our enterprises today, the search for talent is everything. It is
all about recruiting, orienting, socializing, retaining, and renewing
commitment and the social contract between employer and employee.
in boom or bust times, recruiting and retaining the very best talent
is bedrock critical. A robust economy only makes the challenge more
competitive. But the challenge never goes away, no matter what shape
the economy or a specific market is in at any given time.
intellectual capital, knowledge, wisdom, and loyalty that employees
choose to bring with them to work make or break companies today.
The consequences of poor human capital policies are often swift
have no greater task than to support and nurture the development
of human capital—and that means giving people what they need to
exciting technologies now drive the methods and speed of everything.
We need to be ever more mindful that constantly improving innovation,
performance, and productivity comes down to people and what they
know, what they share, what they have learned, and what they choose
to do with what they know.
the key to gaining people’s loyalty, trust, focus, priorities, engagement,
and commitment comes from culture, values, and beliefs, plus management
and leadership practices. In order to increase the productivity
and effectiveness of employees, we need to develop strong emotional
connections between employees and the enterprise…from the first
day on the job.
constant realities in the everyday life of all our enterprises require
us to redesign our employee orientation and management development
programs. Most enterprises try to make them better, and we also
constantly seem to be gearing up for yet another launch or the need
to communicate a new strategy to our employees. Yet these tasks
often rely far too much on deeply engrained training and communications
practices that long ago lost their luster or their power to inspire.
after study tells us that people choose to leave an enterprise because
they could no longer tolerate their immediate manager. Often, that
manager never understood that a major part of their role was to
facilitate learning, knowledge sharing, knowledge creation, and
continual innovation across the organization—all integral to weaving
the fabric of emotional connection and continuous learning.
compensation is fair (or close), what most employees want is a positive
answer to these questions: “Can I grow here? Will I be able to learn
what I need to know to be effective and competitive? Will I be able
to learn all the time, any time, everywhere while I am engaged in
the work of this company? Am I encouraged to learn from others?
If I share what I know, will others share with me?”
all comes down to learning, an organization’s ecology, and the supports
in place for continuous learning in work.
recruitment and retention are the visible critical tasks, building
continuous, pervasive, everywhere, all the time learning into work
practices is the key new challenge for healthy enterprises. Integrating
learning seamlessly into work practices is less visible, less understood,
and less spoken about. Nonetheless, it is the foundation for all
we do to support and nurture the human capital that people bring
to their work in order to remain engaged and committed. Doing this
well, day by day, adds strategic and tactical value all along the
Was It Not Ever
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. The
new realities demand a deep understanding and belief in the ways
people actually and naturally learn, and to act based on that understanding,
day by day.
line: The manager’s core work in this new economy is to create
and support a work environment that nurtures continuous learning.
Doing this well moves us closer to having an advantage in the never-ending
search for talent.
if this was ever the case, our organizations rarely give this need
for continuous learning the attention it deserves. Now, more than
ever before, it’s an imperative, and will be so for the duration.
lay out below some of the principles that I believe should influence
managers and leaders as they explore their new roles and responsibilities
in the New Economy. I believe these principles can help us breed
the innovation, loyalty, trust and unbridled creativity that will
make all the difference in our competitive world. I originally wrote
parts of this essay as a contribution for Jim Botkin’s 1999 book,
Business. With the never-ending competition for talent
firmly in mind, I decided to revisit the issues I raised in that
essay and want to share with you expanded and updated reflections
based on nearly three years of additional practice and observation.
sheer force of habit, we often substitute training for real learning.
Managers often think training leads to learning or, worse, that
training is learning. But people do not really learn with
classroom models of training that happen episodically. These models
are only part of the picture. Asking for more training is definitely
not enough—it isn’t even close. Seeing the answer as “more training”
often obscures what’s really needed: lifelong, continuous learning
in work and at work.
Institute for Research on Learning (IRL) has focused on the research and design
of learning, in all its facets, to create effective learning. IRL
has done this work in a highly iterative participatory design approach
with myriad partners, both for K-12 schools and for the world of
work. In the area of workplace learning—my focus here—this work
has been conducted in a deeply collaborative and interactive model
for research and design with lots of partners and customers, mostly
from the corporate world. Those partners have included Xerox, Hughes,
Hewlett Packard, Sun Microsystems, Zurich Financial, State Farm
Insurance, Nynex, Motorola, and Steelcase, among others. Out of
all IRL’s projects, a set of enduring principles of learning evolved
that have been consistently recognized as important.
to “Communities of Practice”
after IRL’s founding in 1987 by a generous multiyear grant from
the Xerox Foundation, IRL began to closely examine various models
of apprenticeship. IRL discovered that apprenticeship is actually
quite widespread, is usually deemed to be successful, and—very importantly—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.
of that early work, IRL researchers, beginning with Etienne Wenger
and Jean Lave, developed a term and concept, “Communities of Practice,”
that has now gained recognition and encouraging acceptance in the
learning literature. The Institute is proud to have coined the term,
to see it spread, and to work with myriad partners on practical
applications of the concept.
of practice are simply those highly informal groups of people who
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. They don’t appear on the
“org charts,” but this largely invisible informal but cohesive network
of people 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.
an organization knows is what’s embedded in and among its communities
of practice. Recently, much has been made in the business literature
of statements like “if company X only knew what it knows,” referring
to the difficulty of capturing what many individuals know. We have
come to understand that much of what any of us knows 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 wellspring of what
the organization really knows.
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. The
other main limitation of traditional classroom training is that
it is episodic and mostly relies on “push” (we want you to know
this now) rather than “pull” (I need to know this now and am ready
to learn it).
dimension to the community idea is seldom discussed, but critically
important: Learning is powerfully driven by the critical link between learning and identity. We most often
learn with and through others.
we choose to learn depends on:
Who we are
Who we want to become
Which communities we wish to join or remain part
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.
it gets even more interesting: IRL studies, among others, have shown
that as much as 70% of all organizational learning is informal.
Everyday, informal learning is constant and everywhere. If this
insight is true even in a bare majority of enterprises, why would
we leave so much learning to sheer chance?
those social dimensions of learning are as powerful and enduring
as they appear to be—and much work (by IRL and others) 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, typical
instructor-led classroom training alone does not even come close
to addressing the challenge.
extensive fieldwork, IRL developed seven Principles of Learning
that provide important guideposts for organizations. These are not
“Tablets from Moses.” 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.
Learning is fundamentally social. While learning
is about the process of acquiring knowledge, it actually encompasses
a lot more. Successful learning is often socially constructed and
can require slight changes in one’s identity, which make the process
both challenging and powerful.
Knowledge is integrated in the life of
communities. When we develop and share values, perspectives,
and ways of doing things, we create a community of practice.
Learning is an act of participation.
The motivation to learn is the desire to participate in a community
of practice, to become and remain a member. This is a key dynamic
that helps explain the power of apprenticeship and the attendant
tools of mentoring and peer coaching.
Knowing depends on engagement in practice. We often glean knowledge from observation of, and
participation in, many different situations and activities. The
depth of our knowing depends, in turn, on the depth of our engagement.
Engagement is inseparable
from empowerment. We perceive our identities in terms of our
ability to contribute and to affect the life of communities in which
we are or want to be a part.
Failure to learn is often
the result of exclusion from participation. Learning requires
access and the opportunity to contribute.
We are all natural lifelong
learners. All of us, no exceptions. Learning is a natural part
of being human. We all learn what enables us to participate in the
communities of practice of which we wish to be a part.
an IRL trustee, Paul Allaire, Chairman 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 appropriate some
new eyeglasses and see through the new lenses that the above principles
provide. The challenge for each of us is to put on these new eyeglasses
and look through them at the realities we face every day.
Communities of Practice,
examples in practice that IRL team members have observed:
These principles help us understand why kids on a
street corner can learn to run all the complex aspects of an illegal
drug business but, somehow, cannot learn math in school. Their identity
is wrapped up in the first venture; their engagement absent from
The seven principles also help us understand why
co-location alone does not necessarily help a software team “cohere”
and learn together. If its members have not developed a community
out of which a new practice develops, no amount of physical or organizational
rearranging will make a difference.
When a new technology requires both sales and service
teams to learn “the new stuff” well and faster, it may not be enough
to gain the knowledge; it may also require a change or shift in
professional identity in order to succeed with customers or other
When a well-designed business process or a new system
fails in its implementation, it may be because developing new practices,
based upon a whole community’s understanding of the old ones and
its limitations, was not part of the strategy.
these examples make clear that training is not equal to learning.
These examples 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 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 informal work community.
of Practice: The Manager’s New Core Work
does all this mean for those who are in positions of coaching, shaping,
managing, and leading in the world of our new economy?
The new work of managers and leaders is all about
creating the enabling conditions for continuous learning, best done
by supporting the informal communities in which it most effectively
happens. That requires less control, more listening, more facilitation,
more brokering and linking of resources and people to one another.
It also demands support for policies and practices that—without
the benefit of seeing through the fresh lenses of the seven principles—may
not appear to be “efficient” or cost justified.
accomplish the above, managers will also need to shift their focus,
perhaps changing their own identities as well. The shift needs to
From teaching and training to coaching, mentoring,
brokering, and ultimately continuous learning
From selling only products to learning from customers
From an infatuation with building innovative pilot
projects—which seldom cross community boundaries—to building on
existing pockets of innovation with explicit support to expand and
spread what’s already working
From “delivery” as the operative term to natural
“construction” and “spread” of ideas and innovations.
all boils down to some eternal truths, which many of our corporations
and other enterprises need to remember or to learn for the first
Listening, observing, and understanding that existing
practices and informal communities—and a tenacious commitment to
engage—is a prerequisite to effective management, and the management
and nurturing of change.
Thinking of the whole environment in which learning
needs to take place—the culture and the facilities, as well as the
professional and intellectual aspects—as we design and enable continuous
Facilitating greater, richer opportunities for those
with whom we work. It is necessary to learn through the communities
that already exist. Learning across communities and from one another
requires special support and deep understanding.
Supporting every opportunity for learning—and honoring
the power of informal learning—is absolutely essential.
Taking risks, making mistakes, and quickly and routinely
learning from them. Remember the eternal truth of healthy organizations:
“It is far better to seek forgiveness than to ask for permission.”
Also, to quote David Kelley, founder of the Palo Alto award-winning
design firm, IDEO: “Fail early in order to succeed sooner.”
these habits of mind and of practice part of organizational culture
is key to building and sustaining a healthy learning organization.
What Do We Do Differently
that understand these principles rely on the power of informal learning
as well as the reality of formal learning, through a rich blend
challenge for our leaders today is to exquisitely craft and support
a hybrid/blended learning strategy. It needs to seamlessly integrate
instructor-led training, elearning, peer mentoring, peer coaching,
games, storytelling, learning maps, and simulations, intensive interactivity,
relationship building, and community building. It can then convey
an organization’s history, context, culture, values, beliefs, and
challenges in addition to creating the learning foundation for all
that will come to be learned day by day. With the same rich hybrid
blend of learning tools, we can create the transparency and authenticity
needed for employees to emotionally tie themselves to the enterprise
and what it represents. When this is done well, knowledge acquisition,
knowledge sharing, knowledge creation, and continuous innovation
cannot be far behind.
example: Storytelling. One of the values of exemplary corporate
learning strategies today lies in its reliance on the power of storytelling
to create authenticity and powerful connectedness to the company
early on. Through a multi-media experience that shares stories,
told by a wide range of diverse employees, a story unfolds that
engages rather than simply “tells.” The best examples build connectedness
to the organization early through the power of multi-media and then
use hands-on discovery oriented interactive team-building techniques
to create and sustain engagement and commitment. This approach creates
high retention and commitment through a learning perspective that
relies, again, on the “pull” (need, want, desire) from the learner,
versus a “push” (should have now, deliver, force feed) from the
instructor. This approach to telling the story of a company—its
history, business context, values, beliefs and aspirations—helps
new recruits see the company through the deeply human eyes of the
people who ARE the company. Through these powerful messages and
images, the learner comes to develop an understanding of the key
insights with others, gaining a shared context and transparency
early and maintaining that approach throughout the learning journey.
number of companies, such as Charles Schwab, Levi Strauss, and Sun
Microsystems with the help of learning firms such as San Francisco-based
Design Media, Inc. are making authentic story-telling an integral
part of their learning strategies, especially for orientation when
the challenge of gaining commitment and emotional connection is
greatest. Other companies, including Xerox, State Farm, Zurich Financial
Services and Motorola have embraced the IRL Learning Principles
in their learning strategies, with the initial help of IRL and now
with the help of an IRL professional services firm spin off, the
Strategic Practices Group, also based in San Francisco.
After the first orientation
sessions, we cannot rely on great learning events in the classroom
or on the computer screen. Activities such as tours, check in meetings,
informal lunches, and peer coaching are integrated into an “after
burn” strategy that keeps the learning ongoing, centered, and growing.
As a result, new relationships develop and communities of practice
are nurtured as new members join in a cognitive apprenticeship model.
principles, tools, techniques, and their implications are essential
foundations. They help all of us cope, survive, grow, and thrive
in this exciting, brave, and scary world of the New Economy.
we do not pay attention to this 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.”
Peter Henschel is Executive Director
Emeritus of the Institute
for Research on Learning (whose operations are now mostly part
of San Francisco-based WestEd).
He serves as a retained advisor and consultant for companies building
or renewing corporate universities and learning programs, both adult
and K12, and eLearning companies. He is a frequent national and international
speaker on issues of learning, management development, innovation,
human capital, and organizational health. Reach him directly at email@example.com.
author expresses his gratitude for all of the work and insights
of IRL and its people that informed his perspective in this essay.
of this essay were originally published in “Smart
Business: How Knowledge Communities Can Revolutionize Your Company,”
by Dr. Jim Botkin, published in June 1999 by The Free Press, an
imprint of Simon & Schuster.
for Research on Learning (IRL)
is a highly respected Silicon Valley based international interdisciplinary
R&D learning research and design center that merged its operations
into San Francisco-based WestEd
in April 2000.
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