Move Organizations Forward

Human Performance Technology, including instructional design and performance consulting, is an outgrowth of applying research on how we perform and learn to the design of our approaches. This goes beyond just designing instruction and job aids, as I started off my posts by saying. It’s about aligning our organizations with how we think, work, and learn. This actually comprises a wide variety of phenomena, influenced by a rich suite of theories. Without claiming that this is by any means a complete inventory, I thought I’d review some organizational errors, and theories that can and should throw some light. The goal is to look for ways to move organizations forward.

On a walk to downtown, I started thinking about the myriad ways in which what organizations do isn’t aligned with how we think, work, and learn. As they occurred to me, rather than jot them down I just dictated them into my phone for cleaning up later. While only a few came at first, as I walked I just looked around for inspiration, and more came. Ultimately, I had a pretty rich list!  For your dining pleasure:

  • Personality assessments: the array of instruments that are flogged and used for things like hiring, but are questionable at best
  • Quarterly reviews: (or half yearly, or even worse yearly, these are shown to harm outcomes
    Brainstorming sessions: while these can be good, they do need to be conducted properly (and aren’t)
  • Conflating leadership with management: it’s easy, and wrong to think that managing is what’s meant by leadership
  • Wrong incentives: too often we’ve seen bad outcomes by rewarding a very narrow factor of behavior that has unintended consequences
  • Open plan and hot seating: which is fine once in a while, but people need different types of spaces at different times (and having your own space matters)
  • Not valuing diversity: diversity helps, but too often it’s lip-service (at beast) instead of true recognition
  • Lack of time for reflection: yet people perform better when there’s a fair time expectation
  • Not coupling psychological safety with accountability: not having psychological safety itself is a problem, but recognizing that it properly complements accountability is necessary too
  • Bad compliance training: focusing on CYA (cover your assets) instead of actually making an impact (and measuring by time instead of capability)
  • Stifling innovation: putting hard return on expectations instead of recognizing the need for tolerating failure
  • Oversimplification of business concepts like design thinking: thinking that it’s just about ’empathy’ for instance, it’s easy to pick and choose and miss nuances
  • Short term focus: at all times, instead of balancing long term and short term issues
  • Bad design processes: using waterfall, misusing agile, not allowing for iteration and testing, leading of course to bad designs
  • Business silos: having folks not communicating effectively across the organization, or even worse having cross-silo conflict
  • Lack of process support: not recognizing that much of our cognition is distributed, not all in our heads
  • Inadequate representations: similarly, not ensuring that we have rich ways to collaboratively create understandings
  • Policies that restrict communication: whether it’s an ‘executive lunchroom’ or other practices that prevent information flowing
  • Lack of self-awareness: not having ways to check on your own limitations
  • Lack of meta-processes: not having ways to reflect on processes regularly
  • Lack of mentoring and coaching: keeping folks from one of the most powerful development approaches.

This list obviously isn’t ordered and sorted, but the fact that I was able to generate so many so quickly suggests that organizations are perhaps a wee bit dysfunctional. Of course, not all organizations have all these problems, but most orgs are probably suffering from several. Further, this just comes from my eclectic explorations, not a systematic survey of organizational gaps. (Any pointers?)

The sad thing is, we have a rich suite of results that mean we can and should be doing better. Granted, they’re coming across fields (again, my idiosyncratic interests), so some might come from cognitive psychology, or sociology. Others come from design, or organizational development, or behavioral economics. (Interestingly, all might be considered part of cognitive science.) Still, there’re a wide variety of resources we can, and should, be looking to:

  • Basic cognition, ala the human information processing system (e.g. what I cover in my Learning Science book).
  • Post-cognitivism, incorporating sources as broad as Andy Clark’s situated cognition, Ed Hutchin’s distributed cognition, embodied cognition, and more. E.g. as captured in Annie Murphy Paul’s book The Extended Mind. Also Daniel Kahneman, e.g. Thinking Fast and Slow.
  • The design work of Don Norman across books like The Design of Everyday Things and The Invisible Computer.
  • Motivation, ala Deci & Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory.
  • Learning organizations, such as Amy Edmondson and colleagues have documented.
  • Research on a wide variety of such topics from the Learning Guild, e.g. personality.
  • Jennifer Mueller’s research on innovation in Creative Change.
  • Leadership, as Matt Richter reviews in The Leadership Story.

The list goes on (I’ve got shelves full of references!)…

Beyond formal learning, most organizational work, particularly as we move from manual labor to knowledge work, is based upon people. How they work alone, together, and how they continue to improve. There is research that guides this, but much of our business practices come from the Industrial Age. Moving to the Information Age implies some important shifts. We can get there, but we’ll get there faster by being aware, and being committed to improving things So, are you ready to help move organizations forward?

5 thoughts on “Move Organizations Forward

  1. Hi, Clark. You’ve offered a compelling call to move from merely providing learning and guidance (job aid) solutions to embracing more opportunities to improve organizational performance in ways that clients value.

    Liked by 1 person

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