When investing in corporate learning and development, I’m more interested in equipping people to learn than merely feeding them content—teaching them to fish rather than just giving them fish. For many reasons, I believe that learning how to learn is the sine qua non of effective development efforts today. We have access to a fact set and a body of knowledge that make our heads spin. Memorizing facts has shrinking value in this environment. Critical thinking that allows us to make sense of things in the midst of an increasingly complex, multi-dimensionally challenging and unpredictably changing environment is more important than ever.
Education is not only a principle focus of my professional endeavor, it also accounts for the largest single category of my personal spending. Though painful, I willingly make the investment in university educations for my three children because I believe I can give them few things of greater value, but I want to be sure that it is indeed a value. I feel the same way about corporate learning and development budgets.
In the film “The Graduate,” a businessman gives advice about how to invest one’s life to a recent college graduate played by Dustin Hoffman. “I have one word for you,” he says, “plastics.” Being more verbose, I give my own graduates 10 words of advice, “Learn how to learn, and learn how to think critically.” This can never be taken away and will never grow obsolete. We can only begin to imagine what our children’s world will be like and how it will differ from ours. While the specific content of their work is beyond our predictive powers, they certainly will need to be solid problem solvers. They will need the capacity for inductive and deductive reasoning. They will need to be able to identify faulty logic. They will need to learn from history and from their own experiences. They will need to know how to collaborate with and draw out the best from others. They will need to appreciate the value of increasing diversity and cultural differences. They will need the discipline to produce good work and to persevere when it becomes confusing and discouraging. They will need at least a basic understanding of new branches of science that did not exist five years ago. They will need to respectfully challenge assumptions, particularly their own. Finally, they must be able to develop and express a personal point of view on perplexing issues. By the way, the same applies to the mature adults who now populate our companies, bureaus and departments.
In the film “Dead Poets Society,” John Keating, an unconventional teacher, challenges his students to develop their own perspective. In one compelling scene, he reads the introduction to a rhetoric text that deals with poetry. The text provides a mechanistic formula for producing poetry and advocates memorizing the formula. Keating has his students tear out these pages of the text while yelling the word, “Rubbish!” “Think for yourselves lads!” he admonishes them. While I object to the not-so-subtle agenda expressed in the film that most teachers are unthinking buffoons who merely want their students to turn off their critical-thinking capabilities and memorize the rules, I heartily agree with the screenwriter’s end game for high-quality education.
So, you may ask, who is leading the charge for critical-thinking skills in the corporate world, and how are they doing it? Many people focus on the enhancement of critical-thinking skills and learning capability as a core strategy for corporate and institutional education efforts. Many CLOs are building experience-based curricula that emphasize reflection and sharing insights. Some of the best examples have been captured by The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). With more than 120,000 members, CIPD is the UK’s professional institute for those who manage and develop people. You can see some of the numerous case studies and best practices advancing learning on the Web site, www.cipd.co.uk/helpingpeoplelearn.
Mortimer Adler, the famous thinker, educator and writer from the University of Chicago, once said, “The telephone book is full of facts, but it doesn’t contain a single idea.” Prudent corporate leaders will invest in education, but in return they need to know that their people are learning how to learn and think critically, not merely memorizing the phone book.
Fred Harburg is senior vice president of leadership & management development at Fidelity Investments Company. Fred has held numerous international leadership roles and worked with several Fortune 100 companies, including IBM, General Motors, Disney, AT&T and, most recently, Motorola. Fred can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.