Working in constant change requires ongoing learning – that’s obvious enough. However, does the learning in your organisation truly reflect the current information available and are you responding appropriately?
There are many approaches for understanding the way we learn. With regard to organisational learning, developmental psychologist Jean Piaget’s definitions of ‘assimilation’ and ‘accommodation’ might be useful (at least my understanding of them!).
- Assimilation – new information fits the learner’s existing understanding of ‘the way things work’. S/he is able to impose her/his existing ‘order’ on things – often adjusting the new information to suit expectations or perspectives and thereby confirming her/his view of the world. The information is usually seen as non-threatening or low risk.
- Accommodation –When new information conflicts with existing schemas (how s/he thinks the world works), s/he will either reject it or try to accommodate it. Rejecting the information maintains the status quo in the short term but might lead to serious problems in the longer term. On the other hand, to accommodate the new information the learner will undergo an internal structural change in her/his beliefs, ideas, attitudes and/or expectations. This process of adaptation temporarily loosens her/his sense of control. This can clearly be a threat to an existing way of doing things and therefore one’s sense of safety/security.
Translating Piaget’s awareness to our organisations raises interesting and important questions. As a group we are usually quite good at assimilating the odd bit of new information that fits our existing schema / culture / expectations. However, the reality is that we are working in constant change and we need to process new information on an ongoing basis. How do we ensure that we have an ongoing, accurate understanding of this new information – particularly when our organisation is undergoing constant change itself? How can we ‘convert’ this information to knowledge and know-how as a group when our current biases and expectations are unclear?
Even more challenging is what happens when we are faced with information that we don’t agree with or is in conflict with our beliefs and our way of doing things. How do we know we can afford to ignore it? What happens if we decide the information is accurate and we need to re-evaluate our beliefs and expectations as a group? How does this happen? At what risk? More importantly, how does this happen quickly and effectively to ensure that our responses are timely and appropriate?
I don’t think there are any easy answers – this is hard enough to deal with as an individual! However, as always, we need to start with awareness……