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  • Writer's pictureKatharine McLennan

Back To The Future Of Learning In The Organisational Development World

by Katharine McLennan

Organisational learning today still resembles the organisational learning required to operate a factory back in the 1800’s. There have been advances with the technology of the platform on which we learn, but we have lost our way in how and what humans learn to be the leaders and innovators needed in the Imagination Age. 

The essay below compares learning content and methods of the industrial age with the Information Age. We have beyond these ages.  There are trends such as Neuroscience, AI/Machine Learning, Covid, the arrival of Generation Z and A, and the demise of formal education. These transformations in the way that work is done and what constitutes “success” change everything about learning’s content, delivery and indeed, the teachers.

At the same time, however, we must integrate the wisdom of our ancestors. The age of Integration, Inspiration, Imagination, and Intuition has arrived.  

Are you in the future of how we will learn in organisations of the future? We can tackle the impact of neuroscience, AI, COVID, Generation Z and Generation Z and the demise of the formal education as we know it.  We can imagine the world of the holograms, space travel, quantum physics with its role in learning. But we will also need to unlearn the knowledge that has blocked off our ancient wisdom. This is imperative. It is not out with the old, but it is “in with the new, and in with the ancient times.”  

If I were to write this essay on the future of learning at the start of my career in 1990, I would be thrilled to tell you about the excitement of learning in the Industrial Age, raving about the need for executives to learn Total Quality Management, Business Process, Re-Engineering, the Theory of Constraints, and Situational Leadership. The method of learning would be in-classroom, attending a corporate university (think GE’s Crotonville), learning by lecture, and taking avid notes on these theories, so that one could come 

If I were to write the essay in 2000, I would be exhilarated to share how learning would have to evolve “radically” given the Information Age. Now, an executive would be enticed, and indeed measured, on how well she learnt about Knowledge Management, Six Sigma, and Agile Learning. The Head of Learning & Development, a new expertise, would be implementing the 70-20-10 model of learning (70% job-relate, 20% interaction with others and 10% formal education.

The arrival of the internet would offer on-line training (think Our push for the oxymoron of performance management would attempt to tie our “development needs” (a.k.a. weaknesses) with a learning development plan.  “Manager as coach” would be “rolled out” through the organisation as the term “executive coach” arrived on our shores.  Nowadays, Australia apparently has the highest number of executive coaches per capital in the world. Go figure. 

Now, I am writing the essay about the future of learning as I sit here in 2021, having just turned 56this week. Part of my thinking just comes from arriving at middle age – middle age at least defined by pre-Covid terms of lasting until 100 years. In the 50s, one differentiates between wisdom and knowledge and begins to settle with the notion that “I don’t know” – in fact, society really doesn’t know. With not knowing, we enter world of exploration once again, lost since we infants, taken away from us with the linear, departmentalised, and individual-oriented voyage of school, university, and organisational learning.  

Understanding how to cultivate wisdom in our leaders has become central to my teaching and coaching executives. Learning is what our ancient ancestors always knew – a passing down of how one does unlearn knowledge to learn wisdom through the development of an awareness we have lost amongst 14-hour-work-days, a COVID blurring of work and home, a constant appendage of a mobile phone, an insistence that learning be no more than 45 seconds (called “microlearning”) and actually, be on a video understood while running on one’s Nordic Track and doing one’s mindfulness training in the 20 minute video session.

We can barely handle the 17-minute TED session anymore, and Brené Brown’s talk on Vulnerability was no doubt the last one we watched without interrupting ourselves with the Apple Watch’s simultaneous beeps of WhatsApp, email (so old-fashioned), text, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, twitter)

But besides the wisdom of learning I am accessing in my 50s, the world has brought us five trends that cannot be ignored if we are to understand the future (read NOW) of learning:

Trend 1: Neuroscience

  1. The arrival of neuroscience’s ability to see our brain in action:  Neuroscience research shows when and where our brains might light up when we are trying to learn something. We can also see when this signal weakens and this weakness will correspond with our body’s need for “more”…. more oxygen, sleep, nutrition, exercise, darkness and downtime. This research shows what our grandmothers always knew and warned us during our distractive school study and the all nighters that we used to pull. The research is also showing why we have increasing amounts of attention deficit with increasing technological distractions. The more technology we have in our life, the less we learn well.

  2. Neuroscientific technology that compensates for the exponential decrease of our attention. This technology shows us when we should learn, how to quiet our mind to learn, and how we collectively synch our brains so that we are relying on the wisdom of the crowds. Our ancestors would be applauding us for finally going back to the ways of their world. We label this “mindfulness” - when in fact, we really ought to be thinking of escaping our mind in this learning – how to, indeed, go beyond the mind. This is what learning will be – “back to the future.” Never has there ever been an opportunity to return to our ancient knowhow.

Trend 2: Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning

Let the machines do the rote learning that we no longer need for our lives. Let the creativity of the soul be allowed to flourish. 99% of the executives that I teach eventually confess to me that they have no idea of what they are doing. Wonderful!!! If you knew what you were doing, you would be doing last year plus or minus 10%. This isn’t good enough in an artificial intelligence world. The AI already knew what you knew this year, last year, and, in fact, your entire life. 

What it doesn’t know is the imagination of what could be that breaks all the prediction and algorithms that have already been constructed.  We have access to what we don’t already know, but it is not accessible through the learning of what we already knew. 

Concentrate on the quietness of the mind (mindlessness) and absorb what your wise eye sees. Learn to see the potential in your people the imagination of your customers, the dignity of your suppliers and the majesty of your environment

Trend 3: Arrival Of Generation Z & A

The arrival of Generation Z (started in our workforce 4 years ago) and even Gen A (will enter the workforce by 2040) - OK, they know – but they don’t know. They know how to leverage technology to make their working lives more “efficient and effective.”  They see that they are the smartest in the room about this and grow impatient with their elders who have antiquated notions of how the world works... technologically. 

They don’t need the provision of an organisations’ “Learning and Development” function, and they won’t do even the 30-second microlearning you have given them on their iPhone. They have no need of HR as we know it – and they certainly don’t think much of the limited strategies, hierarchies, linear thinking, committee-like meetings, politics, wars on remuneration, “performance management.”


They laugh (rightly so) with “The Office, “ “Corporate,” “Superstore.” The Baby Boomers are our grandparents and our great-grandparents, and Generation X and Y – well, they belong in those sitcoms.

These young people do need the wisdom of their elders – something that cannot be learned in a classroom – and something that cannot be “executive coached.” 

This takes learning, once again, to the wisdom even of our cave clans, who knew that wisdom came through stories shared in tribes, captured by stories passed down through the vibrating sound of voices and song, through the colours that our eyes take in when we are not in front of a screen, through the touch of textures that nature gives us everywhere especially the feeling of our feet on the Mother Earth, through the smells that trigger memories and future dreams all in one, through the tastes that tantalise and slow us down so we can get to their essence.  

Our minds are useful for spreadsheets a discounted cashflows – but it turns out our five senses cultivate a six sense and dare I say a 7th,8th, 9th, and 10th that takes us far beyond the gravity of the current view of “knowledge” and “learning” as we are now it in the current 21st century.

Trend 4: What Covid Is Teaching Us

What are learning from the pervasive nature of COVID, fires, floods, earthquakes (and no doubt soon locusts, frogs, boils, darkness)?

We can learn anywhere as it turns out, and we can learn from our children and they can learn from us. Our most innovative thoughts don’t come at work. They come from sitting on the floor figuring how physics works with our 11th graders, from figuring how to draw again with our kindergarten students. They come from explaining what group chats are and why that man seems to be dominating the entire conversation on zoom. We learn from the trees when we take our Covid-acquired puppies out for a walk. We learn from having meals again with our families – or, as the case be for many of us, we learn by the impacts of isolation.

Trend 5: Out With The Old Institutions

The Generation Z’s and Generation A’s are waking up to the fact that universities are places where they must pay exorbitantly AND are not assured of a job. They are now choosing education in which they don’t mortgage their next twenty years to a tuition that is insane – and an education that will assure them of the job. 

This is good to some extent in terms of our debt and our employment rate. But – what about the old ways of our elders – the power of the physical community in innovation, the education of the educated soul who has had philosophy, art, science, commerce, and engineering?Who has read the classics whilst at the same time the art of fake news and how that impacts the beliefs of our world?

 I have seen a deterioration of the art of leadership from a “job-ready” education that fails to begin a long and arduous climb to authentic and inspirational leadership. By the time that many of these job-ready educated people arrive at 28–32-year-old, they haven’t learned the art of systems thinking, of integrating opposite views, of writing, of speaking, of inspiring the hearts. 

The generation graduating from university in COVID have not even been on the campus and know nothing of the interaction between human beings, the chemistry that changes when one encounters another (not to mention the pheromones), or the art of influencing by use of the body’s posture, the eyes gaze, the facial twitch. Perhaps the soon-to-emerge holograms will assist us greatly in this education. I am still not convinced that these holograms will mimic the smells, the tastes, the sight that contextualises the person speaking to us, and the touch of the hand that is shaken or the cheek that is kissed.

As a society, we will have to both remember backwards and imagine forwards the definition of what institutions will prepare our arriving workforce – and how our current workforce will need education content and education transmission.

Final Thoughts

We can imagine the future by going back to the ways of learning in the past. 

We can still use neuroscience, AI, machine learning, the lessons of Covid and other plagues that will come our way, the arrival of Generations Z & A, and the deterioration of classic education.

But we need to see these for what they are and see how the immersion of technology learning must be combined with the wisdom learning of ancient days, the “technology” of the five senses that have gone on hibernation while we sit at our PC, and the richness of dialogue amongst all types of people within and outside the organisation.  

If you came to this article looking for the newest technology, the advancement of our brains through pharmaceutical interventions, the content of what people must learn, the speed at which they must learn, or the holographic AI version of learning coming soon, please accept my apology. We can use all of that, but we do so in the context of the thousands of years of wisdom that we keep forgetting repeatedly.

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