Learning as change

When Knowledge Transfer is Not Enough

By Marion Debruyne (Dean, Vlerick Business School) and Eliza Hochman (Senior Learning & Development Consultant, Vlerick Business School); Source: QS Top MBA (07/11/2016)

The world of education is changing quickly. Technology makes it possible to move the learning experience out of the classroom and onto the internet. It opens up a plethora of possibilities to create learning through MOOCs, SPOCs, online platforms, etc. But while we are looking to find the answer to what the technological future holds for education, have we lost track of the real question? Have we become too focused on the technology, and forgotten what learning really is about?

We indeed no longer need a classroom to transfer information. And executives are indeed no longer satisfied with listening to experts deliver content in lengthy presentations. Rather, they want to be engaged in the process of acquiring new knowledge as active participants of a learning journey. At Vlerick Business School, we noticed this shift in our executive clients’ expectations, and after various pilot experiments and further studies decided that incremental changes in the system are not enough in order to respond and exceed the client expectations of tomorrow. We have since been going through a transformation process that has involved the whole school to ensure that each one of our programs is a transformational learning journey, and that each member of the staff can embody the spirit of learning as change.

From Learning Objectives to Performance Objectives

When organisations and individuals are buying executive education, they are buying change. They are not buying knowledge—they are buying the capacity to make something happen in their organisation. When defining learning objectives, we usually ask, "What do you want to learn?"  But learning objectives are only one step of the journey; they are not the destination.
The destination is action. Instead of learning objectives, we need to talk about performance objectives. When we are looking for performance, we need to ask, "What do you want to do better or differently?"

Learning and Change - A Question of Mindset

“People don't resist change. They resist being changed.” ― Peter M. Senge

Learning, innovation, and change are closely entwined in today’s business vocabulary. Yet they carry different notions depending on the perspective of how the words are used. If teaching equals learning, it can be understood as a one-way process that in theory, a teacher could do without anyone listening. True learning is an active process that requires the attention of the learner. We cannot force learning upon someone. Similarly, change cannot be imposed on people, but needs their active engagement. While there are many things we can teach about innovation models and techniques, it is vital to nourish the culture of learning. If people resist new ideas, it is a lot harder to bring new innovations to life. When people take charge of their own learning, development, and change, they can innovate and produce extraordinary results.  

Learning at Vlerick

So what does this mean in practice? How do we walk the talk? Our role as a business school has evolved from being focused on the transfer of knowledge from faculty to participants to being focused on the crafting of powerful change experiences. This radically impacts our work, from design and sales to teaching and coordination, because the heart of our work is no longer knowledge, it is transfer: the capacity to apply the knowledge to the different contexts that our participants are facing. Our work does not end when the participants understand a new concept. They need to be able to apply these concepts to ultimately create their own solutions.
Coming up with one great idea is not enough. The solutions created today won't be the ones needed for tomorrow. This means not focusing on quick fixes, but on building the capacity to learn and constantly finding new solutions to challenges. This is what lies at the core of the work of an executive – capacity for innovation and change – and at the core of executive education is to enable leaders in their mission. At the end of the day, a business school is not a consultancy, so we don’t create the answers for the clients. But we have a pedagogical choice between delivering teaching or facilitating learning. Which one do you think will improve business performance more? 

 

Toward Better Learning

If you are an executive or work in executive education (or both), you may think about applying these ideas in practice. Here are three elements we have found useful in accelerating learning as change:

1. Make the learner the star of the learning process

Whereas teaching puts the professor at the core of the process, learning is where the participant is the focal point. These experiences are not created in isolation by our staff, but in partnership with our clients. We see them as co-creators of impact, because it is only by their ownership of their learning that we can have the impact we set out to have, which is real and observable change. Faculty and staff are only the architect and facilitator of this process. This also requires that we create an atmosphere where the participant takes co-responsibility for his/her learning. 

2. Embed action into the learning process

Learning is visible in the application of new knowledge and new insights. It is visible in the action that individuals and organisations take as they learn. It is visible in the action and initiatives to improve things and explore new opportunities. Learning is a process of trial and error, of experimentation and recalibration, of testing ideas and reflecting on the outcome. This requires that action is not postponed till after the learning, but should be an integral part of it.  The learning processes we design are action-based, and characterised by the feedback loop between insights-action-reflection-insight.

3. Create a risk-free environment of learning

As learning requires action, the learning journey should also embed the attitude of entrepreneurship, the courage to stretch out of the comfort zone, and the risk to apply something new. So it is important that the learning journey creates an environment that encourages action, but also provides a safety net. Powerful learning journeys create a risk-free environment for the first trials of new knowledge, to facilitate the jump towards the non-risk-free real world.

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