Imagination, experimentation and learning

Schooling must undergo a massive shift from a bureaucracy that continues to promotes improvement and discourages risk-taking to micro-enterprises that are adaptive and in pursuit of ambitious targets for all learners. If you’re looking for some food for thought or discussion starters in the staffroom, I recommend Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini’s piece in the latest Harvard Business Review titled ‘The End of Bureaucracy.

In it, Hamel and Zanini profile in detail how Chinese appliance maker Haier reinvented itself to become not only a market leader but a company that has transformed the way people work from bureaucracy to an open ecosystem. As the authors point out, we live in a world where most employees are highly skilled, where the pace of change is ‘hypersonic’ and where advantage comes from being innovative. I would argue these realities exist in the education sector. Haier’s reinvention came as the CEO of Haier says ‘through an interactive process of imagination, experimentation, and learning.’

Just as Haier has successfully challenged a traditional business management model, we need to be thinking differently about the way in which we organise school structures including how we empower and skill teachers to support and lead diverse learning communities that are underpinned by a coherent learning framework for today’s world.

I believe the seven pillars that underpin Haier’s new model are almost all relevant to our work in schools. For example, moving away from top-down bureaucracy to small autonomous teams (10-15 people) supported by ‘nodes’ that provide specialised services. These autonomous teams evolve with little ‘central direction’ but share common approaches and standards. This leads to the second pillar – moving from incremental goals to growth and transformative targets. Core to this is the ability to use data effectively in order to set the bar high and once there, continue to grow exponentially. The question we must all be asking ourselves is how are we as a (teacher, student, school) exceeding last (week’s, month’s, year’s) performance?

The third pillar is moving from internal silos to a system where teams identify those internal nodes or external partners who can meet the current needs. As Hamel and Zanini write, ‘every node is invested in the performance of the team’. This requires that everyone accepts responsibility and accountability for the team’s work and works at optimal levels to achieve common targets. This mindset discourages mediocrity and blame.

Fourth is the focus on voluntary collaboration rather than top-down coordination. Haier’s approach is to organise its autonomous teams into common platforms and then help teams identify new opportunities for collaboration and for building capacity. This also required a move to open innovation, which acknowledges that those outside the team/organisation can also make a valuable contribution to the work.

Hamel and Zanini are correct in saying the problem with any closed system (be it business or schools) is that ‘it doesn’t adapt – it atrophies.’ Schools have to recognise that those historically fixed boundaries between itself and the outside world (physical and virtual) are not important. What is important, is the recognition that those who can make a positive and significant difference to the work of teachers may not come from those inside the school anymore.

Sixth is all about scaling entrepreneurship and creating opportunities, places and spaces to flesh out new ideas and approaches. For schools, it will be necessary to incubate new ways of learning and teaching that can be tested and where successful, adapted. Lastly, it recognises that staff are no longer employees but owners with a vested stake in the future of the organisation. While teachers don’t receive shares or bonuses, they recognise that what they do today has a significant impact on what happens tomorrow. I have been a strong proponent of giving teachers greater autonomy over their work because with that autonomy flows greater accountability and the need for greater transparency. At Haier, performance data for all teams is readily available and leaders are automatically changed if performance targets fail consecutively for three months!

Schools are not in the business of producing appliances but I suspect Haier will tell you they are not either. The work is being able to successfully reinvent ourselves for today’s learners in a web-enabled world.

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