Kolb, OODA and real time learning

March 17, 2008

First of all – apologies for this not appearing by the tomorrow mentioned in the first entry; main excuse is I’ve been thinking, which almost always means delays. Anyway, in the previous entry I was making the case for those of us that work as consultants to act more like learners and participants on the assumption that organisations can be considered complex and essentially unpredictable. Today I’ll expand on the learner issue a little with the help of another four box model: David Kolb’s (or Kurt Lewin’s if you prefer) process of experiential learning. Given that Kolb defines learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” it’s intriguing to note the apparent lack of enthusiasm for applying his principles in the change/KM industries.

Perhaps its simplicity makes it easy to discount but, in my head at least, it’s more subtle than it looks at first sight – maybe the enhancements by Honey and Mumford have played a part here. Given its popularity in higher education there’s maybe a hint that application has been confined to perpetuating existing knowledge rather than creating new knowledge.

Back to the model; typically it is shown as a four stage cycle but I think it’s more useful to take a four box perspective, which Kolb uses as a springboard on the way to the cycle. The four boxes are formed by the interaction of two dimensions: gaining knowledge and transforming knowledge. The north-south axis represents opposing choices for accumulating knowledge: either via direct, hands-on experience, or one step removed via abstract concepts: the experience of others condensed into theories and guidance, hints and tips. Concepts and experience modify each other via transformation processes on the east-west axis: either by taking action in the outside world (experimenting) or by moving the furniture around in our internal world (reflection and observation). The interaction of the axes provides the scaffolding for moving between observation and action as described by Boyd.

The pitch: if your environment is complex learning is best viewed as a process for creating new knowledge than a method of perpetuating existing knowledge. So we are talking learning more as OODA and less as lessons learned. And what makes the sense making perspective so worthwhile is that the perspectives and tools offered provide a way to work with people on the observe and orient side of the equation – up until now the weight of consultancy products and services has been overwhelmingly biased towards decide and act (control freak and celebrity chef). And if you allow observation and orientation to become equals with decide and act in processes like goal setting, strategy formulation, coaching, performance review and feedback they become more like conversations between peers than a managed set of manoeuvres towards a predetermined end.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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