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Learning at Work: Not Just for Youth Apprentices

By Mandana Nakhai | Development & Research Manager, CareerWise

Implementing Organizational Learning to CareerWise and Systems Change

We will never transform the prevailing system of management without transforming our prevailing system of education. They are the same system.” – W. Edwards Deming

Deming, one of the leading thinkers on organizational management, believed the approach individuals take to learning influences both their academic success and their contributions at work. A mentality that the primary purpose of learning is to meet existing expectations, whether of a teacher or supervisor, can start in classrooms and be reinforced at work. Both school and work become sites for compliance, rather than taking the risks of generating, creating, solving problems and introducing new concepts and ideas.

At CareerWise, we couldn’t agree more with the premise that productive linkages between education and industry are required for both to fulfill their true potential. We’ve seen that youth apprenticeship helps individuals and organizations develop their capacity for learning in ways that benefit both workplaces and classrooms. CareerWise also believes that without continuous inquiry, we risk missing opportunities to innovate, improve, and ultimately, better address the problems we are here to solve. In a space as potential-filled and provocative as apprenticeship, there is no “business as usual” to fall back on. To build something new amidst entrenched systems, it is up to us to identify and answer the key questions that guide when, where, and how we apply our resources.

Continuous learning is one of CareerWise’s core values; we acknowledge doing it well requires resisting the strong pull toward urgency and reactivity. Instead, we seek to consistently apply diligence and persistence in our efforts to learn, along with a healthy dose of patience.

Becoming a learning organization is a perpetual effort, and, like many of the more important things in life, the exciting change is to be found along the journey, not just at the end. We aim to share our process transparently as it unfolds, as well as the expertise we’re drawing from.

Now, we’re evolving toward centering our learning practice on the exploratory efforts of “fundamental learning units” — teams comprised of curious individuals who rely on one another for outcomes — based on models that Peter Senge writes about in the field-defining work on organizational learning, The Fifth Discipline. When teams are collaboratively learning together, they more easily see how their actions create their realities, and, critically, the specific powers they hold to change them.

How does a team or organization take ownership of reality to such an extent that it can create change? Senge suggests developing three core capabilities, each one leg of a stool, and all three are needed to enable effective organizational learning:

  • fostering aligned purpose and vision
  • holding reflective, generative conversations
  • and understanding systems and complexity 

To learn together—both internally at CareerWise and across the systems of education and industry—we must first all be able to articulate what we’re working toward and why, to see ourselves within the larger systems that influence the problems we seek to solve, and then dig deep into challenges through dialogue—a dialogue that creates and connects rather deepens the silos that have evolved to date.

Through efforts like strategic planning, refining our theory of change and conducting regular case studies on our work, we are building these capabilities. Yet, we have more to do at CareerWise to make our learning practice strategic, embedded and inclusive.

In forthcoming updates, we’ll explore the disciplines that Senge suggests organizations practice to build up their core capabilities. We’ll also explore tactical ingredients for organizational learning, and how we’re putting them into practice.

Before we do, though, we will emphasize that our people are the core of this effort. They are the key change agents within our system of organizational learning, and their desire to learn is the engine that powers the whole. Learning is existential — to us as individuals, and to our work as an organization.