Beethoven, Miles Davis and a Learning Management System Walk into a Bar….

The Role of Improvisation in Learning Ecosystems

I can never quite remember the punchline to that one, but I’m pretty sure it’s something about a “staff virus in ¾ time.”  Learning has always has a shared vocabulary with music, we talk about the rhythm or ‘cadence’ of a lesson, get concerned about the ‘tone’ of our instructional materials, and have even attempted to ‘drum’ something into a learner’s head through repeated application.  We’ve been having a lot of discussion within Raytheon Professional Services lately on this topic and in particular the analogy between traditional orchestrations, jazz and learning leadership.  To be sure, the analogies between Jazz and Leadership and are not new.  Although I may date myself by admitting this, I was a big fan of Max De Pree and his book, Leadership Jazz, back in the 90’s and, more recently, Yes to the Mess:  Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz by Frank J. Barrett

While the analogies in these books speak more to the charge of leading people and organizations; there are nonetheless some key points that I think have a place in the consideration of Learning Leadership in particular.  Specifically, there are a couple of lessons called out in Barrett’s book that I think applies well to where Learning is heading as an industry and our role as learning leaders:

The third chapter in Barrett’s book is titled Performing and Experimenting Simultaneously.  Again, while the examples cited in the book speak more to the role of leadership in general, I think phrasing beautifully captures the dual nature of today’s learner and our associated learning challenges.  More than ever, with the advent of imbedded and point of use training and Electronic Performance Support Systems, there is a blurred line being knowing and doing.  And with Adaptive Learning Designs, Curated Content, MOOCs and learner driven pathways, learners want greater autonomy in their ability to go broader and deeper than what prescriptive processes alone dictate as ‘needed.  It is more Jazz than Orchestration.  There is, and must be, a balance to this dichotomy as no organization has unlimited funds or time to commit to satisfy the natural curiosity of each learner.  How do we, as learning leaders and practitioners, design our learning Ecosystems for this?

Barrett’s 4th Chapter is titled Minimal Structure, Maximal Autonomy and in this and other writings, Barrett quotes Jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus as saying:

“You can’t improvise on nothing. You gotta improvise on something.”

This analogy really applies to any practice where improvisation is central to participation and development.  Viola Spolin, who is largely considered the matriarch of modern improvisational theater had this to say:

“If the environment permits it, anyone can learn whatever he chooses to learn, and if the individual permits it, the environment will teach him everything it has to teach.”   

Beyond showing that I can fill up a lot of space merely by quoting others, I think the point here is that in learning, like music and theater, participants need structure upon which they can embellish.   And establishing this environment, the Learning Ecosystem, which simultaneously enables learning within structure while encouraging exploration beyond itself, is the challenge of the today’s Learning Leader.

The good news here are that there are a lot of really good learning solutions available to us to help create and enable this goal.  The bad news, of course, is that there are a lot of really good learning solutions available to us to help create and enable this goal.  And like a classically trained musician, each has been built or trained to play their instrument or perform their role to perfection, but improvisation demands more than technical excellence

More and more I see organizations, and particularly large global organizations, who have bought into a best in class specific solution only to find that it doesn’t integrate, compliment or conform to the organization’s Learning Ecosystem.  The result of this wholeheartedly earnest attempt to create better learning environments and results is greater complexity, more platforms, more systems and ultimately more cost and learner frustration.

The solution is not found in plug ins, add-ons or platforms but in basic organizational and systems design practices.  Unless you’ve got time the time and money to watch Learning Darwinism play out in real time (see LMS providers), this means taking the time to slow down and conduct a thorough analysis of the owners, stakeholders and users of the organization’s Learning Ecosystem, and mapping them to immediate capabilities and long term plans for the organization’s technology infrastructure, competitive differentiators and business goals.  Learning cannot be optimized in a vacuum if Learning Leaders are to be successful.

Just like in a tight 3 piece ensemble, the best composition for your Learning Ecosystem needs to be the one that is able to play TOGETHER.  Take the time in the design and selection process to vet your players, see how they play together in a multitude of environments, and can adhere to your organizational style.  No one wants to find out that the band can’t find the sound when it’s time for the curtain to come up!

Bob Szostak’s musical education consisted of two guitar lessons at the age of 12 which he abandoned when it did not immediately transform him into Eddie Van Halen.  He is now rocks the role of Program Manager and the Manager of Business Development in North America for Raytheon Professional Services.