Learning is not Understanding

Possibly one of ther most hackneyed phrases of the current situation is “we will learn lessons from this”. It should be true, but more often it seems code for filing in the “too difficult” file.

Learning is a temporary phenomenon, like the taste of a new food. The real test of learning however is understanding, and that can take a lifetime. It’s easy to learn not to put our fingers in the plug socket, but until we understand why, we’re in danger around anything electrical. It’s easy to enjoy good food, but a lifetime to become a master chef.

I many ways most of our organisations seem to be at the light socket phase. We may learn not to run down our stocks of PPE down to such a level that it creates unneccessary danger in the event of an pandemic, but we seem not to have learned that it’s dangerous to run down our stock of Doctors and Nurses for the same reason. We may have learned that disengaged employees erode performance, but not that it’s a function of culture rather than an isolated episodic problem.

We trumpet connection technologies and the internet of things and then focus on the data it brings rather than notice the challenges of the emotions it generates and the unexpected consequences of its potential to variously spy on us or connect sociopaths to networks of hate and division.

The problem is that they are educated just enough to believe what they have been taught and not educated enough to question what they have been taught.

Richard Feynman

We need to understand that everything is connected to everything else. Everything. In nature, we see and glory in the variety of a beautiful view, but ignore the mycelial networks under our feet, thousands of years old and covering tens, sometimes hundreds of acres that connect and enable them. We plough up a field, and wonder why the trees in them suffer. We can learn to adopt “no dig” approaches though until we understand why we are condemned to repeat the basic error.

We may not stick our fingers in the metaphorical plug socket, but we still wonder why it’s a problem when we wire an equally metaphorical house on the cheap and it burns down. We may know what great food tastes like, but we still eart fast foods to save time despite knowing what they are made of.

We change our education to focus on STEM subjects at the expense of the humanities, and then wonder why we get inadequate leaders of STEM businesses.

We are leaving the safe waters of the largely understood and hitting the whitewater of the unknown, unpredictable and unforecastable.

We can thrive in these conditions as long as we really learn from the mistakes we will inevitably make to understand why it happened and what else it is connected to. Organisations that don’t learn this lesson will inevitably perish in the whitewater, and that’s fine.

It doesn’t mean we have to. We are capable of learning, understanding and adapting and can associate with those who also want to understand and apply what has been learned rather than those for whom the knowledge is a commercial inconvenience.

We should do that, not wait patiently to be taught. Curiosity and a desire to contribute is an important part of what makes us human.

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