2. A brief overview of our expanding understanding of adult development, organizations and the common threads-Part 1

In this post and the next I want to provide a brief overview of some of the current understanding of adult development and organizations as a way of providing a foundation – or a point of departure – for my future blogs. My Intent is to provide a very quick orientation to how I conceptualize issues and some of the thinkers that have influenced my approach.

I have broken the topic into two pieces to order to keep them to a manageable length. This post will look specifically at adult learning and development. The next will focus on management and leadership and will conclude with some brief comments on the common threads between these topics.

The content of these two blog posts is drawn from the Personal Development Workbook that I put together to support my Narrative 360 Profile and coaching clients. My experience was that too often individuals had a 360 Profile done for them, often at great cost, but were then simply left with a Profile but no path for using the information. The up-shot is that many 360 Profiles simply sit on a shelf without generating the type of growth and development that was desired. While the Workbook takes a few hours for the client to work through they are rewarded with a personalized development/learning strategy that they can use to grow both professionally and personally.

Drop me a note if you want to hear more about how I do 360 Profiles and the Workbook.

But now let’s get started!

Over the past 30 years we have witnessed a significant growth in what we understand about learning, organization development, managing change, and leadership. Advances in many fields of study have contributed to this growing understanding – human development, learning and education, individual and organizational psychology, management and administration, economics, sociology, neuropsychology, mindfulness and spirituality to name just a few.

It would be easy to write pages on each of these topics and yet barely scratch the surface. Indeed there have been hundreds of books and article written to date yet we are far from knowing all there is to know.

What follows is a very brief overview of some of the most important – to my mind – thinkers and their thoughts in the areas of adult development and learning.

We know that humans can and do develop cognitively throughout their adult lives. The early work of Piaget, who identified stages of cognitive development in children, has been extended by other scholars like Robert Kegan who have identified a cascading number of stages of cognitive development that we can continue to transvers throughout our lives. Others, like Gardner and Goleman, have identified other forms or types of “intelligence” (e.g. emotional, social, spatial, linguistic, etc.) that we possess and can develop over our lives. Many observers refer to these types of intelligences as “lines of development.” Each type of “intelligence” or “line of development” contributes to our success. To attain our full potential we need to balance our development across the various lines or types.

Our understanding of the learning process has also become richer. Researchers like Jack Mezirow have helped us recognize that there are at least two types of learning: 1) informational learning - gathering more facts and “things”; and, 2) transformational learning - how we make sense of our experiences, the facts and things, in new ways. Mezirow also introduced the concept of the “disorienting dilemma” – the experience of finding that what had “worked” for us in previous situations doesn’t work in a new situation, causing us to restructure how we understand something – to connect the dots in a different manner – resulting in “transformational learning.” Sometimes these two types of learning are referred to as “horizontal” and “vertical” learning respectively.

Torbert’s work on “action inquiry” generated the concept of triple loop thinking. Broadly speaking triple-loop thinking is an expression of transformational learning that can emerge from a “disorienting dilemma” – but more importantly it encourages us to consciously shift our perspective or change the types of questions we ask thus developing a more complete understanding of a situation or experience.

Most of us have experienced the learning that emerges as we apply new skills or knowledge in our regular work or when we participate in a special project – this powerful vehicle for adult learning is known as “action learning” (a distinct process and not directly related to Torbert’s action inquiry). The process of action learning was first formulated by Reg Revans in the 1940’s and has become a main-stay in workplace-based learning. Now most professional development programs in North America make extensive use of action learning – embedding the learning of new techniques and processes in workplace-based projects. Self-awareness and reflective practice are also recognized as important aspects of adult learning. Donald Schon is, perhaps the most well-known proponent of reflective practice with his seminal book The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Practice (1984). David Kolb is one of several other authors, following Schon’s work, who have described the power of “reflection” in the learning process and his theory of “experiential learning” has also become a foundation piece for many adult learning programs. Consciously developing our capacity to reflect on experience means we can learn from the experience.

Mumford and Honey used Kolb’s basic cycle to identify different adult learning “styles” – we each have a preferred learning style but we can also enhance our use of the other three styles. Understanding our own preferred learning style helps us identify appropriate learning opportunities for ourselves. Recognizing the potential learning styles of others helps us identify opportunities to enhance how we work together.

Increasingly it is recognized that humans are “meaning making” creatures, we need to find meaning in what we experience. As our lives become increasingly complex we have the capacity to engage in increasingly complex thinking – but it takes a bit of work, we have to be willing to learn.

This has been a whirl-wind tour of a broad and complex set of topics and I make no pretext of having done justice to any of them. My sole intent has been to ensure that the reader has a high-level sense of the various topics that will be explored in future posts – a quick “lay of the land” overview. In the next posting I will continue this high-speed tour looking at our emerging understanding of organizational behaviour, management and leadership before finishing up with a few words on how the topics covered in these two posts can be woven together to create a robust understanding of how humans grow and learn and how organizations also evolve.

If you want to explore any of the topics in more detail here are a few references that will help you get launched – drop me a note if you have a question or would like some additional suggestions for further reading:

In Over Our Heads, Robert Kegan

Leading Minds, H Gardner

Emotional Intelligence, D. Goleman

Action Inquiry, William Torbert

Action Learning, R. Revans

Transformative Learning in Practice, J. Mezirow

Experiential Learning, D.A. Kolb

Manual of Learning Styles, P Honey and A Mumford

Teaching Smart People How to Learn, C. Argyris

The Reflective Practitioner, D. Schon

Similar to how our understanding of adult development and growth has evolved and grown in the past decades so to has our understanding of organizations, organizational development and our knowledge of leadership and management. But these are topics for my next blog post.

Love to hear any thoughts or observations so please leave a comment if you are so moved.