This means grasping underlying principles of a subject and applying these to create something new in response to a given situation. When remote from sites and with less concrete experience of work situations (missing the ‘Gemba’ in lean terminology), we lose an important driver for learning i.e. direct observation.

However, we can still apply other tools to unlock learning opportunities. A simple example would be skills mapping across our own organisation to identify what is worth mimic-ing and mirroring in what others do. We can also look for external inspiration. In fact, there may never again be a time again when so many within and outside our own sector grapple with similar constraints. It’s not all bad news, there are actually more people than ever to learn from if we choose to do so.

Finally, Proteus was imbued with the power to foretell the future, presumably because he could alter his shape to minimise its impact. With our future now unpredictable, we too must imagine the workspaces that we will need. We now have an opportunity to reinvent how we think and, in particular, how we learn together. By prioritising this, we will be better able to cope with continuous change and the associated uncertainty.

If you are interested in more ideas on this topic, I will be contributing to a panel discussion with the Shannon Chamber on Thursday November 26th. Book in here


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