Part of the XBS change strategy was a 14-month assessment conducted by Senior Research Scientist Brigitte Jordan and a team of researchers from Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), and the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL), based in Menlo Park, California. IRL is a widely respected think tank and consulting group that studies how learning takes place in organizations.
To conduct the study, the research team used ethnographic observations at XBS offices in Denver, Seattle, and Boston, at company headquarters in Rochester, and at over 30 customer locations. The goal was to observe not just what people at XBS do, but also how they do it — and to align the reality of work in the field with the overall change strategy.
Fast Company spoke with Jordan about the study and her principles for learning.
1. Learning is fundamentally social. "Many of the greatest benefits of training are unintentional. When you come out of a training program, you often perform better. But is it the training that's critical or the interaction during the training? You may be able to perform better simply because you have better relationships with people who you can now call."
2. Cracking the whip stifles learning. "If you are a supervisor and you see two people talking in the hallway, don't say, `Get back to work.' Recognize that this interaction creates a community of practice that stimulates learning — and it may be precisely what they need."
3. Learning needs an environment that supports it. "XBS used to think of space in terms of cost-per-square-foot. When you look at a cubicle and you see that it's so small that another person can't get in there, you know something's wrong. For learning to flourish, you need to restructure the physical design of the office to encourage interaction, social learning, and peer learning where and when it happens most effectively — informally."
4. Learning crosses hierarchical bounds. "Camp Lurn'ing included all levels of the company. Supervisors, fifth-line managers, and all kinds of operators train together. Inclusiveness inspires cross-functional learning — it's a powerful motivating factor."
5. Self-directed learning fuels the fire. "Who knows better what needs to be learned than the people doing the learning? XBS has thrown out the model of HR-driven training. People have a say in structuring their own training, and that means they're more eager to learn."
6. Learning by doing is more powerful than memorizing. "At Camp Lurn'ing, participants used team simulation exercises in which they assessed customers and devised strategies. They recreated the work environment and learned by doing. This is much more effective than sitting at a desk and listening to a lecture."
7. Failure to learn is often the fault of the system, not the people. "Rather than blaming people for lack of motivation, examine how the situation is either motivating or debilitating. Look for patterns of participation and exclusion."
8. Sometimes the best learning is unlearning. "For a long time people have learned that it's best to keep their mouths shut and do what they're told, even if it's not consistent over time. The key is to break those habits and make engagement something that's not only encouraged but also rewarded."
You can reach Brigitte Jordan by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 96 issue of Fast Company magazine.