Can MOOCs Motivate Personal Change?

Part II: How Business Can Learn from Education

July 25, 2014

As I wrote in part one of this blog, my colleagues from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and I have been gratified by the initial success of our first MOOC, entitled GSE1x: Unlocking the Immunity to Change: A New Approach to Personal Improvement.

Based on exciting initial evidence, this course suggests that online learning can support more than information transfer, technical training, and content learning. It can also support what might be thought of as “personal learning,” including lasting behavioral change.  

This is an important finding, and one that is just as relevant to school districts as it is to private and public corporations. The reason is simple. Everyone has behaviors they would like to change, that they are in fact passionate about changing, but which they lack the tools to change. This course helps participants reach their improvement goals, which will make them better leaders—whether they are leading schools, school districts, a start-up, or a Fortune 500 company. The same is true for those who work within these organizations and institutions.

Indeed, there is mounting evidence that the behaviors we wish we could change are causing a massive drain not just on our personal well-being, but also on our overall productivity and the well-being of the organizations for which we work.   

In the featured article of the April 2014 Harvard Business Review, entitled “Making Business Personal,” Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey, the creators of the Immunity to Change course, along with two other colleagues, make the compelling case that people are spending an inordinate amount of time at work covering up what they perceive to be their failings, and less (or no) time working to improve them.

The question they pose is, “What if we channeled all the energy that is currently wasted on keeping up appearances into creating work environments in which identifying challenges and weaknesses was expected—a culture that acknowledged that adults can grow and change and gave people the tools to work on getting better?”

This is already happening in some organizations. And companies that have turned their employees’ struggles into growth opportunities are finding a new kind of competitive advantage—not just a robust bottom line, but also a stable and energized workforce. For this approach to succeed, however, employees must be willing to reveal their inadequacies at work, and organizations must create communities where this is safe and expected, and offer opportunities for improvement.

This insight—that organizations can be strengthened by openly identifying and addressing employee weaknesses—casts new light on the conventional wisdom regarding the relationship between business and education.  That conventional wisdom suggests that business has a great deal to teach education, and this is certainly true. But it is also incomplete.

Business can also learn something from the world of education, as demonstrated by Unlocking the Immunity to Change.

Here’s why. The aspiration of businesses to better develop their leaders and employees is essentially an education enterprise. Creating an environment safe enough to make mistakes and learn from them—and providing a “curriculum” challenging enough that such mistakes will occur regularly—is, after all, the core expertise of educators.

Unlocking the Immunity to Change connects this expertise with the latest research on adult education and adult development.

As public and private organizations in every sector of our society increasingly place an emphasis on developing the capabilities of those within their organizations, it is only going to become clearer that schools of education have a great deal to offer in this effort.

Those schools should welcome the opportunity, as HGSE has, to spread more widely what they know about learning, particularly adult learning and development. 

If education schools and businesses work together, we should see better leaders for our organizations, more engaged and productive workforces, and better organizations overall, whether they are schools, school districts, non-profit organizations, or multinational corporations.

James E. Ryan is Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Charles William Eliot Professor of Education.

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