L&D and the Sense-Making Crisis

We are living and working in an era marked by multiple crises: environmental, economic, social and political. It could be argued that at the root of all these is a meta-crisis that stems from an inability to manage rapid change and increasing levels of complexity. It could also be argued this meta-crisis is epistemic in nature. In other words, it has to do with failing to effectively make sense of what is happening and to create, manage, and utilize knowledge in the context of rapidly changing complex systems.
One challenge is as L&D leaders, we are being called to support the development of new sense-making capabilities in areas where they were not needed in the past. Today, both managers and front line workers need to be able to think more critically, creatively and strategically to skillfully respond to the ever-shifting context of their work. These are no longer capabilities relegated to senior management.
At the same time, the C-suite is becoming increasingly reliant on bottom-up sense-making as the level of complexity increases. Strategies that worked relatively well in the past, which were analytical in nature, are bumping up against their natural constraints. To borrow the language of Dave Snowden, these approaches were designed for “ordered” systems where cause-and-effect relationships can be discovered through analysis or expert knowledge. As a system becomes more complex, as Snowden emphasizes, the approach must shift from analysis to “probing” – interacting and experimenting to generate new data rather than relying on existing data. Cause and effect is only understood through reflecting on a process of active experimentation.
This does well to frame the work in front of us as L&D leaders. How do we equip individuals and teams to effectively participate in this ongoing process of experimentation and reflection? What new mindsets and skills will they need? What systems can we help build to support this process?
The danger is that we remain too close to the surface to affect meaningful change. We can see this in many struggling initiatives, for example, to transition into more “agile” ways of working. Simply changing SOPs neglects the critical work to shift mindsets, values and ultimately culture to support a new way of being and relating to our stakeholders. A more fundamental shift is called for. 
One potentially useful framework for developing our thinking around this task is our Continuous Learning Tree Framework. It is based on Gregory Bateson’s Levels of Learning, as well as double-loop learning from Chris Agyris and Donald Schön.
The Continuous Learning Tree - Contact for Permission to Use
As strictly behavioral approaches to L&D fail in a changing environment where target behavior becomes difficult to predict, our focus must shift to developing the processes that lead to agile performance. The framework above helps us conceptualize two levels of process: one, the process of developing our thinking which leads to making appropriate decisions and two, the process of developing this first process. Bateson referred to the latter as an epistemological shift – a change in what learning means and how it happens. Another way to frame these two deeper levels is (II) learning how to learn and (III) learning how to learn to learn.
The third level is challenging to wrap our heads around, but we’ll make the case here it is significant for modern L&D leaders to reflect on and explore. Arguably, what we are experiencing is a breakdown in the current epistemology. The commonly held understanding of what learning is and how it happens is no longer sufficient for the challenges we face. For example, the notion that learning is largely synonymous with training is still common amongst L&D professionals not to speak of those in other fields.
Such an assumption brings with it what could be called epistemic habits, or unconscious learning patterns. For example, we may automatically look for an authority figure to direct us when uncertainty arises. This tendency rests on the belief that there is always someone with the answer. It’s not too difficult to see where this belief comes from – most of us were educated in an environment where the teacher had all of the answers and learning was about downloading them from the “expert.”
This paradigm works relatively well until we are presented with complex challenges for which no one has the answer. Such a situation requires a new epistemological approach. Simply learning how to learn without making a more fundamental change in what learning means is insufficient. We need to go deeper. 
Arguably, this critical work begins within L&D. It requires we explore and experiment with new approaches to collective sense-making as we begin to discover this emerging paradigm in learning. At the same time, we’ll need to be careful of slipping into old epistemological habits that no longer serve us, such as defaulting to looking for experts to give us the ready answer, or combing case studies for best practices to replicate. We must go deeper to explore the uniqueness of the stakeholder systems we serve and the emerging roles for us as resources to support continuous learning. The good news is that this work promises to be more interesting, engaging, valuable and meaningful than the L&D of the past.
How can you drive more strategic value as an L&D leader by developing capabilities and cultures of continuous learning? Book a short, no-cost, no-pressure call to explore. 
Tom Palmer