Using the Past to Make Sense of the Future through Experiential Learning
EVENT REVIEW: London Business School was 50 years old last year, and this year celebrates its half century of executive education provision. Its HR Strategy Forum is a rather newer creation, having just notched up its sixth birthday and in some style at London’s Science Museum, (which at 160 years is a yet more venerable institution still).
Taking ‘The Future-Proof Organization’ as its theme, this year’s HR Strategy Forum used the past to help interpret the future, by using the Science Museum’s inspirational range of exhibits to trace a narrative of organizational change through the ages. LBS Executive Education has been one of the great pioneers of ‘experiential learning’ where participants are removed from the traditional classroom environment and exposed, with varying degrees of vigilance, into unusual and stimulating environments. The concept behind experiential learning is that learning is a largely emotional experience, particularly when it comes to understanding and adopting new behaviours as opposed to hard knowledge. So, creating emotional touchpoints that participants can sense and react to, whether that be physical things, or the learning environment’s ambience, helps embed and connect the learning.
At the Science Museum groups of participants were sent to discover specific exhibits and discuss them in respect of how they came about, and what lessons they might suggest for organizations today. Prof Tammy Erickson then walked the reassembled attendees through four hundred years of organizational history.
From the creation of an early mechanical calculating machine by Sir Samuel Morland at the court of Charles II, the creation of a master craftsman amongst the royal courtiers. A classic example of contingent craftsmanship, that required no sustainable organization of supplies or labour to create.
Over a hundred years later in 1800, Henry Maudslay invented his ‘screw-cutting lathe’, sometimes referred to as the ‘mother of modern machinery’. The lathe enabled screws to be produced to a reliable quality, unlike the previous home produced handmade screws. This standardised production and allowed for the beginnings of a supply chain to emerge. It also needed skilled operators to use, so the lathe owner, became the first of many machine-led manufacturers to become interested in training and, more importantly, retaining their operators. Later in the century this would lead to the enlightened creation of model industrial towns such as Bournville built by the Cadbury family for their chocolate factory workers, and Port Sunlight built by Lever Brothers, now Unilever, for their workers. Major investments to care for and retain skilled workers.
A further century later the factory process was being ‘diced’ ever smaller, with production lines at Ford’s factories in Detroit getting workers to only perform microtasks. One might Insert a screw, but someone else would tighten it. This simplifying of worker tasks meant that most jobs required little skill, and the focus of management became more on efficiency of process than retention of skilled labour. Consequently, blue collar manufacturing jobs became much less safe, and as competition drove prices down, in work benefits offered dwindled.
With the advent of computing and its Moore-ian growth in power and capacity, exemplified by an early computer room and the IBM computer the worldwide web was initiated from, menial tasks have become increasingly automated and knowledge workers roles increasing under threat, just as the hand makers of screws were by Maudslay’s lathe.
Tammy Erickson’s prediction was that organizations will start to shrink. Mega-corps days are probably numbered, and they will start to fragment into smaller, more agile units where workers (or other small organizations) can have their services bought in when needed and then disposed of much more flexibly. This is not so much history repeating itself, but returning to where it started with labour becoming much more ‘contingent’ and craftsman like. What lesson does this teach us about future-proofing our organizations? As with much experiential learning, often the power is in leaving us to join the dots ourselves, as the future is so uncertain. But to understand the present better is highly valuable in itself, so that we can make better sense of the future.