Team learning contract v team culture in business

Stating

The development of our new team learning contract symbolically represented the concrete beginnings of our new team. It was an opportunity to reflect on the old, decide where our new group wanted to go and an opportunity to consider strategically in the short term, what exactly we need to learn as a team and where our learning gaps are. Drafting a team learning contract provided us with the opportunity to learn and to consider our business learning needs; a call to learning action and a new beginning. However, what could have been a positive process was intensely difficult.

As a team we really fought against a process that forced us to sit down and plan, considering deeper learning needs of our team and pin pointing them. There was a significant lack of motivation surrounding completing it and many voiced their concerns of it being too restrictive. As a collective, we fought against thinking about the things we might need to learn, preferring to just get out there and doing it. There were significant feelings of frustration and demotivation surrounding this activity.

Whilst the process was very slow, it forced us to strategically consider ways of how we could tackle the low motivation and to ensure that this painful process, really did add learning value in our team.  The contract our team submitted was something that everyone agreed on, contributed to and saw value in for our business. We made our contract a mixture of group learning objectives that were directly focused on starting up our business and several individual goals that the team would buy into sharing out the skill sets within the team and spreading out the learning within the team alongside learning from others in the team. However, after the team contract completion, there was disengagement within the group regarding the contract’s implementation. The old lack of motivation appeared and by some members, it was disregarded.  This is suggestive that the creation of a learning contract within a team alone is not enough to absorb the value from it and that something else must support it, in order to encourage execution.

Deconstruction

A learning contract is a leading learning tool that provides direction and offers a “flexible, individualised programme of learning (Gower 1998:1).” The learning contract undeniably has potential as a tool to plan learning, but when motivation to complete one is low and the focus is entirely on its completion, instead of its value, does it serve a purpose for our team? We were introduced to a structured template, in which we had to structure our future learning and objectives. The different elements of self-awareness in regards to personal skill sets and team competencies caused an issue in terms of identifying areas we needed to work on. Moreover, the level of imposition on the team and the prescribed, structured nature of it seemed to alienate many within the team. It was uncomfortably forcing the group to sit down as a collective and plan our learning, rather than just getting out there and doing it.

Our first draft was basic, completed quickly and was incredibly superficial. Moreover, it was completely action orientated, based on quick, tangible results above contemplating any learning to go behind them. Our contract also didn’t consider what the impact of completing the objectives would mean within the team and how we could use our learning strategically to strengthen the team. Our action orientation, within a group strongly led by activists, was not a surprise and is representative of our current team culture. Reflecting on this action orientation approach within the group, this was clearly an underlying issue; as a team, we had an action focused, quick results culture. Considering an intangible like learning in a long term sense, did not fit into our culture. Our culture is to complete the tasks and perform well, any learning is incidental and rarely reflected on as a group.

The beginning of our second draft, began with two questions; 1. What do we need/want to do? 2. What do we need to learn in order to fulfil those objectives? We selected two objectives that we wanted to complete as a collective, which would have direct impact onto our business planning, bringing about tangible benefits alongside learning. Secondly, we picked out areas that individuals would like to work on for the benefit of the team, e.g. pitching and how this learning would be brought back into the team and utilised effectively. Our overall goal was to build a stronger team, one that learned from each other and built learning into enhancing our performances.

Conversely, even this team contract remained very action orientated, but it was a compromise within our current culture. In order to get any engagement we had to build in results to complete the task. The learning within our contract, although more a dominant factor than our first draft, was still very much secondary. The lack of motivation concerning imbedding learning into our teams and our process towards the learning contract, evidenced how we viewed the learning process within our team and our team culture Consequently, whilst we have completed our team contract, it remains action orientated and the planned learning elements make implementation difficult.

Theorising

A learning contract can only be effective where the learner plays a “leading role” in its development; as such it is an active process (Gower 1998:5). Whilst in theory, it promotes independent learning and an increase in group skill awareness, its functionality, practicality and value lies within the attitude and commitment of the learners to the process and the team’s culture in which it exists (Gower 1998). Each individual involved needs to not only see the team value but the individual relevance to their learning (Knowles 1986). Moreover, as a team learning contract consists of different people, it needs to embody different learning styles, action and paces of learning; it should be a challenge to the team and the individual (Knowles 1986).

Furthermore, a learning contract is only as viable as the context in which it is expected to function within. An action orientated organisation, unaware of its learning needs, will be unable to see the value of a learning contract, as they are unaware of the need to learn and planning learning distracts from the action orientation and feels like stagnating (Gower 1998). Consequently, the contract in isolation is ineffective, it is about imbedding the process of learning into the team, embracing all the mediums our team members learn by (Pedler et al). As such the contract alone should only direct learning to reach specific objectives, there must be a willingness to learn and to try, in the first place; the awareness of the need to improve must exist (Hills 2001). Therefore, creating a learning team culture is potentially crucial to imbed learning within the team and encourage it as an active process.

Team culture is defined as cultivated and developed “norms” within a team and can be utilised as a competitive advantage against competitors (Hills 2001). A learning team culture is “a wish to increase independence rather than a desire to please” and one that “values being willing more than being capable” (Hills 2001:55). It signifies a desire for improvement and a learning contract sets out the means in which such improvement can take place (Gower 1998). Moreover, a learning team in the long term is one that has higher performance levels and remains in a state of constant evolution (Gower 1998).

Therefore our success in the long term is reliant on exploring and developing a team learning culture in which a learning contract could add value within our team, moving away from our action orientation and creating a learning environment. Cottrell (2011) highlights the key aspects of any learning team is one that encourages, collaborates, challenges, co-operates and critically analyses itself. She points to changing the culture into one that learns by doing from its own experience, one that stimulates thinking, accepts that people learn in a variety of ways and one that is internally motivated to learn from within the team.

Regardless of our action orientation, of team culture has developed markedly, changing from what was once a highly procedural team into a conceptual team that values not only what members do within the team but the intangibles they bring as a contribution (Hills 2001), consequently as a team we are capable of progress and change. More than ever, we are willing to explore ideas, learn from our peers and we are increasingly growing in independence. However, as a group we still focus on a power driven culture that seeks results and action, learning has to have an immediate tangible purpose (Hills 2001).

Consequently, our team learning contract exists within a team that currently doesn’t have a team learning culture, a compromise between action and learning; a learning contract alongside a strategic plan of action. This avoids the two problems that Revans (1980) highlights as endangering teams without a learning culture, task fixation and a lack of awareness of team learning needs. By combining the strategic planning process alongside the development of a learning contract, the team is able to construct a plan of what needs to be actively done to complete an objective and the learning contract, enables the team to consider what they need to learn and how they are going to learn it, in order to start implementing the strategic plan.

Within the team contract differing levels of awareness and competencies can be an undermining issue (Gower 1998). Gower (1998:26) highlights a competency awareness model which sees the learner to label their competences as an unconscious competence, conscious competence, conscious incompetence, or unconscious incompetence. Consequently, the team learning element adds an extra dimension, as a supportive factor and learning tool in which, unconscious elements can be identified and exploited as learning opportunities through a feedback process to the benefit of the team and the individual.

Considering current motivation within the team as a collective to change our team culture into a learning one, McGregor’s motivational theory is worth exploring. Potentially as a group, we have moved past the theory X stage and we are no longer looking for someone to prescribe what to do and sometimes we even rebel away from prescription, like with the learning contract; consequently we are no longer motivated by being told what to do (McGregor 1960). But theory Y doesn’t quite apply to us yet, because we’re not self-directed and open in our learning to actively seek out learning opportunities (McGregor 1960). Hence we fall in the middle and tasks that the group isn’t interested there is a lack of motivation within.

Constructing

Consequently, whilst our team learning contract is viable, there is a questionable element about the motivation to follow it through. The team learning contract will only add value as a tool, if we make a conscious effort to imbed learning into our team’s culture and lessen our action orientation; creating a learning culture. As such we need to slow down and reflect on our learning needs, creating a safe environment in which we support each other to grow and make mistakes (Hills 2001). Changing our culture is about changing our results driven mind-set and developing a culture in which our learning contracts don’t impose learning on to us, but help direct our already active learning process.  As such, we must equally take action, to change our attitudes in the team.

Cottrell, S. (2008). The Study Skills Handbook. (3rd ed.). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gower, GB. (1998) A Complete Guide to Learning Contracts. Hampshire: Gower Publishing

Hills, H. (2001) Team-Based Learning, Hampshire: Gower Publishing.

Knowles, M. (1986) Principles of Learning : Learning Contracts. San Francisco: Jossey Bass

McGregor, D (1960) The Human Side to Enterprise. USA: McGraw Hill

Pedler et al. (1991) The Learning Company. Maiden Head: McGraw Hill

Revans et al (1980) Action Learning. London: Blonde and Briggs

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