Exploring the Unknown

Daring to embark on a journey with all these unknown individuals and an itinerary as yet unclear, plus the high level of responsibility for one's own actions, posed a great challenge for many students. There was space for regular status assessments ("When and on what occasions did my motivation rise? When and where did it fall? What influenced it? What can I/we learn from this?").

All participants reported becoming more courageous and self-confident, as well as acquiring stronger attitudes as future change agents and as intra- and entrepreneurs. For many it was a new realization that learning can and may be fun, and that the presence or absence of joy, vibrancy and emotional impact can be markers of quality in learning. Embarking upon a process with an unclear destination, however, posed an unusual and in part also unsettling (in a productive sense) challenge. These elements offered a new facet of university education and personal development.

At our first joint meeting, we had difficulty communicating at first. Everyone seemed to have different expectations for the project. We couldn't even agree on how to accommodate the different components we had used to select this group. That was my personal assessment at the start of the first joint meeting. That's why I was slightly frustrated at the beginning, because I am someone who likes to have an overview and an idea of the working structure as early as possible.—In a matter of minutes the frustration started to dissolve. I had to remember something I had learned on the first day of the seminar, namely that it's important to be aware of the different competencies that each one of us has. Everyone had different points of view and ways of addressing the project. Plus different motivations and "visions." One couldn't see all that at the beginning, but this thought made me more open to all the ideas.... What I especially valued on our team was that it was clear to everyone that each one of us has a different point of view. Everyone was open for the ideas of the others, which inevitably led to my having a lot of fun in the group! Everyone felt at ease and at home in the group. No one felt like they weren't understood or that they weren't able to contribute enough. I hadn't experienced this type of teamwork before. Communication during the preparation for the event was excellent. We mastered it all in a very short period of time with a minimum of stress. Not because we had planned well, but because the communication worked.[1]

Right in keeping with the subject—a learning journey—we didn't know at the beginning what all we would encounter on this trip, and as a consequence we simply had to take things as they came, or in other words we both could and had to decide on our own for the most part which direction we next wanted to take next.[2]

Learning Journeys are designed conceptually to be inductive. As such, knowledge and theory on the core topics (such as value-based and sustainable management, entrepreneurship as an attitude, gender and diversity, teambuilding/leadership, project development, marketing of topics) are provided in structured form, but reinforced primarily at points when relevant questions are articulated by participants in conjunction with an interest or recognizable problem.

In this context it proved very important to set up an intensive ring of external experts and coaches who could be approached and included as additional resource persons throughout our journey. A dialogue-based and interactive method of getting to know others at the start set the signal for this external guidance on the journey. From different fields of practical experience, these experts represent additional "resonance chambers" for relevant topics of the Learning Journey and for the team's questions. For their part, the experts have the opportunity from time to time to have the students take the role of colleagues and reflect on the challenges they face in their entrepreneurial routines. This role switch reinforces recognition of a dialogue-oriented learning approach based on mutual exchange, and also promotes new ideas and self-confidence on the part of the students. Not infrequently, these exchanges served as launching points for future joint activities.

Enterprises and projects developed on the Learning Journeys include proposals for activating intercultural neighborhoods and enhancing residential environments, programs to foster social competencies in schools, and sustainable management of community-owned resources (commons) such as drinking water. Platforms were devised that give away, market or lend social ideas—instead of selling them—and thus professionalize a critical attitude toward consumption. Many ideas found application essentially in participants' own back yards, others were coupled with global reference. Some were motivated by a pronounced social business aspect, others focused primarily on social profit. All the teams drew impetus from actual practice, and thus also impetus for further development. They all drew on a common experience of societal problems and situations of exclusion or discrimination as challenges and creative sources for generating ideas for social entrepreneurship.

For the seminar leaders, who view themselves as travel guides, the inductive approach means a high degree of flexibility in providing knowledge at the right point in time in terms of group dynamics, that is, when knowledge can be "heard" and perceived. The aim is to foster and allow friction in the learning process, but also to intervene in the group dynamics and provide stimuli if processes sputter and the group is in danger of overtaxing itself. For the students, whose attitude is that of both learners and social entrepreneurs, participation entails a greater than usual degree of investment and responsibility for their own learning success. The additional coaching on participants' personal change and learning aims provides important stimuli in framing both individual and group learning and in enhancing the capacity to learn ("learning to learn").

In-House Business Example: Learning Journeys as Cultural Changes in Organizations

As an in-house measure, Learning Journeys offer a comprehensive development program for organizations and teams. They provide ways to closely link the development of an organization's culture (Schein, 2003; Senge 1996) with that of its personnel. Development objectives are jointly defined, and employees discover new developmental opportunities. High-potential individuals, junior administrators and project leaders are not the only ones to receive the new challenges they need for promotion. Individuals whose potential has not been recently apparent or who have had few chances to perform also receive new opportunities for development. This is important for organizations undergoing fusion processes, as well as for those seeking to give long-term employees new inspiration and motivation. By encouraging a "think outside the box" point of view, Learning Journeys release energy. Over recent years, a number of in-house Learning Journeys have been carried out.[3]

The development opportunity of Learning Journeys led the management of a large mid-sized company to embark upon the adventure of a Learning Journey from January 2010 to September 2011 with an approximately 30-member team from its strategic development division.[4]

The day-to-day activities of this division had increased exponentially. Its job was to support the company's strategy, to inspire and further develop. The company was faced with the task of further developing its international activities. In short, it needed people who would take on projects as their own.

The team had previously generally met twice a year at one and a half-day retreats with a focus on further training. Attendance at the retreats had an incentive character, and employees especially valued the informal part of the biannual meetings with a view toward strengthening the division's identity. This was due in part to the fact that upper and midlevel managers exchanged ideas with specialists and assistants at the retreats.

However, despite general satisfaction with the retreats, it was apparent that only with great effort were any of the self-formulated development aims or methods acquired actually put into practice. What should be done? The division had undergone numerous changes such as fusions and new management. This had promoted distrust and the formation of cliques. An upcoming transformation—triggered by yet another change in management—was taken as an opportunity to strive for deeper cultural change in the form of a more vibrant organizational culture. This opened the door to carrying out a joint Learning Journey for the members of the division.

Station 1—Launch

The launch of the Learning Journey marked a departure from routine, both in the types of intervention and in the ways of working together. After all the departments made brief presentations on their areas of activity, an exceptionally precise and qualified feedback process was introduced for everyone by everyone.

As part of the first workshop, its site was changed—from a hotel with service orientation to a historical production site which demanded improvisation and self-organization on the part of all the participants. The aim of this intervention was to emphasize the fact that in spatial terms as well, the management was serious about its strategy of moving beyond personal comfort zones. At the new site, the initial Learning Journey groups were formed with the aim of transcending the trodden paths of working or social relations. They started by addressing pre-specified research topics relating to the core elements of the company's mission statement: values, working principles, vision, and so forth.

Station 2—Interim Destination in the Study Process

Given the expectations of change from this process, it quickly became clear that it was not advisable to leave the process to its own devices for half a year—as was otherwise the case between retreats. An "interim destination" was held after a few months for the Learning Journey groups, in order to stabilize the character and framework conditions of the Learning Journey and to offer support measures for the work being done by its groups. In particular, self-organizational skills were encouraged—colleague-to-colleague coaching was systematically established and team role models introduced on a group-wide level. The message was clear: the matter is serious. Not just that things should change, but also that each individual was called upon to contribute to this change. It was only at this point that many participants realized and clearly sensed for the first time what was going on in cultural terms, what the shared task consisted of, and what opportunities this process offered for them personally.

Station 3—Letting Go, to Open The Door to New Perspectives

The next major intervention for the Learning Journey participants took place at the subsequent workshop in autumn: After the Learning Journey groups presented their first experiences on visits with other organizations, we decided in our role as guides for this Learning Journey to "dissolve" the Learning Journey groups formed earlier. We wanted to open the Learning Journey to self-selected topics identified as relevant to actual practice. This led to new constellations of Learning Journey groups, into which the experiences of the first phase of the Learning Journey could flow.

Some of the group members reacted with indignation at first. After all, they had truly warmed to the task of mastering the challenges posed to the first learning groups, above and beyond personal sympathies, had become effective, and had begun to identify with the topic and the results. They still had so much to do as a group—and now they had to "start from the beginning again."

As part of the development contract, however, our aim was not to establish new subgroups for the division but rather to activate its members. The aim was to strengthen all the members of the group in their capacities for improvisation and self-organization without an extended "warming up" period. They were to be capable of forming topic-focused groups that are able to take prompt action without preparatory hurdles. The topics that these new Learning Journey groups then selected showed even greater relevance to their daily work. Learning Journey groups formed around core strategic questions of content, around trans-divisional questions of working with other units in the company, and on basics of working together within the division. Many participants were delighted with the power unleashed in the groups' operations and in the potential for further developing this as a Learning Journey. Now at the very latest, the matter had become serious.

Station 4—Exploring the Unknown

The ground was prepared for intensifying the Learning Journey by means of a shared adventure. Our role as travel guides was also intensified by the shared trip into what was new terrain in part for us as well. An encounter in an artistic and social context broke taboos. An off-the-cuff decision had been made to improvise a tour of an exhibition in subgroups —without attempting to convey truth. But it was supposed to be convincing. The exhibition and the context of its presentation got under the skin of some participants and pushed them past their limits. The groups responded in different ways—some with humor, some with astonishing command of the context, others with shock. As an overall team, the group had the experience of mastering the "ungraspable." It experienced first-hand the diverse range of competencies that it possessed, and the importance of context and trust for the ability to process profound experiences and to actually live tolerance and spontaneity. In the view of many of the participants, in was the "best workshop." It is doubtful that anyone will forget it.

Station 5—Polishing Ideas, Generating Action

For many participants, it remained a challenge to repeatedly take time for the Learning Journey process in working days that were often over-scheduled anyway. It became apparent that especially those teams that had opted for questions with direct relevance to their activities succeeded more easily in integrating them into the routine of their other activities. Dealing with internal and exterior resistance was the focus of this workshop. Not only previous successes, but also failures were to be accepted and reflected upon. This mode of "searching-deciding-trying out-assessing-adapting-searching some more," together with all the methods learned, worked its way into the organization's everyday practice.

Station 6—Arriving and Setting Off

The effects of the Learning Journey groups brought visible successes to the rest of the organization as well. Fuelled by the question of "What exactly are they doing?", interest arose among top members of management as well to take part in the concluding event of the Learning Journey. The Learning Journey groups impressed others with their results and presentations. Pride was evident—as well as clear motivation on the part of most groups to continue working on their topics and especially on this type of work.

In sum, in the client's view the investment in the Learning Journey paid off. Responsibility was taken for dealing with topics and questions that are important to the group. Groups organized things for which there was a noticeable need but which had not yet been provided by the organization. The ground was prepared for the ability to "say things as they are."

All the participants in the Learning Journey underwent an "empowerment process" of acquiring a greater degree of self-confidence and a more matter-of-course ability to organize things on their own. They emphasized the experience of finding ways to articulate their own perspectives as bases for action, and of organizing options with a service orientation themselves, as a remarkable change over the situation before the start of the Learning

Journey. Everyone was heard, and ideas could come from every level of the hierarchy and be made fruitful: "Other people know things too!"

In assessing the Learning Journey, a major question was how the next step could be taken of shaping connectivity with other divisions of the organization. It was here that the image of "rising dough" emerged, which expands and has the power to put new areas into motion as well. What conditions are needed for this new culture of learning to thrive?

  • [1] Student of industrial engineering, asked about "lessons learned" following the Learning Journey.
  • [2] Student of civil engineering on "lessons learned" following the seminar.
  • [3] Special thanks in this context to organization developer Silvia Nossek and her spirit of innovation.
  • [4] Company details have been rendered anonymous.
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