Sunday, February 21, 2010

Accelerated learning and Rites of passage

The words 'Accelerated Learning' appear in my current business title. This gives me an 'excuse' ('obligation' !) to think about the methods that can be used to accelerate the learning process in organizations - at individual and group levels. I must also mention that I have dabbled in the field of Anthropology and one of things that struck me (in Anthropology; see here and here for other examples) is the very useful role that 'rituals'/'ceremonies' and ‘rites of passage’ play in tribal societies. Somehow, these themes ‘fused’ in my mind and this post is the result of that fusion.

To ensure that all of us are on the same plane of understanding, let us begin by defining the two key terms - ‘learning’ and ‘rites of passage’. Of course, these are just 'working definitions' - for the limited purpose of our discussion here.

Learning: Learning is said to occur when there is a relatively permanent change in a person’s behavior. So we are using a ‘behavioral’ definition for learning, as opposed to a definition that talks merely about ‘gaining knowledge’. We will focus mainly on learning at an individual level that happens through experience.

Rites of passage: A rite of passage is a ‘ritual’ that facilitates and marks a change in a person’s status. Hence we are using a broad definition for ‘rite of passage’ that includes ‘facilitating the change’ in addition to ‘marking the change’ in a person’s status. Also, the word ‘status’ that we are using here covers not only the ‘social status’ but also the ‘psychological status’ (or state of mind or mindset).

This post explores two main themes - the importance/value of rituals in accelerating the learning process in organizations and usefulness of the 'rites of passage concept' in facilitating & accelerating role transitions in organizations.

Now, let us come back to our definition of learning. If learning happens through experience, then some of the ways to to accelerate learning should be

(a) to provide a larger amount of experience and/or

(b) to provide experiences with a larger learning potential and/or

(c) to help the person to derive more learning from the experience

Another important aspect here is to 'make the learning stick' - that is to facilitate transfer of learning/application of the learning in the workplace. I feel that 'rituals' can be very useful - for helping a person to derive meaning from experience and for making the learning stick.

Rituals can increase the mindfulness of the learner. Rituals can also increase importance/value of the learning experiences in the mind of the learner. Rituals are especially important when the learning/new behavior requires a significantly different way of functioning. Rituals can signify a break from the old way of functioning and the beginning of the new way of functioning. So in our efforts to be rational and lean, if we remove rituals from learning initiatives, we might be adversely impacting their learning potential!

Now let us come back to 'rites of passage'. A rite of passage marks and enables a leap forward in maturity. They can also indicate initiations into specialized groups. Most of the cultures in the world have rituals associated with the passage from childhood to adulthood. Growing physically into adulthood happens naturally. But the psychological transition to adulthood does not always take place automatically along with the physical transition. The objective of the rites of passage is to enable the psychological transition. The rite of passage also serves as a clear signal/statement - to the people in transition and also to the community/group they belong to - that the transition has taken place. Again, it serves as an acknowledgement from the group regarding the new status of the individual. Rites of passage are not restricted to the transition to adulthood. They are also applicable in the case of other major changes/transitions in life - like marriage, divorce, death/loss of a loved one and retirement.

It has been observed that many of the tribal societies use rites of passage to accelerate key transitions in life (e.g. the transition from childhood to adulthood). Tribal societies that have very limited resources (and hence require everyone to contribute for the survival of the tribe) can't afford a situation where many of its members are stuck in a transition state for an extended period of time where they (the members in transition) don't contribute much to the tribe. Thus, these societies have a critical need to accelerate the life transitions. There is an obvious parallel between this situation and that in many business organizations today, where it is critical for the organizations to ensure that employees making role transitions become fully productive in their new roles as early as possible (e.g. they can't afford to have a situation where a new manager takes a couple of years to discover the manager in him/her !).

Thus, I feel that rites of passage are relevant in the case of transitions in organizational life including career/role transitions. As mentioned above, an excellent candidate here is the transition from an individual contributor role to a people manager role. I think that this transition is not just a matter of developing some additional skills/capabilities. It also requires a change in the state of mind/mindset - a psychological transition. I am not saying that managers are a 'higher form of evolution' (or are 'superior') as compared to individual contributors. My point is just that the manager role requires a different state of mind/mindset.

In most of the organizations we are likely to find examples of managers who have 'become managers' without having made made the psychological transition to 'being a manager' - making life difficult - for themselves and the people around them - especially the people they manage. I feel that designing suitable rites of passage that are appropriate in the particular organization context & culture(in addition to the necessary skill building initiatives) can help the managers in making this psychological transition faster and more effectively and hence in bridging the gap between 'becoming' and 'being' that we have seen above.

Now that we have seen the 'business case' for using rituals to increase the effectiveness of learning initiatives and for using the 'rites of passage' framework to facilitate career and role transitions, let us look at more pragmatic issues. What kind of rituals can be used to increase the effectiveness of learning programs? How exactly should one go about designing rites of passage to facilitate role transitions? After all, we are talking about implementing these in 21st century business organizations where esoteric rituals and rituals might not be appropriate. Complete treatment of these issues will require a much longer discussion than what is possible within the scope of this post. So let me provide some pointers - for the time being.

If we look closely, we are likely to find that rites and rituals are very much present in 21st century business organizations. It is just that these rites and rituals look very different from their counterparts in tribal contexts.

Let us begin by looking at some of the rituals that can increase the effectiveness of learning initiatives/accelerate the learning process. As we have seen earlier, to make this work the rituals should - increase the perceived value/importance of the learning initiative, make the learners more mindful and help them to derive more learning from the experience faster. So any ritual that meets the above requirements (and that is appropriate in the particular organization/ program context) should be useful.

Hence these can include 'nominating rituals' (e.g. in terms of an in-depth interaction between the employee and his/her manager before the program that will help the employee to better appreciate the value of the program to her/him and the investment the organization is making for her/him and to be more mindful of what can be learned from the program and how it can be applied on the job), 'opening rituals' (e.g. a senior leader doing the program launch to signify the importance that the organization is placing on the program and the participants) , 'experience assimilation rituals' (structuring the learning experience and reflection on the learning experience to increase mindfulness, learning and assimilation of experience), 'action planning rituals' and 'program closing rituals'. In a way, there is nothing really new/esoteric about these activities (they are part of most of the well-designed learning initiatives). The idea is just to put ceremony/rituals (back) into these activities to enhance their learning potential.

Now, let us examine how the elements of rites of passage can be used to facilitate the psychological transition associated with role changes. If we analyze the rites of passage, we will see that there are some common elements/phases (even though the rites might look very different from one another) - separation, transition and and re-incorporation.

The key requirement for the first phase is to detach/separate from the current status/position in the social structure and from the current identity/self. The transition phase is the in-between state where one has separated from the previous state but hasn't yet 'reached' the desired new state. The key requirement here is to remain in this state of uncertainty (without regressing into the previous state) so that the self has an opportunity to reconfigure itself in a manner that is appropriate for the desired new state. The objective of the re-incorporation phase is to re-enter the group/society with the new status/identity. Let us examine how these elements can be built into a new manager orientation program.

Conducting the manager orientation program at a site away from the office has a lot of value. The physical separation from the previous state (previous role in the office) can help in the psychological separation also. Having the space and time where one can reconfigure the mindset (not being burdened by the demands/activities of the previous state) - in the company of people who are undergoing a similar transition - that too under expert facilitation/help - can be very useful in psychologically tuning into the new role. Performing 'difficult' tasks - tasks that can't be accomplished with the previous mindset/task that require the new mindset can also be of immense value here (as they drive home the point that the previous mindset is not effective in the new role and as they help the participant to discover the mindset that is required to be effective in the new role). The key is to create an environment in which deep learning can occur and in which shared experience contributes to the creation of a new identity. Ceremonies to mark the successful completion of the program ('graduation rituals'), especially if they are witnessed by the senior leaders (and hence signifying their acknowledgement/recognition of the new status/state of the individual) can help in re-incorporation to the organization - in the new role. By the way, new manager orientation sessions (like rites of transition) also provide an opportunity for cultural indoctrination, where company values/leadership traits/ perspective/ 'world view' can be made very explicit ('Who we are and what do we stand for as an organization', 'How do we do things around here', 'What does it mean to be a manager in this company etc.).

It is important to get the 'positioning' of these programs exactly correct. There requirement is to help the participants separate from their previous role (and mindset) and tune into their new role (develop the new mindset) without making them feel that they are an 'elite class'/'superior to the people who are doing roles that they were doing previously'. So while branding this program is very useful, the essential signal/message to the participants should be that "You have made a very significant and valuable transition and have become more suitable for your new role; but this does not necessarily mean that you are superior to the people you manage" !

Any comments/suggestions/ideas?

Links : Carnival of HR - March 3, 2010, Career Development & Sublimation, Career Planning & the Myth of Sisyphus