The author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams wrote that ‘human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so’.
In the contemporary world this quote rings truer than ever. Organisational life has transformed technologically, allowing remote and mobile working to become the norm for many, and allowing businesses to work around the globe. It’s enabled teams to collaborate on ideas on a multiplicity of platforms.
I’m a strong advocate for working flexibly and for finding the right places and tools to do the job. But I worry about where we get opportunities to learn from one another in this context.
The organisation of the past century has been dominated by people working together in one place – whether it be the office, factory, warehouse, shop or service centre. As we’ve entered the early-21st century these workplaces have also become more diverse. As a result we have been surrounded every day by opportunities to learn from difference.
However, we are seeing some trends that will potentially reduce these opportunities. The rise of the gig economy, an increase in remote working, and ‘pick and choose’ social media (which gives us a high degree of tailoring in our content and interactions) will all mean we are potentially receiving our information in an echo chamber. We will, if we’re not careful, be surrounded only by attitudes, perspectives and experiences that we have chosen and so are very close to our own.
Leaders, OD practitioners and HR all have key roles to play to encourage learning from difference. We need to make more of an effort to intentionally do this in the way we organise.
For example, at Action on Hearing Loss when putting together our new strategy Transforming Lives, we worked very hard to draw input in a wide variety of ways. We had feedback from more than 7,000 individuals who are deaf, or have tinnitus or hearing loss. Potentially even more powerfully, we had very different groups work together in considering the new strategy. For example, a facilitated day with staff from very different parts of the charity along with volunteers and people we support, and strategy development groups organised in a very cross-organisational way.
We also have lots to learn from differences between organisations and between sectors. One of the most successful learning and development initiatives at Action on Hearing Loss has been reciprocal coaching and mentoring arrangements with other charities.
Having worked in the voluntary sector for 20 years, I’ve seen what it can offer wider society in terms of innovation and an appreciation of the importance of personal and shared values in the workplace and of how human motivation is always about something much bigger than the bottom line. Similarly I’ve had some great experiences partnering with the private sector, who we have much to learn from. For example from FMCG firms about customer insight and service, and from manufacturing on improving efficiency incrementally and working at pace.
So let’s make an effort to encounter difference – in our workplaces, sectors and beyond. It really is the only way to learn, challenge ourselves, grow and develop.
Paul Breckell is CEO at Action on Hearing Loss