At a recent meeting with innovation leaders from several global public companies, we asked those leaders: What should we be teaching our MBA students?
The overwhelming response was that we should be teaching our students “how to learn.” They elaborated that knowing how to learn meant knowing how to continually learn in environments characterized by high velocity change, uncertainty and ambiguity.
Globalization and technology are the primary drivers of the change those business leaders are now experiencing. The likelihood is that the speed of change will accelerate over the next 10 years because of the advance of technology — smarter robots, artificially intelligent smart machines, the Internet of Things, additive manufacturing, nanotechnology and more. Technology will eventually take over most business tasks and functions that don’t involve complex critical thinking, innovative thinking or high emotional engagement and social intelligence — all of which require high-level cognitive and emotional capabilities.
All of us are learners. But are we really good critical and innovative thinkers? Have we developed our emotional and social intelligences to the high level needed that we can manage our emotions to increase our learning and the effectiveness of our learning conversations? Do we really know how to learn?
The science of learning informs us that most of us are suboptimal learners. Cognitively, we generally are reflexive fast thinkers, operating most of the time on autopilot, selectively processing information that confirms what we already know. Our natural way of thinking is to be a “confirmation thinker.” Neuroscience tells us that our emotions are integrally intertwined in most of our cognitive processing. Rationality is a myth. Emotionally, we are generally “defensive thinkers” seeking to defend our self-image and our views of the world. That is our humanness.
Knowing how to learn requires us to rise above that humanness. That requires that we manage our thinking and emotions and rigorously use best thinking and collaborating processes. That means we need to “listen to learn” as opposed to listening to confirm what we believe. We need to reach the point where we feel insecure about not having our thinking or work product critiqued or challenged in contrast to feeling insecure if it is challenged or critiqued. We need to view collaboration as a learning process, not as a competition to see who has the right answer or best idea. Knowing how to learn requires one to be comfortable not knowing. Only then can you be open minded to learning.
Knowing how to learn also requires one to be in the right work environment. Bridgewater Associates, W.L. Gore & Associates and Pixar Animated Studios all have created such learning environments with cultures and processes that help their employees continuously learn. Those cultures fight the big learning inhibitors: complacency, close mindedness, fear of failure or looking bad, intellectual arrogance and emotional defensiveness. They can be characterized as emotionally positive people-centric cultures that result in a trusting safe environment where people can be candid, authentic and vulnerable with permission to speak freely without regard to rank and with permission to fail within proscribed financial parameters.
Only then will one feel safe enough to face the unknown, admit what one does not know and have the courage to explore and experiment until one finds the best evidenced-based answer.
Edward D. Hess is professor of business administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden School of Business and the author of the new book, “Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization.” He is the faculty leader of the Darden Executive Education Program: “Learning: The Key to Individual and Organizational Innovation,” May 17, 2015.
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