Profile picture of Shoshana Boyd Gelfand of Pears Foundation.

Covid made us all into “learning organisations”

Learning in uncertainty

In the first blog of our learning in uncertainty series, Shoshana Boyd Gelfand reflects on what it means to be a learning organisation and how we might incorporate the new skills developed during the pandemic and embrace disequilibrium, to become lifelong learners.

Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is the Director of Leadership and Learning at the Pears Foundation.

The literature on “learning organisations” is vast. In a fast-paced world, those who are capable of continuous learning are clearly going to outpace those who aren’t. And yet we all know just how challenging it is to be one of those elusive “learning organisations”. Moving people from a place of comfort into a place of learning is never simple.

So, here’s the good news – if your organisation survived Covid, you are by definition a learning organisation. There is simply no way that anyone got through this period without adapting and learning new ways of working.

These new ways may have included new technical skills such as:

  • How to be part of a team when you can’t be in the same room together
  • How to fundraise when you can’t look someone in the eye
  • How to collaborate using online tools
  • How to work when your child/dog/neighbour is distracting you in the background

Just as important as these technical skills, we all had to learn new attitudes and dispositions:

  • How to function in a situation of great uncertainty
  • How to motivate ourselves and others following major disappointments
  • How to manage serious levels of loss (of life, of health, or just of normalcy)

Both the technical and attitudinal learning that we have achieved have been hard won. This learning has made us more resilient, more flexible, and – crucially – better at learning (which is fundamentally about encountering and engaging with something new). We have learned how to learn: a huge achievement and one not to be squandered.

The big question now is not how do we learn –hardship is often an effective teacher, and surviving a pandemic has effectively made us all into successful learners. Our challenge is now twofold:

1) How do we incorporate our hard-won Covid learning into our organisations?

As eager as we may be to spring forward into a “new normal”, it’s crucial that organisations pause and reflect on the changes we have made over the past year and a half. Many of those changes are worth holding onto! Organisations can ask themselves questions such as:

  • Under what circumstances should we continue to offer flexible work schedules?
  • Should we maintain a “paperless” office?
  • How can we continue to make conferences/meetings accessible and climate-friendly?

Leaders have an obligation to capture this learning, reflect on it, and consciously choose which practices to continue, and which ones to leave behind.

2) How do we continue to learn without the harsh teach of Covid breathing down our necks

So much of what we learned wouldn’t have happened without the pressure of closed offices and the simple necessity to somehow carry on with our vital work. If you had asked me two years ago whether I could do leadership training and team-building workshops online, I would have said no. I wouldn’t have even tried. And yet . . . what I learned during the pandemic is that this kind of virtual training is indeed possible. Some of the techniques that I discovered (by painful trial and error) are ones that I will carry on doing. But I never would have discovered them had I not been pressured into that. So, the question for me personally is how do I motivate myself to continue to be open to those things that I would have once dismissed as “impossible”?

The big question moving ahead is:

Can we not only incorporate the new skills we’ve developed during the pandemic, but can we also consciously embrace the disequilibrium that comes from being placed in new situations?

My personal conviction is that we have no choice. Our organisations have survived (at least thus far) perhaps the worst year that many of us could have imagined. We’ve lost so much during that time. The only way to make up for that loss is to learn from it – and to let it transform us into confident ongoing learners.

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