In conversation with Srishti Sehgal: Designing deeper learning experiences

6 minute read
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To learn is to be human. Every day, we learn something new: maybe that there’s a hidden feature in your smartphone, or that citrus fruit and milk make a riot in your stomach that you do not want.

And no matter the size or the complexity, all learning boils down to one common denominator: curiosity. One little question can snowball into knowledge, which turns into second nature, which results in growth. Curiosity is the foundation stone of everything we do at Obvious — and naturally, that means we’re committed to being a learning organisation.

What does that mean? In the Peter Senge sense, it means being a workplace made up of teammates who are skilled at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge. We love adaptive learning as much as the next person: it helps Obvious be as agile and resilient as we are. But our true sights are set on generative learning, which enhances our capacity to create, individually and collectively. That is the type of curiosity-driven learning that gets to the heart of being craft-focused.

As we build our in-house learning programmes, we’ve been thinking about these questions: What does it take to go beyond adaptive learning and nurture craft, curiosity and collective aspiration through generative learning?

To borrow from Taoism, how might we take learning from ‘out of the way’ to ‘part of the way’?

I posed these questions to Srishti Sehgal, a designer, researcher and self-professed learning nerd who works (and learns!) at the intersection of design and technology.

What fascinates you about the space you’re in right now?

Learning is ubiquitous. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re all constantly learning and have done so our entire lives. This means that what happens in the world of learning has the potential to impact pretty much everyone in the world. This is huge! This gets me out of bed in the morning.

If learning is ubiquitous, then what becomes the role of a learning organisation today?

Our work today involves more ambiguity than ever, making learning a core skill for individuals. As individuals, we’re motivated by personal growth. This requires deliberate effort both from us and our organisations where we spend a large chunk of our time.

All organisations should be learning organisations. Here are some things they should be doing:

  • Supporting the learning of their employees in a way that not just helps them perform better at work, but helps them grow in their careers and as individuals.
  • Encouraging structured problem-solving and experimentation within everyday work
  • Building spaces where employees can learn from each other and the experiences of the organisation. A culture of documentation is the backbone here!

All this is not built overnight and requires conscious effort and time.

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Apart from time and patience, I think it’s also important for planners to discover how to tap into people’s commitment to learning at all levels. What might go into creating such a supportive learning environment?

Three things need to be present: autonomy, relatedness and engagement. Autonomy is the ability to choose what you are learning. Relatedness is finding the content useful to your context. Engagement is being excited and engaged with the learning process.

It’s also important to recognise that our learning needs change as we evolve in our careers. While starting out, the focus is more on hard skills and building mastery. On the contrary, in senior leadership roles, the focus is more on soft skills and building an understanding of people. We cannot go with a one-size-fits-all approach!

Drawing from that, is passing knowledge from the top-down i.e. from leaders to colleagues, or experts to novices, the best way to learn?

This is a slightly tricky question. On one hand, top-down learning is probably not the most effective way of learning. But on the other, someone who is a novice doesn’t know what they need to learn to become efficient. We can’t completely do away with this hierarchy in the learning process. What we can do though, is offer more autonomy and relatedness.

It’s like a buffet: you decide what, how much and when you want to learn. But the how (in this case, the dish) is already made.

Horizontal or peer-to-peer learning can be extremely powerful. Peers can be great partners in crime or accountability buddies in the learning process as well. The only flipside is that peers might not be the best in being able to ‘close the loop’ or decipher right from wrong because they’re learning themselves.

This makes sense. So I guess we’re looking at leaders more like stewards and custodians of learning rather than the only teachers around?

Exactly. I fundamentally believe that with the right environment & motivations, people will learn! We at NextLeap ran a Fellowship earlier this year entirely without instructors. We felt that, given the 100+ years of experience in the room, all the answers are already in the room! What we tried to focus on was guiding the conversations and creating spaces where peers could learn from each other.

Incredible. But when learning happens at an individual level, it can be difficult to tie it all back to the company’s vision and each individual’s place in achieving it. How might organisations build a shared vision specifically for learning?

I have a slightly different way of looking at this. I don’t think we need to tie everything an employee is learning back to the company’s vision — that is a very narrow way of looking at it. For example, I might start learning how to cook and connect it to what I do. But cooking might not fit into the learning mandate because it doesn’t tie to the company’s vision.

The way I look at it, if you can create a space for people to learn and grow, that will add back to their work in immeasurable ways: lateral thinking and better mental and emotional health.

At an individual level though, adult learning does need a bit more structure. We often learn things without knowing why and end up demotivated or quitting. Learning charters can be a great way to build some structure around what you’re learning as an adult. It’s a format I have used personally for many years now.

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Creating a learning charter would mean you’re internally motivated to learn in the first place. What would go into making it an individual value, and not just a checkbox?

At an individual level, I don’t think learning has reached that point where it is a checkbox for people! But jokes aside, this is an incredibly hard one to crack. Our upbringing, school, colleges, and even our organisations define our outlook towards learning.

That said, valuing learning involves shifting the narrative from ‘mistakes’ and ‘failures’ to ‘learnings’.

I suppose a part of making mistakes means realising some of our mental models and assumptions don’t hold up in the real world. That can be quite a shock if we’re unprepared. How might we prime our minds to lower the volume on our assumptions, become more sponge-like and absorb new information and approaches, so that we might learn better?

I think the best way is to be surrounded by people, ideas and content that challenge the way you think. Even with all the content of the world, it’s very easy to get stuck in the echo chambers of our assumptions. I’ll modify that saying:

“If everyone in the room agrees with you, you’re probably in the wrong room”.