Generalities & specifics

The ‘Learning Knights’ of Bell Telephone in the Op/Ed section of today’s New York Time is a case study of Push learning vs Pull learning.

In 1955, Bell Telephone was concerned about leadership development:

“A well-trained man knows how to answer questions, they reasoned; an educated man knows what questions are worth asking.” Bell, then one of the largest industrial concerns in the country, needed more employees capable of guiding the company rather than simply following instructions or responding to obvious crises.

Bell set up a program called the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives. More than simply training its young executives to do a particular job, the institute would give them, in a 10-month immersion program on the Penn campus, what amounted to a complete liberal arts education.

Drawing by Dave Gray

The Institute was deemed a success overall but Bell was disappointed its graduates tipped the scale of work/life balance more to the “life” side:

One man [said] that before the program he had been “like a straw floating with the current down the stream” and added: “The stream was the Bell Telephone Company. I don’t think I will ever be that straw again.”

Over the following five years, Bell phased out the Institute of Humanistic Studies. Old ways die hard and once again, control preempted autonomy.

Today’s companies are grappling with the same issues Bell faced a half century ago. Are we confident our organization is preparing leaders who will be able to deal effectively with the challenges of the future?

  • Do we have the right balance of generalists and specialists?
  • Are we focused on the short-term or the long?
  • Should we teach what we know or inspire people to discover what we don’t know?
  • Isn’t the “soft stuff” as important or more so than the “hard stuff”?
  • Are our programs developing people we can trust to make the right decisions down the road?

I fear the training community is on the wrong side of these questions. The world is open-ended; it’s not assembled from black and white answers. Real life is painted in shades of gray.

You can’t measure discovery learning with an LMS but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. This does it mean you shouldn’t use an LMS to monitor compliance and formal learning either. In a healthy learning ecosystem, “Pull learning” and “Push learning” are symbiotic; you need a bit of both.

We need fewer drifting straws on the stream of American business, and more discontented thinkers who listen thoughtfully to both sides of our national debates.

4 thoughts on “Generalities & specifics

  1. Rex Davenport

    I sent this article to about 20 people within minutes of reading it. What I found most interesting was one of the reasons Bell bailed on the program was the participants started caring more about their lives and their families than they did about the company’s financial success.

  2. University of Iowa Fan Club Chair

    As a small business owner I can relate to the fine balance between finding intelligent ambitious employees and smart employees that are perfectly satisfied to complete their particular job requirements in an efficient manner without the nagging urge to move on to more challenging work.

    I’m a bit surprised I haven’t heard of this case study before.

    Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  3. Pingback: Harold Jarche » Institutions and vendors

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