Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Recalling the Learning Knights

One place this blog returns to again and again is the intersection between human capital and social capital. Workers who share more - who get together to collaborate, socialize, even argue and work through differences - tend to trust each other more, and that opens the door to better and more creative cooperation. And, as we have argued so often here, ingenuity and inventiveness come from collaboration, not solitary effort. You also want, we have pointed out, workers who can engage in productive arguments. Push overs, yes men, sycophants and conformists won't help your organization attack challenges. Firms need people who can analyze a problem, formulate a response, defend that response against alternate approaches, and, when confronted with better ideas, acknowledge those ideas and work to construct viable and robust solutions that weave together the best elements of several proposals. Only rigorous and confident thinkers can do this.

We were reminded of this by an article in the New York Times, written by Wes Davis, a writer and former English professor at Yale. Davis' essay, The 'Learning Knights' of Bell Telephone, is about a program offered by Bell Telephone in the late 1950s, called the Institute of Humanistic Study for Executives. The program was ambitious - a 10 month long series of lectures, course work and reading assignments, designed to create employees who were "capable of guiding the company rather than simply following instructions or responding to obvious crises."

The Graham School has offered programs with similar goals. Innovative leaders at approached us several years ago to offer a program that, while less far-reaching than the Bell Telephone program Davis writes about, brought University of Chicago instructors into the Careerbuilder offices every month, to teach seminars on Shakespeare's Henry V, Plato, Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Einstein's Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, and other unlikely readings for a Friday afternoon at work. Careerbuilder's CEO believed it would help his employees think clearly and more attentively if they were exposed to "great thinkers, thinking at the top of their games." It also, I would point out, brought employees from all across the firm's landscape together for a few hours each month, creating contacts, friendships, and working arrangements that might not have otherwise existed.

Our Leadership Arts Certificate, recently refashioned as a Summer Institute in Leadership Arts, was guided by similar motivations. Drawing from philosophy and literature - including Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Thucydides, and, this summer, Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago - the Leadership Arts program crafts a curriculum that reminds us that leadership and workplace issues deal with the oldest and most persistent questions we face: what motivates us, how does our work matter, and what is the glue that binds us together?

One complaint we hear: none of this is practical. But it is. -->

As an example, one valuable lesson we can take away from Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago is a refreshingly ambitious approach to planning. At the core of Burnham's Plan of Chicago was this truth: we don't know what the future will bring, and our plans should be audacious and scalable (to use a contemporary business term). Don't focus only on what is practical or necessary given one's assessments of present needs and circumstances. Plans should be more far-reaching, more aspirational.

The problem with the way Chicago developed, Burnham believed, was that it emerged as a collage of uncountable pragmatic decisions or accommodations; there was no plan. How many workplaces are just like this? This approach to development (of a city or an organization) inevitably leads to dysfunctionalities. But the response shouldn't be to assemble a plan that addresses these dysfunctionalities, this chaos, and these shortcomings. Instead, plans need to look beyond the present and plan for the future. Too many organizations - guided by leaders and employees who can't think more expansively - create processes to fix problems, rather than plans to move beyond these problems and into a future that can only be imperfectly viewed from our present vantage point.