The Learning Buisiness | Scoins.net | DJS

The Learning Buisiness

Here I do not mean education, though it is not impossible for an educational institution to also be a Learning Business.


A learning business is one which learns from its experience and uses this to improve its performance. 

Many readers will  immediately say 'But we all do that'. No, we don't. Learning requires us to reflect on past procedure and performance and to ask, in a very open-ended way, if the objectives were achieved, whether the results could be somehow improved, whether even the objectives are the right ones, how the objectives are stated and measured, how the resources used are described and measured – and whether this affects the result or the objectives themselves. For example, if the target is 'best possible', that implies that use of resource is no object, or that all available resource is to be used. Best possible questions what we might mean by both best and possible. It leaves very open when any state of completion has occurred. It may well be altogether more effective to declare some sort of 'satisfactory' state and use that as a target to meet or exceed.

is this too dense? Should it be unpacked to an extent?

The reflective process implied above is then a necessary part of a Learning Business. This process has to be open, in the sense that blame is not sought nor apportioned. Any identified fault lies in process or expectation, not in personal performance – blame is unhelpful and largely prevent learning. Mistakes should be expected, so that the positive is a search for improved performance.

I have a past pupil whose business model centres around his experience in attempting to achieve a gold medal at rowing. His accessible work is entitled, Does it make the boat go faster? and I say this is indeed all about the process of learning. The title says it all; all effort towards the target had to meet that very simple test of worth. As a model for a well-identified target, this is very good. In practice, most of us have many simultaneous targets. Businesses are often surprisingly vague in any declaration of objectives and targets. Individual managers may well be very clear indeed what their particular targets are, but that does not mean that these targets are those of the business, nor even that such targets have approval from higher still. This demand for clarity, for a form of internal honesty, is a problem for many, both the businesses and the people within them. 


Trust is an essential element of a learning business. Without trust the business will not learn and so the ethos of the business has to create situations where it is very easy to offer improvement, very easy to work independently and somehow at the same time relatively easy to recognise when unproductive effort is occurring. That mutual trust makes it likely that work is task-based, even when these tasks are open-ended. It makes metrics difficult and it is likely that many of these are subjective measures ("We did that well", "We got that wrong"); it requires reflection, which in turn means there is time put aside for recognition of the learning that has occurred and, perhaps extensive record of that having happened. Many of these attitudes run counter to 'old' management attitudes.

Learning businesses do not / cannot tolerate selfishness. Some forms of 'protected space' need to disappear. There are issues with hierarchy. Cross-relate to earlier chapter.

From an email between the authors:

Indeed. I think as a society (as well as within organisations) we need to find a much better way to allow people to admit they got something wrong. It seems to me that we spend very little time interrogating how an error occurred –the emphasis is often on 'lessons learned', but how can lessons be learned without that interrogation? If and when I make a mistake when working for a customer, I really try to drill down into exactly how it happened so that I can a) apologise in a meaningful way and b) avoid it in the future. I'd say in about 60% of cases this process involves the revelation that I didn't actually make a mistake (e.g. they sent me the wrong version of a file, or they are using a Mac and didn't tell me, or a setting has inexplicably reset, or similar), and when an error *is* revelated the customer is greatly reassured by being told exactly what the error was, how it happened and how I've fixed it 

E.g., I recently conflated two Jewish societies in an index for a book about Jewish societies. They had very similar names in English, German and Hebrew but were in fact two different things. The author confessed that she had also mixed them up and we added a note to the index to help the reader avoid the same error. Overall, then, the error had a positive effect on both the index and my relationship with the author *because* I interrogated it; if I had just tried to cover up the mistake that would have been far worse.

I had a similar one last year with a book that contained two men called Joseph Rowntree (the famous one, and a less famous one). The author flagged this in the text, so I disambiguated them in the index, and then had to have a fight with the idiot publisher who thought this was an error (at one point I wrote the immortal line, 'I suggest you try reading the book before you assert that you know where its defects lie').


As the coronavirus pandemic progressed so for many at work there was a need for all to wear masks. One of the illustrations of progress as a learning business was described to me as being able to call someone on not wearing their mask without that being seen as censure, merely slippage. This could be applied to many rules and regulations but the test for acceptability here is that it is understood that the rule is a good one, that we have all bought into the validity of this process (rule, regulation, whatever) and that therefore temporary non-compliance is forgetfulness, not deliberate flouting of the rule. The essential element here is that it is understood that there is to be 100% compliance but that this compliance is based upon agreement that the behaviour is agreed. The line between a mandatory position and one of consent has been removed; they are in the same place. To achieve this there needs to be wholesale agreement at a level of ethos but implicit in that is extensive conversation that caused there to be such uniform agreement.


Academia, especially at university level, may be in the business of learning but consistently fails to be a Learning Business. A lot of this (failure) follows immediately from academics being in competition with each other. That ought to leave all of university administration available to become a learning business but this too fails to occur. Some of that follows from it being very difficult to remove people from a post; the system has allowed many layers of protected space to develop and so there are topics of responsibility whose guardians act as if they answer to no-one. Challenge is defeated in the best buck-passing (in circles) bureaucratic style and, in many ways, within the administration the purpose of the university is simply to continue to keep the administration in employment – and at some elevated levels, in the style to which they have become accustomed. This sort of institutional behaviour is almost unable to change; it would require remarkable external change to create any situation which the university powers would notice enough to act on and it would take a vice-chancellor of extraordinary power to be able to cause change to percolate through the layers of the bureaucracy — and stick.

Need internal link to protected space.

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Possible chapter on working from home, but see it's done already:

The shorter week. See The Atlantic June 2021  

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang (book) Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less—Here’s How

Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted Worldhas written that the current version of office work, defined by long hours and “always-on electronic chatter,” seems poorly suited to cognitive labor.

Keynes was right: Productivity has grown enough to allow for expansive amounts of leisure—it’s just that, as a society, we’ve channeled these productivity gains toward other ends. Nowadays, working less is not front of mind. Because median wages are so low, many workers want higher pay or more hours, which means more money. “If the minimum wage had continued upward, linked to productivity, it would today be [close to] $25 an hour,” Lichtenstein told me. “If you were in a revolutionary moment, you could say, ‘Let’s double the wages.’”

But you can argue that many at the low end of the pay spectrum (those paid hourly, for instance) would take every chance to grab the shorter week at no reduction in pay and then go find other work, because their pay simply isn't enough. One-fifth of all respondents said they wouldn’t be able to finish their work in that time. Instead, the most common concern was that a four-day week “won’t help some kinds of workers.” If the point of the shorter week is to have higher productivity, safer working environments and happier staff,  this doesn't work (well or better) if sections of the employment market continue to turn up to work already tired. So we might argue and even recognise that a four-day week might well widen existing inequalities. Make it work for the unskilled, and this is an idea whose moment has arrived. Advantages, in terms of hours being wasted at the office, are that all those personal activities such as booking a health visit or a maintenance worker, are done away from work —no-one is insisting that the four-day working week is contiguous (though they may have assumed it) only that the working week is shorter; part of the 'deal' here is that the workplace is 'open' but the staff are working flexibly.

So the issue with this whole idea is that there are places and businesses where this can work, but not uniformly. That then is likely to widen existing inequalities.  To be an effective strategy at a national level, this has to provide benefits to all; the additional time should not conceptually be opportunity for more work — not more of the same, anyway, since it is likely that many already skilled would pursue additional qualifications or do voluntary work, so the unskilled and disadvantaged would be encouraged to absorb more education, though one suspects they'd perceive the need to have more income, always, being the not-quite-managing. This continues to illustrate a general societal problem that I'd like to call simply unfair. We need levelling up and, expensive though it might be, I don't see how we can call ourselves civilised until we pull the bottom edge to nearer the middle.


I'm concerned that 'more leisure time' or 'less work time' is a continuous scale, that however short we were to make the working week, the point at which workers want it to be longer is a very far way off. How short a week do we have at one job before many of us take a second or a third job? This is not necessarily a bad thing, but let us not lose sight of the initial position here, that shortening the hours per week was done to increase productive time at work, such that the total work done is very much the same as with the longer week. In many senses, work is made more efficient by discarding the waste.

For the purposes of Management from Underneath, one supposes that demonstrating to supervisory management that there are more efficient ways of working—the same production in less time—is a two-edged sword. In a 'good' environment, efficiency would be rewarded (more pay, fewer hours), but in a 'bad' environment the result would be simply to move the goalposts, reduce staff and/or increase expectations. These bad environments are what cause people to 'work to rule', to gear their work to meet the target and prefer to drive the targets toward lower productivity. That is because, largely, it is in the interests of the worker to protect its space (earlier chapter) and because it has no iron in the fire, no incentive to work on behalf of the employer, the business. I continue to see that as a general failure of management to appreciate what the leadership role is.


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Marginal thinking . source. https://www.runnerstribe.com/features/doping-and-the-trap-of-marginal-thinking/?fbclid=IwAR1rmxAaVLb1pPciS5WVcJ2DqOljoiGUqLXPLRwizIXwNoIiTfJ9LHJXVYE

Marginal costs are what you pay to make one more widget. Full costs account for everything. So when an idea occurs that would make something a little better or a little differently, the big company, which looks at marginal costs, is slower to adapt than the newcomer. In a sense, the watcher of marginal costs is (always) looking short term. In the end, change must occur or the product (and supplier) will die away. So we do the same in life and we can call this marginal thinking; 

A few examples: texting while driving because you are late to a commitment, fudging your receipts to hide an accounting error, prioritising work over family to secure that promotion, or taking a PED (performance enhancing drug) to be able to workout even though you haven’t fully recovered. 

Marginal thinking has a few typical qualities: decisions are 1) made in the present moment, 2) done to avoid or reduce negative effects, 3) heavily influenced by our environment, and 4) they are small. In fact they feel trivial, at least relative to the problems they help us avoid. 

The first step down that path is taken with a small decision. You justify all the small decisions that lead up to the big one and then you get to the big one and it doesn’t seem so enormous anymore. You don’t realise the road you are on until you look up and see you’ve arrived at a destination you would have once considered unthinkable.  source

 There is a sense in which MfU is looking to the larger picture but at the same time trying to nudge the higher-ups with small changes so that they arrive at the big change—a positive one, not the negative ones described above—as something of a surprise.


Opportunity cost

Reference within early chapter to the economist's idea of opportunity cost, which is the value given-up when comparing a decision with the next-best alternative. It is what you have to give up to buy what you want.suppose you want the hedge cut (some gardening done at home). You can emply someone at £8 an hour or you can do it yourself, when your usual rate is £30 an hour. So, if there was an option to cut the hedge of to do another hour's work, the hedge has an opportunity cost of the difference, £22 per hour.

There is an associated concept, of economic profit. This differs from accounting profit principally by the forer including opportunity costs. That tests whether resources have been well-allocated (cost-effective) and if not, indicates that they could be better allocated. Thus it attempts to put numbers on associated busioness decisions. another way to view these two profit models is to regard the economic profit as including the implicit costs. In this respect implicit costs are those opportunity costs of resources that could have been used for something else. You send the office junior out for coffee; explicit cost,the coffee (if the business pays for that); implicit cost, the time the junior spent that could have been applied to productive work. the accounting process takes no regard of such employment choice, the economic process does. Wikipedia has more.


Human Resources

An issue I identify is the personnel department, these days called HR, Human Resources. Too often, this has become a sort of bully boy for management who pass off the nasty consequences of their decisions to the HR department to act upon. In turn, the HR department is left being one of several 'faces' of management. Not only is this department entirely admin-centred and therefore in several sense parasitic upon the core workers, it is put in a position where often the only counter to the imposed actions is through a union representative. That makes the workforce in general some sort of disputed zone, very much an Us-and-Them thing, and this runs counter to many of the ideas for collective thinking, improved ethos and so on.  Us, the union; Them, HR.

It might be better if HR was in some sense independent of management, more genuinely a service department. A test here would be to ask if HR could be out-sourced or if a union could or should have a high membership within that function. It would be good if there were positive actions, such as perhaps chasing up spend on CPD —making it happen, making recommendations, showing support for the line workers.



Chapter summary?   Finish on a positive.


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why?  Email: David@Scoins.net      © David Scoins 2021