An Astronaut’s guide to learning

Space Oddity

Photo sourced from http://thewordofward.co.uk/chris-hadfield-the-making-of-the-space-oddity-video/

Over the summer I’ve (finally) been catching up on some reading and stumbled across a gem called An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Colonel Chris Hadfield. Col. Hadfield was an astronaut for over twenty years and commanded the International Space Station. His book details his journey to becoming an astronaut, something he wanted since he saw the first moon landing as a child, as well as lessons he learned along the way.

So what has this got to do with learning? One of the things I found most interesting about the book was how much of an astronaut’s time is spent learning and training – in fact, the vast majority of their time. In a twenty year career, Col. Hadfield went into space just three times. The rest of the time was spent training to be in space, troubleshooting for other astronauts, helping work through technical problems being experienced in orbit, and developing new tools and procedures to be used in the future to make space travel safer and more efficient. Most days, he notes, they train and take classes as well as sit many exams for which they often study on the weekends. On top of all of that, a key part of their service is having ground jobs supporting other astronaut’s missions which are also crucial for developing their own skills.

There are three key lessons I’d like to focus on from the book in this post. First is the role of reflection in astronaut training. Second is how how NASA created and facilitated a rich learning culture for their staff. Third is how Col. Hadfield went about planning the learning he needed throughout his career which often involved planning ahead many steps into an uncertain future.

Reflection

An absolutely key part of learning for astronauts was reflection-in-action as they undertook tasks as well as reflection-on-action after completing a task, mission, or simulation. Often this took the form of detailed debriefing sessions with all of the key stakeholders. These open and frank conversations and reflections were, Hadfield notes, at times painful but always important and helpful. He describes them as being key to operational and organisational success. My last blog post discussed the importance of reflection and I don’t think that it’s importance, particularly in contexts of uncertainty and “fluid work” (Lizier, 2017) can be overstated. The ability to reflect on our day-to-day work is key to learning through work but how can organisations encourage and reward reflection?

NASA as a “learning organisation”

The concept of the learning organisation (Senge, 1990) has been a popular one over nearly thirty years but not without criticisms (e.g. Fenwick, 2001; Caldwell, 2005). I have mixed opinions about learning organisations but, reading Chris Hadfield’s descriptions of NASA, I immediately thought of the learning organisation concept. In particular, the type of environment and culture that NASA created which supported and facilitated learning. First was a general expectation that everyone was learning all of the time. In addition, “everyone at NASA is a critic” as Chris Hadfield says. This is important to extract maximum learning opportunities from every situation. One quote from the book (p. 79) particularly stuck with me:

“At NASA, we’re not just expected to respond positively to criticism, but to go one step further and draw attention to our own missteps and miscalculations. It’s not easy for hyper-competitive people to talk openly about screw-ups that make them look foolish or incompetent. Management has to create a climate where owning up to mistakes is permissible and colleagues have to agree, collectively, to cut each other some slack.”

The last sentence in particular made me think. It made me think of working in organisations were they talked a good game about learning and encouraging innovation, experimentation, and risk taking but, ultimately, it was all just talk. People didn’t feel safe to make those criticisms or have open and honest conversations. At NASA their lives may depend on it and so it is OK to be learner at NASA, something that researchers (Boud & Solomon, 2003) have found is challenging for many people and organisations. There are key questions here for managers and learning practitioners: how are you supporting risk taking, experimentation, and innovation? Is it truly encouraged or are you just paying lip-service? What processes do you have in place to really, critically, debrief projects and tasks?

Career planning

The final point I want to discuss in this post is how Col. Hadfield prepared for his career by looking ahead and thinking about what skills might be needed in the future. As he notes, the requirements for astronauts change over time making skills obsolete. For example, the Space Shuttle program required skilled pilots who could fly the most complicated ship on earth for short periods of time whereas now astronauts and cosmonauts fly in a largely automated vehicle called a Soyuz. Col. Hadfield was particularly skilled at looking at what was happening and reacting to trends that he could see shaping the future.

That didn’t mean that he’d be right. He could be training for something that he would never have to do but it would mean that he’d be ready to take up opportunities as they arose. He emphasises this point, that, to take opportunities, you need to be prepared all of the time. An example of this is that he speaks fluent Russian and has been learning it for around 15-20 years. When he started learning Russian there was no formal announcement that space launches would move to Russia but he could see some key trends and wanted to be prepared. Turns out he was right and he was then ready to take opportunities to work at the charmingly named Star City (no relation to our not so charming edifice in Sydney) near Moscow.

Since this is the time of year when people are starting to think about (heaven help us) Development Plans for the coming year, this is a point worth making. We often ask people to think about their next role or where they want to be in five years but in current contexts of flux and change is that really going to work anymore? Perhaps it’s better to look around at key trends in your field and think ahead to the sorts of skills that would be broadly useful in the future rather than focusing on one or two specific roles which may not exist by the time you get there. For example, for learning practitioners, e-learning and augmented reality are becoming more influential along with STEM skills more generally. I’m planning on starting to learn some basic coding this year to fill that gap in my knowledge. I don’t think I’ll ever be a coder but at least I will have an awareness of what it entails and the key steps involved. I’ve also recently finished an online course about designing e-learning.

So, learning like an astronaut. I highly recommend the book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth as both an interesting read and a chance for learning geeks to really geek-out by reading about a true lifelong learner. It speaks to current key areas of lifelong learning and learning throughout one’s career as well as learning through work. You may also want to check out this video which made Col. Hadfield famous 🙂

 

References

Boud, D., & Solomon, N. (2003). “I don’t think I am a learner”: Acts of naming learners at work. Journal of Workplace Learning, 15(7), 326-331

Caldwell, R. (2005) Leadership and Learning: A Critical Reexamination of Senge’s Learning Organization, Systemic Practice and Action Research, 18(4), 335-434

Fenwick, T. (2001) Questioning the concept of the learning organization. In Paechter, C., Preedy, M., Scott, D. & Soler, J. (Eds), Knowledge, Power, and Learning (Ch. 6, 74-88). Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd: London

Hadfield, C. (2013) An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. Pan Books: London

Lizier, A.L. (2017) Investigating work and learning in complex adaptive organisations. Journal of Workplace Learning,

Senge, P (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Century Business: London

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What has Adriano Zumbo got to do with workplace learning?

I am the first to admit that I’m a bit of a “procrasti-baker” – I will happily bake while everything else goes to rack and ruin. As part of my obsession I’ve been watching a new TV show recently called Zumbo’s Just Desserts which pits amateur dessert makers against one another in a competition which also asks them to face regular challenges of making the devilishly difficult desserts of pastry chef extraordinaire, Adriano Zumbo.

As some might have noticed, one of my other obsessions is learning.  Specifically, how people learn at work. While I was watching the show the other night I started thinking about learning through work which I’ve been writing and talking about a lot lately in my PhD dissertation (nearly there!) and in the Designing Innovative Learning course I teach at UTS. The vast majority of research in the field of workplace learning tends to agree that learning at work tends to happen through the practice of work rather than separate from it in educational institutions or other “formal” courses. Experience, our own or vicariously from the experiences of others, is the single biggest way that most of us learn anything.

Obviously the contestants on the Zumbo TV show have learned through experience, through the trial and error of enthusiasts who are entirely self motivated. At one point, as they worked on replicating a challenging recipe of Zumbo’s I thought about his training.  The hard yards that he spent as an apprentice from his teens, all of the years gaining work experience around the world, and starting his own business. The winner of this contest, like the similar show Masterchef, seems to somehow circumvent this.  They win money, an entrée into work experience with famous chefs in the field, and so on. A short-cut if you will.  I started to wonder, is this fair?  Pastry chefs, along with many other professions, work hard to gain their qualifications and often at unsociable hours.  Is it fair that some hobbyist who was pottering about their kitchen gets all the glory?

More thinking ensued.  Bet you didn’t think that watching a cooking show, ostensibly to relax, could get so deep!

I needed to take a deep breath and remind myself that there is no “right” way to learn something and chastised myself for falling into the trap of creeping credentialism – the idea that learning hasn’t happened unless you have some sort of piece of paper or have done the “hard yards” to “deserve it”.  Nonsense!  This is exactly the sort of thinking that has got organisations into trouble for years.  Thinking that the only learning worth mentioning  must be trackable and measurable – generally a good, old-fashioned course.  How many managers or learning practitioners would (or should) welcome enthusiastic, self-directed, motivated learners who direct their own learning out of interest?  But is this what we reward?  Is this what we foster in making sure that everyone does the same sheep dip training sessions?  Organisations could learn a lot from the enthusiastic self starters on Zumbo’s Just Desserts.  How many of these motivated learners lurk within our organisations now but we’re not enabling them?

So, good luck to the contestants on reality cooking shows. Your learning is just as valid as the world’s top pastry chefs.  As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating!

 

What’s the value of workplace learning?

I managed to find a few minutes to read the newspaper on the weekend and came across an article in the Sydney Morning Herald that really got me thinking. The article, entitled Public Service spendathon is designed to increase emotional intelligence, was interesting for a number of reasons.

Expenditure on workplace learning

The article talks about the amounts spent on workplace learning in outraged tones. To those who work within the private sector, particularly in larger organisations, these amounts are pretty standard. Indeed they are often considered par for the course and a part of keeping employees engaged, skilled and motivated. It’s interesting to see that these amounts are somehow a waste when they are tax payer funds. I tend to wonder if the writer has ever attended a course like that in the course of their career? Why is it unacceptable for public servants to recieve this kind of development opportunity but fine as long as it’s not from the public purse?

Perception of the value of “soft-skills” training

This was a real eye-opener for me as a learning practitioner. I realise that a lot of people make fun of workplace learning, especially courses such as emotional intelligence (which is particularly targeted in the article), but this was the first time that I have ever read someone actually articulating their contempt of  so called “soft skills” courses. Sure, some of them are a bit…well…dodgy, but there are a lot that do a lot of good. I fail to see how management and leadership training aligned to business and individual needs can be a bad thing no matter who is paying. This brings me to my next point…

Why don’t public servants deserve the same development and engagement perks that private sector employees enjoy?

This seems an important question for me. The article focuses on public servants and hinges on the argument that this sort of workplace learning is not an appropriate use of tax payer funds. I agree with this in principle. The current government is asking a lot of people in their budget and it must seem that they need to get their own house in order so to speak if only from a perception point of view. My issue, which obviously we can’t tell from this article, is whether these learning initiaives were targeted and well planned and executed or whether they were just there to keep people happy and use up training budgets (not that anyone would every do that – guffaw). In the private sector there may not be tax payers but there are often shareholders – they seem to have cottoned on to the fact that nothing gets done without the staff but not so the public service. I wonder what would happen if shareholders suddenly started to take more of an interest in the learning and development? Would there be a knee-jerk reaction about waste and no development would occur or would they realise that it’s an important cost of doing business that could perhaps be better targeted in many cases?

Basically I think that this article has led me to the conclusion that we need to ask more questions about what we offer as practitioners, and as managers. No surprises there! Are we getting the best “bang for our buck”? Are we offering targeted development solutions that actually offer a need or are we just trying to look good or spend the budget? It’s interesting to get an outsider’s view on this as presented in the SMH article. It might do us all good to take this sort of view when we’re asked for a development imtervention or we want to organise something for our staff.

Back when I was an internal learning specialist (i.e. before I was a manager and had people to do this for me 😉 ), I developed a brief template to help me determine what the manager was actually after when they requested something nebulous like a “team building day” or some “communication skills training”. Here are the questions in summary  (based loosely on the GROW model from my last post) that should help learning practitioners to work out what’s needed and also help managers better brief learning practitioners and consultants.

  • What are the session objectives? What skills/knowledge/attitudes do you want participants to have at the end of the session?
  • What do you want the team/group/individuals to be able to do or think differently afterwards? Are you open to follow-up activities?
  • Is the session part of an overall conference/course/offsite? If so, how does it fit into the overall event?
  • What’s the budget and any time constraints? (I once was asked to run a half-day session on the Friday afternoon of a long weekend when many participants had early flights home which puts rather a dent in your time allocation!)
  • Where is the venue? What resources are available at the venue (including space as well as AV, etc)?

Not much has changed for women

When I was a young, enthusiastic uni student (still enthusiastic but not so young!) I believed that we had really made some head-way with equality in the workplace. Sure, there were some pockets of sexist idiots but basically the feminist project had worked. As I get older and gain more experience of the world I am, sadly, revising my position on this. All of the media activity in the past 24 hours has got me thinking about this again. It seems that the media is full of discussions about women in leadership in Australia and why there seems to be so little progress in getting more women into the top echelons of management in both large and small organisations.

For example:

Australian firms trail world for women in top roles – http://theconversation.edu.au/australian-firms-trail-world-for-women-in-top-roles-11008?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+conversationedu+%28The+Conversation%29&utm_content=Google+Reader

Female Leader concerns despite triumphs of ASX200 – http://www.hcamag.com/article/female-leader-concerns-despite-triumphs-of-asx-200-146777.aspx

While this is important I can’t help but think that this is not where we should be spending our energy. Of course we need more women in leadership roles (if they want to – that’s another story). I think that there is definitely a lot of work to do about entrenched sexism in the Australian workplace generally, not just at the management/executive level. By and large, these are educated women who can look after themselves and potentially seek employment elsewhere with a more appreciative or flexible employer should the need arise. It is the women further down the workplace food chain that worry me. The women too dependent on their jobs to take a stand, the women with few skills who think that they have no options, the women with no confidence who don’t feel like they can argue back. These are the women who still need help. An older female colleague once said to me (rather unbelievably) that we shouldn’t “rock the boat”. Her perspective was that she’d made it by “playing the game the boys’ way” and that the problem was, more or less, “solved”. I couldn’t, and still can’t, believe this attitude from a woman who really could have made a difference.

Just yesterday I was powerfully reminded of this by a phone call from a friend who had just had an appalling experience when applying for a job. My friend, a woman, works in hospitality management, specifically managing pubs and clubs. She has a lot of experience in this area and had applied for a new role that would be a promotion. Although this can be a male dominated area she’d never really come up against blatant sexism before…until last night. She got an email follow-up to her interview. They told her that she was a great candidate and they would definitely hire her for one of their other pubs but that for the job she had applied for the selection committee had decided that they needed a man to do the job. They actually put than in an email. She was, naturally, shocked, angry and upset. The only reason they had given for not getting the job was her gender. The most galling thing was that there doesn’t seem to be any recourse. Sure, you can go back to the employer and complain but where will that really get you. Legal avenues are risky and expensive. She doesn’t want her currently employer to find out that she’s applied elsewhere and she’s conscious that this is a small world and she doesn’t want to get a reputation for “being a trouble-maker”. What else is left?

I can’t believe that this can happen in 2012. At least these guys were honest though to give them some credit. How many employers make decisions like this every day but cover themselves with platitudes about not being the right candidate, stiff competition and all that. None of that helps my friend and women like her though. This is a situation that must play out repeatedly across many industries and roles across the nation. I’m lucky, I’ve always worked in a female dominated field. That hasn’t always stopped inappropriate questions about when I might start a family or whether my husband agrees with a decision I’ve made but by and large that’s as bad as I’ve ever had to put up with. The fact that I’ve ever had to put up with this at all is a truly sad indictment of the Australian workplace and we need to do something about it. My daughter is one year old and I am sad that this is the world she will one day need to navigate.