I’ve had this rattling around in my brain for a while now. It began when the question was asked – why would a learning designer research organisational learning? – and grew as I found myself adapting and evolving the way that I was working as a co-creative act between my research and my professional self. Despite containing the same word, learning design (as an educational discipline) and organisational learning exist as quite separate disciplines and this caused me some level of angst at first because it felt quite natural to me to go in this direction and I couldn’t understand why the worlds were kept so separate. Now, though, with a complexity frame of reference (Byrne, 2014), I understand that it’s not about trying to reconcile things and make them less separate, but about exploring the space between, the tensions and interactions and agency, and what can emerge from that space.

In trying to capture some of this space between-ness to communicate to others, I not-quite-intentionally started using the term ‘organisational learning design’. And so this, now, is the beginning of a conversation, unpacking this term and mapping the shape of emergence.

To begin, I should map the convergence of the threads of thinking and literature that led to this point: organisational learning, individual learning, and an ongoing narrative about the agency and role of learning designers framed around change.

Organisational learning

The conceptualisation of an organisation as an entity that learns is a long-established discipline and body of literature, yet its concepts and scholars seem largely absent from the sector discourse on higher education, change and the role of the university. Universities are often portrayed in the organisational learning literature as counter-examples (Lipshitz, Friedman & Popper, 2006; Gibbons et al, 1994) – organisations that certainly, and ironically, do not learn in any kind of effective sense.

There is ample opportunity and potential benefit to beginning to talk about applying (as distinct from theorising) organisational learning concepts in higher education institutions – but the traditionally identified experts in this domain, academics in the organisational learning discipline, have very little agency in this regard as they are compelled to function as an academic discipline. So the question becomes – if not them, who? The natural answer to this question that most would default to is that it would be the responsibility of university leadership, to employ organisational learning knowledge to ‘do change well’.

Goldstein, Hazy and Lichtenstein (2010), in their complexity-informed concept of generative leadership, emphasise that leadership should not be conceptualised as existing in the traits of a particular individual, but rather the events that emerge in the space between individuals. The idea that everyone has agency to generate acts of leadership through their interactions in the complex system of the university is key to the concept of ‘organisational learning design’ that I am exploring here, but is a radical departure from how we talk about leadership in higher education contexts.

Another key concept in this domain is systems thinking (Senge, 1990; Meadows, 2008, Banathy, 1999) – the ability to conceptualise all the complex parts of a system beyond linear cause and effect, and understand the whole as greater than the sum of its parts, is key to understanding how organisations work. While it may not always be conscious or explicit, learning design is fundamentally a systems thinking role and this way of thinking is no foreign territory to us.

As a side note, I do want to disambiguate here from the idea of ‘designing a learning organisation’ – a well-established concept in the literature and in HR/executive practice. It is not my intention to hijack this work and hopefully my point of divergence will become clear as we go along..

Individual learning

Individual learning is a necessary condition for organisational learning, organisations being made up of individuals as they are (eg Argyris & Schön, 1978; Antonacopolou 2006; Lipshitz, Friedman & Popper; Kim 1998). However, as Antonacopolou (2006) points out, ‘learning’ as a concept in organisations is generally conceptualised as transmissive training. And shifting the concept of learning from didactic and transmissive models to constructivist, learner-centred models is something the learning design profession (and its kin academic development, instructional design, educational design and so on) has done for years. Unlocking this particular space of agency is more complex than simply applying student-facing pedagogical concepts to staff, but it does shine a light on new pathways.

The concept of ‘learning loops’, the first two of which come from Argyris and Schön (1978) and the third from both Flood and Romm (1996) and Peschl (2007), are concerned with going beyond a content- or problem-focused ‘what’ and asking questions of ‘how’ and ‘why’ we do things. Although it may not be conscious, this is a space frequently inhabited by the learning designer when creating learning experiences and particularly when engaging in partnership work with academic teaching staff.

Also relevant here are boundary-spanning concepts like heutagogy (Hase & Kenyon, 2013) and learnership (Cooksey, 2003) that talk about ways to reconceptualise individual learning in an organisational context, that speak fairly naturally to a learning design frame of reference.

Learning design and change agency

For a while now there has been ongoing narratives both in the literature and in the sector community around the role of a learning designer and what, if any, agency learning designers might have as change agents. Ramos-Torrescano (2017) takes the line of a ‘stealth change agent’; Campbell, Schwier & Kenny (2005) talk about ‘agents of social change’ and Debowski (2014) presents a slightly different view of ‘partners in arms’ that has similarities with a complexity frame of reference. All three perspectives frame learning design as a potential fertile ground for facilitating institutional change – what Senge (1990) might refer to as a ‘high-leverage’ change point.

Alongside this is the third space narrative, where people (such as learning designers) who work in the space between academic and professional staff have significant agency and potential in the change space due to a freedom from the expectations of academic and administrative positions (Bath and Smith, 2004; Whitchurch, 2008).

Outside of the learning design and third space domain, others hint at similar agency expressed in different ways – Cooksey (2011) refers to an emergent boundary-spanning role of a ‘knowledge broker’ (if you think of R&DOs as central or strategic initiatives in universities and faculties as intended adopters, the rest of the analogy writes itself), and Hargadon (2002) describes an innovation process that will be quite familiar to many learning designers.

Working at the nexus – organisational learning design

As I found myself naturally beginning to synthesise my research into my work and intentionally approach the act of learning design with an organisational learning perspective, so many things began to crystallise for me and I finally could see why there are systemic frustrations in trying to effect change at a siloed individual level, and understand why universities behave in the often infuriating ways that they do. And systems thinking, learning loops and a complexity frame of reference gave me the language and strategy to begin to design ways forward. I began to ask questions about why we are working the way we do and how can we do and think differently, intentionally designing different ways to say things or create things or do things, poking conversations into systems perspectives and double and triple loop domains.

Which is the nuts and bolts of the thing emerging in my head – that learning designers have considerable agency to effect meaningful change by intentionally designing generative leadership events in their interactions, by bringing their existing skill sets to bear in a new dimension of organisational learning. In other words, organisational learning design.

‘Yes but what would an organisational learning designer actually do??’ I hear you ask. The answer ‘I am not sure’ is probably rather disappointing but becoming okay with the discomfort of ambiguity and the unknown is the crux of the thing. My intention isn’t to dictate any sort of definition but to invite people into an explorational space between with me – could this be a thing? What could emerge if we play with it?

I haven’t determined yet if this is something that factors significantly into my PhDI program, or if it’s something to be explored outside of it, but either way I am excited by the possibilities of a new space between and what might emerge with collective exploration.

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Research update #55: 10 months later | Screenface · September 14, 2019 at 11:12 pm

[…] someone I’ve been fortunate to know in the sector for a few years now has started her PhD on learning design, but for organisations. I think what I admire most about practitioner driven research is that it has a tight focus on […]

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