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
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
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
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 journey.
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
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
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.
Practice, In 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 latter.
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 technicians.
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
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
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
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 on Monday?
that understand these principles rely on the power of informal
learning as well as the reality of formal learning, through a
rich blend of techniques.
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.