Lifelong Learning for Business: A Global Perspective

by Dee Dickinson

In recent years humanity has been surfing through times of unparalleled challenge for both individuals and organizations. Regressive undertows try to pull the world back into calmer waters, but there are no quiet pools. Tidal waves of change engulf every country causing social, educational, ecological, political, scientific, and economic revolutions for better or worse, and bringing in deluges of new information, along with new technology to communicate and process it. Such acceleration of change necessitates flexibility, the ability to learn and unlearn and relearn, and a willingness to experiment and take risks. Many of the increasingly complex problems of today’s world have no solutions in textbooks, databases, or authority figures. Furthermore, in nearly every community and in every country throughout the world there has never been such diversity of people–from different cultural, racial, social, economic, and educational backgrounds and consequently with very different ways of learning, thinking, and behaving.

As a result, it is essential to find new ways of communicating and working together to confront the problems that threaten the lives of human beings, countries, even the planet itself. Collaboration of individuals and organizations has become essential. It is critically important to integrate ideas and information– drawing from the wisdom of the past and combining it with new findings drawn from studies in human and organizational development, from science and technology, and from the rapidly changing history of our own times. Nearly all the problems we face today are the result of human decisions. Most of the current crises in the world have been created by the human mind- -and the solutions lie there as well. Nothing on earth is as complex as the human brain/mind system–nothing offers such hope for the future.

Today I would like to discuss both human beings and organizations as whole systems that can profit from what is currently known about the human mind and human development–and that can use this information to function effectively in a global marketplace. I believe that the combined work of key researchers can offer insights for educators in all settings.

At birth we have most of the neurons we will ever have–hundreds of billions of them. And yet the human brain grows another two-thirds in size and weight. As the brain grows, cell bodies enlarge, glial or supportive and nurturing cells multiply–but most important, new connections are made between neurons. Apparently the more complex this neural network becomes and the more communication links are forged, the better the human mind is able to think, learn, remember, question, problem-solve, and create. It appears that this complex system does not grow by chronological maturation alone.

The work of such neurophysiologists as Dr. Marian Diamond, neuroanatomist at the University of California in Berkeley, has proved that particular environments are most conducive to creating more complex neural networks. They are environments that are nurturing, supportive, stimulating, and offer rich opportunities for interaction and response. Under such circumstances–throughout the lifespan–it is possible for the human brain to continue to grow and develop. Apparently the human brain changes physiologically as a result of learning and experience–for better or worse. Ideal environments and experiences can lead to better mental equipment. On the other hand, impoverished circumstances, lack of nutritious food, love, and stimulation can have detrimental effects on mental development–at any age and in any setting.

The human mind-body system has, however, enormous potential for change. The work of Dr. Reuven Feuerstein, psychologist and director of the International Center for the Enhancement of Learning Potential in Israel, is focused on the modifiability of human intelligence. Beginning his work over forty years ago with retarded individuals from the Holocaust in Europe and from impoverished conditions in North Africa, Feuerstein developed methods to literally teach intelligence.

Many in the psychological establishment still have difficulty recognizing that intelligence is not a static structure that can be measured and given a number which predicts the future of that individual. Rather intelligence has now been proved to be an open, dynamic system that can continue to develop throughout life. This fact has major implications for educational systems both in schools and organizational human resource development programs. Feuerstein’s methods are based on mediated learning that identifies and helps students to build on their strengths. His methods have been used with people of all ability levels from the retarded to the highly gifted, with every age group from infancy to old age, in every setting from homes and classrooms to training centers and board rooms in every country throughout the world. These processes are being applied successfully in industrial training programs throughout France, in such companies as Peugeot and Simca. As a result, last year he was awarded the prestigious presidential medal of honor for his work in teaching thinking and learning skills to workers, managers, and executives.

It is now clear that the future of every human being has more to do with what happens after birth, rather than being determined primarily by genetic factors. The old nature/nurture controversy is now moot in the light of the previously cited research. In addition, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist at the University of Chicago and author of Flow, has been for the last twenty years carrying out a major study on gifted individuals to examine their thinking and behavior, and especially what factors led to their high degree of intelligence. He has found that the most gifted and the happiest individuals–who also experience more “flow” states or “peak experiences” than others– come from families that communicate high expectations and have clear rules, but also offer early opportunities for meaningful choice within a warm, loving, and supportive environment. They are both serious and playful. He calls these “complex” families. He has also found that families that are less warm and openly loving but communicate high expectations and have strong discipline and structure, may also produce gifted individuals, but they are less happy and may be more compulsive and driven. It is likely that schools, universities, adult education, and training programs with these characteristics may produce similar results.

Family and cultural contexts also have a major effect on individual differences in perception, personality, learning styles, and even kinds of intelligence. Current research based on the early work of Dr. Herman Witkin on Field Sensitive and Field Independent learners indicates that these tendencies are strongly related to cultural and early environmental influences. The Field Sensitive, or global, thinkers often have difficulty in educational systems that are geared to more Field Independent, or analytical thinkers. Yet both kinds of thinking–the ability to see the whole picture and to see the details–are essential for different kinds of learning and problem- solving. It now appears that the methods of Feuerstein may develop both kinds of ability. Many teachers and trainers are finding effective ways to reach both kinds of learners in their classrooms–for example, by presenting a written syllabus as well as a visual overview of a course, and by not only lecturing but also engaging students in participative activities and thoughtful dialogue.

Dr. Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences also recognizes diversity by suggesting that people learn not only through verbal and logical- mathematical intelligence (on which most educational systems are focused) but also through visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences. Effective school systems and employee training programs in many countries are broadening their teaching methods to reach more kinds of intelligence. For example, accelerated learning techniques, cooperative learning groups, experiential learning, integrated/thematic curricula, simulations, and the use of interactive, multimedia technology are producing exceptional outcomes related to enhanced comprehension, rate of learning, retention, and the ability to apply what has been learned.

As educational systems throughout the world are reexamining the learning process, there is ongoing debate whether better results will be obtained in environments in which there is primarily “frontal” teaching, effective discipline, and quiet, orderly students in neat rows, or in warmer, more nurturing and interactive environments with more opportunity for creative activities and meaningful choice.

Such studies as those previously cited may well suggest classrooms in which students experience an effective combination of discipline and freedom, are given opportunities to master basic skills and knowledge as well as engage in creative activities, and develop the ability both to follow directions and become independent learners–in a supportive and nurturing environment. In such classrooms the teacher is less authoritative and more a coach or facilitator of learning.

The adult learner it appears also may learn best in such an environment. Dr. Dorothy Billington, developmental psychologist and author of The Emerging Adult, recently completed a study of adult, doctoral students in both traditional university environments and in nontraditional, more open programs. She notes that “as we begin to recognize the need for lifelong learning, we are also beginning to recognize that significant learning and personal development go hand-in-hand. We cannot separate emotions and thoughts.” Billington’s hypothesis was that adults in doctoral programs would experience ego growth, particularly to the extent that their educational experiences were characterized by pacing ( i.e. exceptional intellectual stimulation somewhat beyond their present level of knowledge or achievement) and an emphasis on developing intrinsic locus of control, or self-directed learning. She found, contrary to much of the literature on adult development, that adults can and do experience significant personal growth at mid-life. Furthermore, her study showed “that students tended to experience growth only within the non-authoritarian environment that emphasized self- directed learning, support, mutual trust, and respect,” and that “being forced to accept an external locus of control in more traditional learning environments might well result in an actual decline in ego level.”

Clearly, these studies are of major importance to the planning and practice of education at all levels and in all settings. In order to prepare human beings to be lifelong learners in a world of escalating change and uncertainty, it is essential that they become not just knowledgeable, but as fully intelligent as possible. Dr. Robert Sternberg, Yale University psychologist and author of Beyond I.Q. defines intelligence as “the ability to learn and to apply what has been learned to adapt to the environment, or to modify the environment, or to seek out or create new environments.” This is surely an appropriate constellation for our times, and an increasingly important outcome for students emerging from either preparatory schools or human resource development programs.

As we follow the progression of human development into the adult years, it is perhaps appropriate to recall Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, from food and shelter and other physiological needs, to safety and security, to belonging, to self-esteem and esteem by others, and finally to self- actualization. Maslow suggested that this highest level of human need is also the optimal level of human development. He noted furthermore that preconditions for need satisfaction are challenge, freedom, justice, and orderliness. (Teachers in all settings might profitably take careful note of these conditions.)

Characteristics of self-actualizing human beings include accepting themselves as well as others, having spontaneous but ethical behavior, a strong focus upon problems outside of themselves, the ability to capitalize on the qualities of detachment and solitude, independent stability in the face of hard knocks, freshness of appreciation, a sense of strength and transformation, feelings of identification, sympathy and altruism, profound interpersonal relationships, democratic character structure, strong ethics and moral standards, a philosophical, unhostile sense of humor, creativeness, and the ability to be able to function independently as a part of the “growing tip” of humanity.

It is noteworthy that Maslow believed that 95% of human beings are capable of self-actualization in their older years, but that only one out of a hundred ever achieves it. Since, at the present time, 66% of all men and women over 65 in the history of the world are alive and are the appropriate age to be self-actualizing, perhaps one of the most important questions of our time may be how to foster this level of development in homes, schools, and communities. Indeed there are major social, political, and economic issues at stake.

Self-actualization does not just suddenly begin at the age of 50. Does it begin at birth in the environments that Marian Diamond has described as positive, nurturing, stimulating, and interactive? Is it nurtured in complex families? Is it fostered in complex classroom settings? And is it catalyzed by adult education programs that offer rich opportunities for self-directed learning as well as group learning? Is it nurtured by teachers who guide, consult, and provide supportive feedback in settings that are positive and student-centered?

These questions are serious ones for corporations whose responsibilities today are greater than those reflected in profit and loss. They are, however, questions that will have a powerful effect on financial outcomes. Corporations will also benefit directly from supporting the kinds of “best educational practices” in schools that prepare students to become productive adults. In the U.S., according to the Committee for Economic Development, there are over 140,000 corporate-academic partnerships involving 30,000 elementary and secondary schools.

As corporations take into consideration the diversity of their employees and the acceleration of change in the marketplace, it is apparent that traditional organizations, training methods, and ways of doing business must either adapt to constant change or become proactive in many ways.

As in the human brain, it is the networks and communication links within organizations that make intelligence possible, and that facilitate their becoming learning organizations that are now essential to survival. The Action Learning program of the Swedish Management Institute encourages teamwork and an overall design of learning by reflection on action. Such relatively new ways of teaming and collaborating in small heterogeneous groups result in collective wisdom and group I.Q.’s that are higher than any individual’s within that group.

The I.Q of an organization, itself, is no more fixed than that of human beings, as long as it has a chance to develop within an open system that continues to take in and process new information, applies it, assesses the results of its work, and feeds that information back into the system.

This is, of course, a basic tenet of Deming’s Total Quality Management principles that have led to the first wave of learning organizations. These principles have resulted in bringing about major changes in many large multinational corporations that are recognizing and respecting the individual differences of their employees and are applying that understanding to training, work assignments, and methods of communication. Many are creating supportive, nurturing, and stimulating environments, with the same characteristics as Csikszentmihalyi’s “complex families.” And many are recognizing that learning organizations are staffed best by employees who are both independent learners and collaborative, team-players.

Dr. Malcolm Knowles, author of The Making of an Adult Educator and considered by many to be the father of adult education in the U.S., says, “We must become able not only to transform our institutions in response to changing situations and requirements, we must invent and develop institutions that are “learning systems,” that is to say, systems capable of bringing about their own continuing transformation.”

New community learning centers have major implications for businesses and corporations, and can be such self-transforming organizations that meet the needs of both workers and communities. Take for example the new community learning center being created in the small town of–Iuka, Mississippi, where the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will soon build an Advanced Solid Rocket Motor Plant. In 1990, NASA created a Tri- State Education Initiative to stimulate systemic change in the learning environment over a 9,000 square mile region surrounding this new plant. A visionary architect, Stephen Bingler, is designing multi-use facilities in Iuka that can be used during the day for students of all ages, and throughout the evening and weekends for worker training and retraining. The cafeteria, auditorium, recreational facilities, and information center will be available to the whole community.

In the United Kingdom in the mid-1980s an influential group of businesspeople and educators met to plan a long-term program of educational reform based in a community. Out of their Education 2000 conference came a report that set forth two hypotheses: First that new approaches to the teaching/learning process are now available which are more effective than traditional teaching programs, and second that such approaches to learning would help young people develop a range of skills that are valued in the workplace–such as confidence, personal responsibility, enterprise, and working in groups–as well as the intellectual skills associated with traditional learning.

Out of that report, a project was created to “shift the balance of teaching to learning; to provide a greater variety of learning experiences, and to make clear the responsibility of the learner for active participation in the learning process and for achieving successful outcomes.” According to project director John Abbott, Education 2000 was based on the following principles:

Education is the responsibility of whole communities.
Most learning takes place outside the confines of school.
There is an untold wealth of educational opportunities in human communities.
Information technologies have infinite possibilities.”
In 1986, with funds provided by corporations, all the secondary schools of one town of 35,000 people–Letchworth in Hertfordshire–were able to increase their staffing by 7% for three years. This enabled every teacher to participate in staff development and to work with community leaders to open up “a new model of learning.” Six years into the project, Abbott was able to report that “teacher morale has risen; truancy and drop outs have almost disappeared; pupils are more productively involved in their work; there has been a 300% increase in the number of books taken out of school libraries; and over 700 people a day use the computer conferencing system. Eight other communities in England have now started similar programs.”

Adult education and training programs are also based in many community learning centers that run nearly around the clock. Some are geographically widespread, such as the International Corporate Learning Association, which is composed of ten multinational corporations including ATT, DuPont, Saturn, and the Los Alamos Laboratories. All of them have faced major survival disasters. President Jim Botkin states the mission of the association as “helping its fast-learning members to learn faster and more globally.” He notes that “companies become fast learners when their arrogance disappears.”

Some corporations are learning communities within themselves. An extraordinary example is Microsoft, one of the fastest growing and most successful technology companies in the world. Microsoft is built on the understanding that change is constant. Its philosophy could be summed up in one word: “Succeed,” which is communicated more by example than verbally– in other words, “Just doing it!”

The company seeks out and hires intelligent employees who are independent learners but who can also work collaboratively. Expectations are high and employees are expected to work hard and produce, but the environment is supportive. Work hours are flexible, there is ready, on-line access to information, the environment is beautiful, and opportunities for outside recreation on ball courts or relaxation beside pools and waterfalls are readily accessible. Risk-taking is encouraged, but it is not acceptable to make a mistake twice.

Peter Senge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and author of The Fifth Discipline, suggests that learning organizations are set apart by their openness, systemic thinking, creativity, empathy, and feedback. He calls their learning “generative,” in that it emphasizes continuous experimentation and feedback in an ongoing examination of how they go about defining and solving problems. Senge suggests that “the need for understanding how organizations learn and accelerating that learning is greater today than ever before. . . . The old model, ‘the top thinks and the local acts,’ must now give way to integrating thinking and acting at all levels. While the challenge is great, so is the potential payoff.”

Returning to Sternberg’s definition of intelligence, the higher levels of thinking make it possible for “generative” learning that anticipates the future, whereas, the ability to simply adapt to the environment may not be good enough today. Many if not most organizations are still functioning in this “adaptive” mode.

The result might be the kind of disaster that one multinational corporation experienced over a twenty-year period, during which its consumer electronics business moved from a position of almost global dominance to completely withdrawing from the industry just before what might have been a breakthrough into profitable new ventures in new technologies. Gridlocked by its centralized control and bureaucratic rules, its hierarchical structure, and its short-term financial criteria, this business was unable to compete in the present high-tech world of global competition.

The same parent corporation spent $5 billion to acquire another company in order to make use of its advanced technology. Collaborative thinking could have accomplished the same result with no financial outlay by making some strategic alliances with other companies.

Of all the Fortune 500 companies of twenty years ago, 50% no longer exist. These were companies that had a worldwide market share, the best technology, and adequate capital. What they did not have was a constant flow of new ideas generated by creative minds functioning in an open, receptive environment.

“Generative” companies such as Whirlpool, British Petroleum, and Honda have become gifted learners–open to new ideas, flexible, anticipatory, efficient, and responsive to change. Each of these organizations has found ways to become self-transforming in response to changing needs of their customers, new opportunities, and technological developments. They are characterized by new leadership styles, state of the art technology, and empowered employees functioning in an atmosphere of trust and bound by a common vision.

As an example, in 1987 Whirlpool did a market analysis and came to the conclusion that the U.S. would no longer be the world’s largest market, as a result of expanding markets in Europe and Asia. With its ability to adapt to change, Whirlpool has created a vision of becoming a transnational company. All its senior managers will have global experience by the year 2000, and new international joint ventures have been established in Europe, India, and Mexico. In 1990, Whirlpool produced an international leadership conference in Switzerland to equip managers with better understanding of the characteristics of different cultures. Since that time, fifteen cross- national/cross-functional teams have been formed to create a “one company” culture.

Many of these “generative” companies are excellent examples of organizational “self-actualization” that not only sustains their economic success but creates a better world. They are taking into account both employee and company needs including encouraging ongoing learning, attending to personal welfare, creating a positive environment, and offering health care, flextime, and job-sharing. Security, belonging, self-esteem, and movement towards self-actualization are characteristics that are now essential if individuals, social systems, corporations, countries, and even the planet itself are to survive.

British Petroleum, for example, has implemented an “upward appraisal” system, which makes it possible for employees to give feedback to their managers on a wide range of issues, including culturally related behaviors such as open thinking, personal impact, empowerment, communication skills, and collaboration. BP managers also participate in human resource development programs that include mentorship, job rotation, and internal and external educational experiences.

As another example, it appears that one of the reasons Honda has been so successful is that it encourages employees to express different points of view in decision-making, while at the same time adhering to a common set of values. Employees are kept informed on progress and results, with a consequent remarkable degree of trust and motivation to contribute to the team effort. Honda seeks thinking, creative employees who are eager to continue learning.

“Generative” learning is not a natural outgrowth of traditional educational systems, so it is a challenge for many managers to break out of old mindsets and take the necessary risks to move forward. The astounding worldwide changes that have taken place in recent years, and that have been communicated instantly through global electronic networks, are bringing about revolutions in every human institution.

The America Tomorrow Leadership Information Service (ATLIS) is a computer network focused on building effective collaborations which cross organizational, geographic, and disciplinary lines. It is planned to connect leaders in education, business, and community with each other and with the leading-edge information they need to create a positive future.

Alberto Krygier, president-elect of the World Management Council, noted in a recent address that “science may be creating new frontiers in information technology, new materials, biotechnology, immunology, space exploration, medicine, electronic and agricultural genetics, but political techniques to manage collective problems remain static.” He suggests that “something more than democracy, market economics, and technology is needed.” He says,” I am thoroughly convinced that the most important phenomenon in this period of history is neither the collapse of Communist ideology nor the emergence of a global economy nor the presence of Japan as a decisive world force, but the degree of cultural connectivity in the world today–the dialogue, the exchange of information, and the search for unifying concerns and objectives that is taking place between the cultures of our planet.”

Krieger suggests that management faces six major new challenges in the decade ahead:

The development of an environmental conscience, as business is faced with increasingly more radical tactics from environmentalists.
The promotion of greater interaction between corporate and local cultures, which will, in the process, create a ‘third’ culture. This will be a real learning experience.
The increasing reliance of corporations on technological innovations and know-how for their profitability rather than on financial or operational strength. Organizations that best channel their R & D resources will maintain a competitive edge.
Preparedness for abrupt transformation: as the world becomes more and more interdependent, we will have to be prepared for turbulence, ruptures, the breakup of great nation-states, organized terrorism and other unforeseen events. Management will be challenged to steep itself in chaos theory and to understand the “global village” phenomenon.
The nurturing of corporate cultures that stimulate autonomy, initiative, and commitment. Organizations with rigid, authoritarian hierarchies that view the enterprise as a tool for sociotechnical engineering will not achieve or sustain excellence.
The implications of hyper-communication and the information explosion: information and communication systems are becoming omnidirectional. Business, education and the quality of life will undergo radical changes when the implications of this phenomenon are fully realized.”
As the educational establishment undergoes incremental change, informal learning is escalating through new communications networks. Fifth generation lightware communications are increasing transmission capacity a hundredfold. Rural and third-world development will be accelerated exponentially by electronic networks, two-way communications systems, and the use of expert systems. The whole world will soon be linked by telecomputers that will offer revolutionary new ways of networking and communicating interactively.

Olaf Lundberg, Director General of Inmarsat in the U.K., forecasts that mobile personal communications through satellites will be worldwide within the next two decades. There will soon be unlimited access to information anywhere in the world. Already, individuals can hold a world of information in the palm of their hands with such low-cost technology as electronic books and PIMs (Personal Information Managers.)

The problem will not be accessing information, but processing and managing it intelligently, ethically, and with an anticipatory mindset. The development of these skills must be the collaborative enterprise of parents, educators, businesspeople, scientists, and political leaders who recognize that generative individuals and organizations moving towards self-actualization are critically important to the future of this fragile, interdependent world.

For more information:

Originally posted by Dee Dickinson; Johns Hopkins


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