Social learning is how work gets redesigned in the network era

Jon Husband referred me to a 2005 paper by Martin Weisbord, Techniques to Match our Values (PDF) that discusses the shifts in approaches to work design over the past century, from scientific management, to socio-technical redesign, to “whole system in a room”. The paper is a must-read for anyone involved in organizational design & development. Weisbord shows that even large group, participatory redesign efforts may not be good enough to deal with the rapid environmental changes all organizations face today in a networked world.

No matter what strategies we choose, if we organization designers want job satisfaction, we still are stuck with finding techniques equal to our values. Techniques cascade down the generations like Niagara Falls. Values move like glaciers. Techniques fill whole bookshelves. Values take up hardly space room at all. I can still say mine in eight words: Productive workplaces that foster dignity, meaning and community.

In the intervening years since Weisbord wrote this paper describing his whole system in a room technique,  there has been one major change – the room is virtual and it is almost immeasurable. This change has the potential to involve everyone in the constant process of organizational redesign. Social learning can help organizations address rapid and constant organizational change, and get people committed. As Weisbord states, “Nobody has yet figured out how to commit people to organizational designs, even very good ones, over which they have no influence.” Social learning, facilitated by transparency, work narration and shared power, keeps everyone involved in organizational redesign, through ongoing conversations. John Kellden clearly shows the value of social learning, in The 11 Conversations: it’s return on engagement.

11 conversations by John Kellden

Weisbord’s conclusion tells us that we have to work on these things together.

I can tell you right now, though, what the future holds: unpredictable change. All we have to work with is our own experience . The learning curve belongs to all of us.

But for once, we have the technologies that can help enable this.

social learning is how work gets doneSocial learning is also how work gets redesigned in the network era.

4 Responses to “Social learning is how work gets redesigned in the network era”

  1. Martin Couzins

    Hi Harold, really enjoyed your post. Just wanted to pick up on the image you use to describe apprenticeship vs training vs social learning. The image suggests that apprenticeship learning is not social. Is this the case? I had always felt that apprenticeship learning is social and networked (if only on a small scale) and is at the root of how we learn and share. Thought this article on cognitive apprenticeship is useful:

    • Harold Jarche

      Yes, apprenticeship was social, but it did not scale and was not networked. Apprenticeship was also completely dependent on being accepted by a master. Social learning enables many more connections, as well as easier peer to peer learning. The image tries to convey the dominate models of work & workplace learning for their times.

  2. Ara Ohanian

    Harold, I totally agree with your final point here, social learning is not only how work is done today but also how we continually redesign and develop that work. Technology has enabled us finally to learn and work in ways that are natural. The challenge is for management and organizational structures is to catch up.


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