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Purpose-Driven Learning in Turbulent Times

Published Tue Jun 23 2020


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Business growth and human values are not incompatible. According to a recent study, purpose-oriented companies witness higher market share gains and grow on average three times faster than their competitors, all while achieving higher employee and customer satisfaction.

Organizations achieve these results by embracing the bigger picture and considering the experiences of stakeholders, including employees, customers, suppliers, partners, and communities. People want to work for and conduct business with organizations whose purpose is focused on society's greater good.

As individuals and organizations, we are processing a lot right now. In times of stress and fear, our natural instincts are to retreat, defend, and adapt to the present. However, the right thing to do is to act and to collaborate on shaping a new future. That means we need to learn new ways to think, behave, and react in a rapidly changing world.

How do organizations facilitate this kind of learning? A few months ago, the standard answer would have entailed physical presence: all-hands meetings, workshops, conferences, and so on. The shift to remote work has made those opportunities obsolete for the foreseeable future.

Even before the pandemic hit, purpose-driven organizations were looking beyond physical learning experiences to use technology to improve access, break down regional and functional silos, and drive meaningful change at scale.

Purpose in an organization involves learning to work collectively and leveraging engagement. To achieve this dynamic, organizations have transformed key learning programs such as leadership development, customer experience, onboarding, and sales enablement to enable real personal reflection, practical application of learning, and discussions with peers, experts, and managers. Doing so has enabled communities of purpose-driven change agents that span global enterprises to emerge.

These organizations have embraced three core concepts of purpose-driven learning: growth mindsets; diversity, inclusion, and authenticity; and connections to sustain change.

Growth Mindsets

Growth mindset in learning is based on the work of Carol Dweck and research into brain plasticity. In purpose-driven learning, the growth mindset invites learners to think beyond themselves. Rather than focusing on being better than others, the learner aspires to be better for others.

The mindset also applies to those creating and delivering learning experiences. Those with growth mindsets:

  • Believe that change can happen and that learning has an impact that reaches into the world

  • Believe that learners are capable of engaging in learning practices that challenge them to do things like recording a video, collaborating with teammates, or performing a task they haven’t before (expectations should be higher than simply watching videos)

  • Anticipate that earners will rise to new challenges as we adapt the design of our learning experiences (if they are unsuccessful, we may need to reconsider the design and not just blame the learner)

Diversity, Inclusion, and Authenticity

The sudden shift to remote and distributed work presents challenges and opportunities for promoting diversity, inclusion, and authenticity at work. The risk is that diverse faces and voices disappear when we’re not in the same building. How do you create the sense of an inclusive community without the opportunity for simple “water cooler talk” to casually connect, share lived experience, and create common understanding?

The growth mindset turns this risk into the opportunity to develop D&I as an organizational capability. Intentionally designed digital learning experiences can increase visibility of diverse learners and promote thoughtful reflection and conversation. This requires more than transactional modalities such as video conferencing to create an online learning community that includes open forums, small group discussions within groups, reflection, and deliberate practice. Engaging leaders within the learning and showcasing model practices reinforce the purpose of the learning.

Connections to Sustain Change

Purpose-driven learning creates the learner engagement required to enact change. But to sustain change requires collective action that can enable change at all levels of the organization over time. The optimal learning experience should create meaningful connections among learners, managers, and mentors that promote accountability, foster a dynamic learning environment, and accelerate skill development.

On a practical level, this means enabling peer discussions, engaging with leaders and mentors, and collaborating in teams to learn how to solve meaningful problems.

Learning That Makes a Difference

Whether working remotely or at a physical distance, the past few months have highlighted our human needs for social connections in learning. Purpose-driven learning can align organizations and individuals on “why you do what you do, and to what end do you do it.” With the right mindsets, design, and technology, organizations and their workers can collaborate to advance their business from a stance of strong purpose and shared values while providing the sense that all stakeholders are being served and valued.

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