I am standing, lost and a little bewildered, in the middle of a crowd of some 200 noisy, happy party-goers, in the reception hall of Xerox Document University (XDU). It's after 8 PM on a cool summer night in Leesburg, Virginia. Everyone's wearing khaki pants and polo shirts — men and women alike — and I'm wearing jeans and a Day-Glo T-shirt. The public relations guy at Xerox Business Services told me the dress would be casual, and I've managed to come underdressed. I forgot that in the corporate world even casual means a uniform.
I'm here to find out if XBS is really on to something new in corporate learning, or if Camp Lur'ning is just a goofy way of spelling "same old, same old." I've been told that Camp Lur'ning is revolutionary. If this is a revolution, the early warning signals aren't good: these khakis just came off the shelf. They've still got the new-pants creases.
And the place they chose for their revolution, Xerox Document University, looks like something designed by the military-industrial complex. Outside it looks like a 1960s country club that chose an unfortunate architect. Inside it looks like the Pentagon. I haven't been able to find my dorm room yet.
I haven't been able to find Tamara either. She's my camp counselor — whatever that means — and she's supposed to help me get oriented. I finally resort to stopping people with counselor badges and asking them if they're Tamara. No one seems to know where she is, but they all offer to help.
"You're not in my group. Are you a late arrival?" When we find her, Tamara is friendly, but a little puzzled. I explain that I'm a journalist participating in Camp Lur'ning to learn more about it. After that, she pays close attention.
There are, she explains, only three rules: Take care of yourself. Take care of each other. Take care of this place. The goals? Help your group develop a plan for ways to get closer to a specific, real-life customer — assigned at the beginning of the week — and report back to the entire camp on Thursday. Attend as many of the all-camp seminars and talks as you can stand. And have fun.
By the end of the evening, I've learned a couple of interesting tidbits. First, there are real-live customers sprinkled among the XBSers. Including them was the employees' idea. If you're trying to get close to your customers, why not invite them to your corporate training sessions? The logic is inescapable — and highly unusual.
Second, I've figured out why the khakis are new. There are a lot of what we used to call blue-collar employees at Xerox. People whose sole job was running or repairing a Xerox machine on a customer site. They had a set of rules and a uniform: navy polyester pants, blue shirt, navy tie. Now these people are redesigning their own workplaces, figuring out how to solve their clients' information problems, and managing complex document preparation, storage, and retrieval services. Their rules have changed, and the uniform has become optional. They're wearing khakis because they usually wear jeans on the job and cut-offs at home. They're dressing up to come to camp.
With a little help from my friends, I've managed to find my room. As I drift off to the lullaby of hungry mosquitoes working their way through the screens, I'm beginning to think that XBS may actually be on to something here.
"Reengineering is dead," says Chris Turner, the key player in XBS's cultural transformation. "It was the last gasp of the old rigid command-and-control corporate model." Turner has agreed to help me understand Camp Lur'ning.
"We have the sense that many people are beginning to look in a new direction," she continues. "We know the outlines of it, but the precise shape it will take is not exactly clear. We've learned that you can't push change through an organization, because the harder you push, the more resistance you get. That's why we've turned to the concept of natural systems. We've also learned that work life should be more like home life. People work better when they don't have to pretend. And we've learned that you have to trust people to develop their own solutions to problems in the workplace. When they own them, they make them succeed."
I keep trying to bring the conversation down to more manageable levels. What's going on at Camp Lur'ning? What does XBS know about culture that other companies don't? How will corporations hire, train, and retain the employees of the 21st century?
Turner patiently explains the new gestalt to me as if I were an eager but slightly dim pupil. The old ways no longer work for a corporation that is growing enormously in the twilight of the 20th century. At Camp Lur'ning, almost 400 XBS employees, and customers as diverse as TRW, Estée Lauder, Bain & Co., Dow Chemical, Microsoft, and American Stores, have gathered together to learn how to get ready for the coming century. No corporate hierarchy here. All titles are left at the door. There are only campers.
They don't pretend to have all the answers, but they have established a few principles:
1. Organizations are not machines; they're organic systems.
2. Virtually all of the money spent on traditional corporate training is wasted, because people learn in many different ways. Mostly by doing, not in classrooms with lecturers.
3. People work better when they feel at home in the workplace.
4. Reengineering didn't work because it wasn't the processes that were important, but the ways in which people interact with each other.
My briefing is over; it's time to go to camp. It's 9 a.m. All 400 of us gather in the main auditorium at XDU. The crowd is boisterous. Chris Turner introduces the keynote speaker : Jean Houston, who's famous for helping Hillary Clinton talk to Eleanor Roosevelt. I'm prepared to be skeptical, but I quickly realize what a wildly inaccurate picture the media has given of this unique woman.
When Houston takes the stage, you immediately know that you are in the presence of someone extraordinary. She's a tall woman with a ready smile, commanding gestures, and charisma that won't quit. She's wearing definitely uncorporate attire: lots of beads and a flowing earth-motherly dress that looks sort of like a dashiki. Her long gray hair flows over her shoulders and down her back like a wave. Houston's written something like 15 books and hobnobbed with many of the most famous people of the 20th century. What she's really about is putting words around this generational upheaval that we all know is happening and that we all are having a hard time figuring out.
Houston tells the crowd that they are going to have to cope with enormous change, and that at times coping will be difficult. But she manages to fill them with a sense of excitement at the possibilities for new ways of working. Houston tells us that learning to cope with change is just as destabilizing for organizations as it is for people. But that's part of this new gestalt. No guarantees. No familiar landmarks. No routines.
How will we manage? Houston tells us a story about how some Africans worked out a sanitation problem in their village. They began by drumming, then they sang, and then they danced the chicken dance. Then they shut their eyes and visualized their solution. So at Houston's request, we all get up and dance the chicken dance. We all flap our arms enthusiastically, hoping to pick up something about creative problem solving. A different way of learning. One point for Houston.
Houston tells a story about the new myth for our time. She explains that the current myth that describes today's typical CEO is the Lone Ranger — "and that's not healthy! The Lone Ranger solves his problems alone. And look at the way he treats Tonto!" Point to Houston.
Her replacement myth is set in King Arthur's court. A pure knight is forced to marry an ugly woman over a point of honor. As they lie together on their wedding night, the ugly woman offers her reluctant husband a choice: since he's been so honorable, she has the capacity to be beautiful half the time — either by day, when everyone else will see her, or by night, when only he will. The puzzled man finally says, "You choose, dear." Bingo! This is the right answer, and the woman becomes beautiful all the time. Happy ending.
The point, says Houston, is that business needs to know what businesswomen want: sovereignty, freedom of choice. At that, the women in the audience leap to their feet in a standing ovation. The men are not far behind. They were listening too. And they're beginning to get it. Point and match to Houston.
I'm beginning to get why Houston is on the docket. She's a true subversive. Her presence and her message signal powerfully to this audience of ordinary people that they are part of an extraordinary moment in history — and that they can do extraordinary things.
With the new myth and the applause ringing in our ears, we leave the hall to begin the real work of camp. We gather in our groups of 10 to 15 and begin to devise plans — How do we get close to specific customers? Tamara's group has been assigned Florida Power and Light (FP&L), and our first task is to figure out how to approach the task.
Camp Lur'ning calls this exercise "Sleuth" — turning work into a game. We're all to become detectives like Sherlock Holmes, learning as much as we can about the customer, then working together to develop our strategies. We're given little notebooks and pencils like Sherlock might have had, and a workbook that begins with three questions: Why become a World Class Sleuth? Why become consulting detectives? Why must we make it our business to know things?
Elementary, my dear Watson. To get to know customers really well! Through questions and a series of interactive group exercises, the workbook instructs us to gather evidence, formulate a theory, test it, modify it with the help of others, and craft a solution. Eureka! XBS has figured out how to make the scientific method fun.
Beyond the questions in the workbook there are no rules. We begin tentatively, looking for ways to get started. We network for a while, and come up with several people to call who know something about utilities and FP&L. Then Dave, who works in Rochester, has a suggestion. Rather than work competitively against the other groups, why not pool our resources and work together?
At that, I realize that XBS really is on to something. Internal competition is so much a part of corporate life that spontaneous cooperation is unusual — or unheard of. Yet this group eagerly embraces the idea, and Dave goes off to find out which other groups are also assigned FP&L and suggest cooperative learning to them.
I decide it's time to do a little sleuthing of my own. If I draw my teammates aside, will they tell me the same story about XBS that Camp Lur'ning promotes? I figure I'll start with Tamara, who already knows I'm at camp as an observer.
Tamara says she came back this year as a counselor because she was so sold on Camp Lur'ning after the first one last year. "The people of XBS are truly shaping the organization," she says. "I don't know where else that's happening in quite this way. And it's working: by any business measure, XBS is very successful. It's not fake. We're learning to make use of all our differences, not to suppress them." She sounds like the XBS Poster Grownup.
I decide to see if I can find a dissident movement.
When I'm finally able to corral a small group of XBSers without any corporate supervision, the results are very disappointing. Everyone believes in Camp Lur'ning.
Jane, a long-time Xerox employee, says, "XBS is not as regimented as it used to be. Our customers are becoming our clients and we're forming partnerships with them. It's more exciting to come to work."
I turn to Lyn, a 15-year veteran. She says, "We're hearing from our customers about how we've changed. We're respected now as true professionals. Internally, the biggest change is that the walls between management and employees are coming down."
I figure I'm not going to get employees on a week's vacation at corporate expense to grouse about their host. Anyway, it's time for the afternoon sessions. I decide to attend a workshop on alternative ways of learning offered by Paula Underwood, Keeper of the Wisdom for her father's tribe, the Iroquois. I follow the crowd to the meeting room.
There a scene as surreal as any I will ever see in corporate life meets my eyes. Picture a typical corporate conference room. No windows, beige plastic modular walls. A mind-numbing roar from the air-conditioning system. A few gray Formica tables and lots of maroon padded chairs.
Now add to that picture a Native American woman sitting on the edge of one of those tables, greeting us as we file in. She's taped on those corporate walls, with deliberate untidiness, pictures of all her animal friends. There's bear and beaver and mouse and all the others.
We are seated in a semicircle around Underwood. She is instructing us in the learning of her ancestors, the accumulated wisdom of more than 10,000 years of oral teaching. She relates it to scenario planning, peppering her remarks with tales about animal wisdom in days gone by. It seems that Native Americans believe that there is more than one right way to do things. She asks us to try to find at least six each time we are faced with a business challenge.
Underwood draws a wheel to signify the totality of the community. She describes four learning styles: the elk or buffalo, known for wisdom; the eagle, signifying inspiration and the big picture; the mouse, representing caring and nurturing the community; and the bear, meaning introspection. The point is that all kinds of learning styles are valuable and useful to an organization. And no decision should be reached until all perspectives are heard from.
Thinking of these animal guises can help us understand diversity in a more natural way. I've left my cynicism at the door; I can't help thinking that if the corporate types I've known displayed this kind of sensitivity to others' needs, the corporate world might actually be a good place to work.
The day of reckoning for our group. We've had a grand time sleuthing and learning, but now it's time to present a customer-oriented plan on FP&L to 400 XBSers. The group is a little nervous.
It helps that we've joined with the other FP&L groups to give a joint presentation. When we realize that 50 people will be together on stage, no one is as nervous. We make the courageous and original decision to present how we learned to learn about FP&L rather than just present the customer case itself. The result is a round-robin-style report that involves simply saying a few words about what each of us decided to do. The group is especially proud of our decision to pool resources, and we make sure to lead our presentation with that.
The actual reports are something of an anticlimax. It turns out that everyone else has done exactly the same thing. We hear report after report about pooling resources, networking, and using the Internet. By the time our group gets up to speak, it's all been said several times. I begin to think that the week's been a bust.
Then I realize that I'm missing the essential point: all these people are reporting that they've learned how to learn in the Brave New World of unlimited digitized information and fast-moving telecommunications. And that's precisely what Camp Lur'ning is all about. XBS long-timers, who might never have thought to network at their own job sites, or use the Internet, or reach out to their colleagues across the world, have now had a concrete experience in each of these learning styles and tools. Ordinary people have actually taught themselves how to do extraordinary things.
We all gather in the auditorium on Friday morning to see a brief video made on the spot about our week at camp. Shots of campers, smiling and hugging, are shown over a soundtrack of the climactic song from "Les Mis." It's corny, but it works. Camp Lur'ning has worked its magic on XBS.
Chris Turner has a final thought for me: "Your environment has to reflect what you espouse. That's what we're trying to get right here." Camper after camper tells me that they have promised to spread the word back on the job site. The goal, it seems, isn't to bring people to camp to teach them what they need at work — it's to inspire them to take camp back to where they work.
Nicholas Morgan (email@example.com), a business writer, speech coach, and playwright, works from the second floor of a silo in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 96 issue of Fast Company magazine.