Ready for the Future


The Four Principles of Nomadic Learning in organizations

Many years ago Peter F. Drucker warned that the most dangerous thing in times of turbulence and change is not the change itself, but our tendency to operate with yesterday’s logic. Nomadic learning gives a way into the future. It provides people with creative and agile ways of thinking and acting. They become resilient in the complex ecosystems in which organizations have to operate these days.

Are we 'fit' for the future? How do we deal with change? This literature study about the future of work gives insights and a supporting way towards the future with Nomadic learning.

Written by An Kramer, Associate of de Baak,
Institute for Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Personal Development.
Driebergen, Noordwijk, The Netherlands.

First Published in On the Horizon, Emerald, Vol 21
Special issue 2 - Knowmad society: borderless work and education

Guest editor: John Moravec

Greater flexibility and adaptability to change. A growing number of managers and executives are aware of the need for these qualities in their own employees and organizations. “The actual reality in organizations is that they are permanent confronted with changes” (Castenmiller and Mulligen, 2012, p. 14). (My translation) The common truth in most companies, however, is that they are organized in ways that inherently discourage change. In The Social Psychology of Organizations, authors Daniel Katz and Robert L. Kahn (1978) note that the core problem of any social system is the reduction of variability and instability of human actions to uniform and predictable patterns. Organizations were designed to guarantee stability. Process improvement has become popular, from quality management to Six Sigma programs, in order to fulfill this desire for stability and predictability.

However, in these days of on-going, huge, and ever faster changes, companies are not well equipped to adapt in time. We observe small networks of entrepreneurs are passing by the big organizations because they are so much more agile and flexible.

Many organizations are not really reacting on the changing economies. They look only for growth. Efficiency and financial results are the most important to them. They create more rules and hierarchies. People are still treated as production-factors and resources. The new generation of employees does not accept this. They want to be taken serious as whole human beings. They do not choose for the security of a contract as employee, they rather start their own business. (Castenmiller and Mulligen, 2012, p. 13) (My translation)

In addition to the speed of change, the level of complexity has increased. This growth is due to the continuing information technology revolution from past decades. Systems that used to be separate are now interconnected and interdependent, which means that they are, by definition, more complex. And, because complex systems interact in unexpected ways, it is harder to make predictions. The degree of complexity may even lie beyond our cognitive abilities (Taleb, 2010). It is also harder to place bets on organizational performance because past behaviour of a complex system does not automatically predict its behaviour in the future, especially given the rate of accelerating change. Doing what you did yesterday, even if it is 50% better, is no longer a guarantee for success.

So what do companies need?
Business thinker Gary Hamel claims management is the most inefficient activity in any organization. “Most managers are hardworking; the problem doesn’t lie with them. The inefficiency stems from a top-heavy management model that is both cumbersome and costly” (Hamel, 2011). He proposes that organizations fire all managers, in order to provoke more self-direction. He mentions the example of Morning Star, the producer of canned tomatoes, which no longer employs any managers at all. Instead, each year, its four hundred employees enter into mutual agreements with each other (Hamel, 2011).

In her research on the future of work, Lynda Gratton (2011) differentiates between three changes in the necessary talents and attitudes towards work in the future and the related forms of capital required.
From shallow generalist to serial master
Our intellectual capital is what is needed primarily. Because of the global and technologically open world there will always be competitors doing things “better and faster.” So, we have to differentiate. How? With depth and mastery. The risk remains, however, that we become obsolete; and, sooner or later, are no longer in the picture. Therefore, we also need to be able to shift from one form of mastery to another. “In the future, long working lives mean that you can start deep and then slide or morph into other related areas, or even jump into something completely different” (Gratton, 2011, p. 199). This way, we can become serial masters.
From isolated competitor to innovative connector
Our social capital is the second important resource. Since constant change is the new norm, we need an innovative and creative attitude within organizations. We need diversity in our networks and relations: the more diversity we have, the more social resources we have to find the right people. “Become part of a collection of other masters who together create value” (Gratton, 2011, p. 200).
From voracious consumer to impassioned producer
The third resource is our emotional capital. In these changing landscapes, we need a reflective capacity to stay upright. Several important questions emerge. How can we bring harmony in work and life? What values do we stand for? Why do we work and how do we choose our work? Work is no longer an exchange of time and money with an organization. Personal values instead of money are becoming more important.

The Palo Alto Research Centre, with its expertise in long-term forecasting, released a report entitled Future Work Skills 2020, which analyses some of the key drivers reshaping work (Davies, Fidler, and Gorbis, 2011). They found ten broad skills that will help workers adapt to the changing career landscape:

1. Sense-making. The ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what
    is being expressed.
2. Social intelligence. The ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense
    and stimulate reactions and desired interactions.
3. Novel and adaptive thinking. Proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and
    responses beyond that which is rote or rule-based.
4. Cross-cultural competency. The ability to operate in different cultural settings.
5. Computational thinking. The ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract
    concepts and to understand data based reasoning.
6. New-media literacy. The ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new
    media forms and to leverage these media for persuasive communication.
7. Transdisciplinarity. Literacy in and ability to understand concepts across multiple
8. Design mind-set. Ability to represent and develop tasks and work processes for
    desired outcomes.
9. Cognitive load management. The ability to discriminate and filter information for
    importance and to understand how to maximize cognitive functioning using a variety
    of tools and techniques.
10. Virtual collaboration. The ability to work productively, drive engagement and
      demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual team. (Davies, et al., 2011) 

It seems that there is no way to escape anymore. The number of things we are supposed to be able to manage and do is enormous. Work is becoming more personal and more professional, involving expression of the whole human being.

Amy C. Edmondson (2008) points out that because of the common focus on perfect execution, too little attention has been given to learning in organizations. She introduces the concept of execution-as-learning versus the concept of execution-as-efficiency.

First, organizations that focus on execution-as-learning use the best knowledge obtainable (which is understood to be a moving target) to inform the design of specific process guidelines. Second, they enable their employees to collaborate by making information available when and where it’s needed. Third, they routinely capture process data to discover how work is really being done. Finally, they study these data in an effort to find ways to improve. These four practices form the basis of a learning infrastructure that runs through the fabric of the organization, making continual learning part of business as usual. (Edmondson, 2008)

Execution as Efficiency Versus  Execution as Learning
Leaders provide answers   Leaders set direction and articulate the mission.
Employees follow directions   Employees (usually in teams) discover answers.Employees (usually in teams) discover answers.
Optimal work processes are designed and set up in advance.   Tentative work processes are set up as a starting point.
New work processes are developed infrequently; implementing change is a huge undertaking.   Work processes keep developing; small changes - experiments and improvements - are a way of life.
Feedback is typically one-way (from boss to employee) and corrective ("you're not doing it right").   Feedback is always two-way; the boss gives feedback in coaching and advice; team members give feedback about what they're learning from doing the (ever-changing) work.Feedback is always two-way; the boss gives feedback in coaching and advice; team members give feedback about what they're learning from doing the (ever-changing) work.
Problem solving is rarely required: judgement is not expected; employees ask managers when they are unsure. Problem solving is constantly needed, so valuable information is provided to guide employees' judgment.
Fear (of the boss or of consequences) is often part of the work environment and generally does not appreciably harm the quality of execution; it may even motivate effort and attentiveness in those facing an otherwise dull task. Fear cripples the learning process: it inhibits the experimentation, lowers awareness of options, and discourages people from sharing and analyzing insights, questions, and problems.

Table 1. Based on Edmondson (2008)

Organizations and change, a paradox? A plea for a paradigm shift.
These examples suggest that organizations have to wake up and make a change if they want to keep making a difference in the emerging work paradigm. In some cases, they may not even have a choice if they want to continue to exist at all. So the wake up call is that organizations have to change, before they are made to. Companies that excel are willing to change. They are open to new insights, from within as well as from the outside, says Tom Peters (2010).

Robert Chia (1999) discusses the essential shift we need to make in our thinking about change. To stop perceiving change in terms of stability, as in “the only thing that is constant, is change.” After all, this thought (based on Heraclites’ panta rhei) still has stability as its premise.

The dominant approach to the analysis of change continues to view the latter as something ‘exceptional’ rather than as a sine qua non of all living systems, including especially social systems. There has been little attempt to understand the nature of change on its own terms and to treat stability, order and organization as exceptional states. (Chia, 1999)

In the analysis of organizational change, many typologies, stages, systems and structures have been developed, showing this pervasive tendency in academic theorizing and thinking. See for instance (Kanter, Stein and Jick, 1992), (Van de Ven and Poole, 1995), (Kotter, 1997). Typologies, taxonomies and classification schemas are convenient but essentially reductionistic methods for abstracting, fixing and labelling what is an intrinsically changing, fluxing and transforming social reality. Of course they serve as convenient handles for identifying the different types of organizational change processes observed, but they do not get at the heart of the phenomenon of change itself. (Chia, 1999)

Nomadic Learning as critical success factor
The critical success factor for companies is the speed of their learning, so that they create change instead of reacting or adapting to it (Castenmiller and Mulligen, 2012). The question is: how can organizations become masters of learning, so that they are able to create change? How can we learn to understand change from its own perspective? As Bergson wrote:

The point is that usually we look at change but we do not see it. We speak of change, but we do not think about it. We say that change exists, that everything changes, that change is the very law of things: Yes we say it and we repeat it; but those are only words, and we reason and philosophize as though change did not exist. In order to think change and see it, there is a whole veil of prejudices to brush aside, some of them artificial, created by philosophical speculation, the others natural to common sense.
(Bergson, 1946, p. 131)

To meet this challenge, organizations need to incorporate a way of learning that includes change, flexibility and creativity in order to be ready for the ever-changing future. This form of learning should be continuous, causing a deeper change than the traditional change in behaviour or structure only.

An answer to this need is what I call Nomadic Learning, a concept of learning in and for organizations which accomodates the paradigm shift elaborated by Chia (1999). Most often, our mind-sets about work are often still grounded in the industrial age, and so are our expectations and assumptions about learning and dealing with change (Castenmiller and Mulligen, 2012). We still think change will be logical, linear and predictable. Reality, however, is showing us something completely different.

In order to develop Nomadic Learning as a concept, I borrowed the nomadic concept from Gilles Deleuze (Deleuze and Guattari, 1999). The scholar developed a philosophy about nomadic thinking, using the rhizome as an image for a non-hierarchical, vital way of thinking. Unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point. It grows horizontally like grass. In that way a rhizome has neither a beginning nor an end.

A rhizome as subterranean stem is absolutely different from roots and radicles... The rhizome ... assumes very diverse forms, from ramified surface extension in all directions to concretion into bulbs and tubers. The rhizome includes the best and the worst. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1993, p. 29)

One could say that change is rhizomic. Nomadic Learning, then, is in line with a rhizomic model of the change process, where change is “normal” and an organization is the outcome of change rather than continuation of the status quo. From that point of view, organizations are currently resisting the change that naturally occurs. The policy should be to un-organize, so that structure does not stand in the way of the normal, ever changing reality.

It is this ‘hands-off’ attitude towards organizational change which is the implicit advocacy of this process metaphysical mindset. It recognizes that change is always characterized by restless, heterogeneous movement, unexpected otherness and novelty, yet immanently and richly circumscribed. This recognition, in turn, promotes the idea of change initiations from peripheral and marginal or decentered locations, so that the heterogeneity of change initiatives is maintained. It also acknowledges the necessarily creative nature of organizational evolution, not in the linear, predictable manner often associated with the evolutionary process, but in the unexpected and surprising way in which evolutionary change actually does occur. (Chia, 1999)

Then how do we escape from the current dominant paradigm, in which we are dealing only with effects and their sources and not with the nature of change, itself?
By a renewed surrendering of our thinking to the imagination and the body, it becomes clear that we might be prisoner to questions posed in the wrong way. Once escaped from the question and moving in a line of flight, every individual in his or her “right” mind is put before the task of outlining, with others, new routes in the new space. (annotation by Oosterling, n.d., on Deleuze) (My translation.)

We need “lines of flight,” as Deleuze conceptualizes. Nomadic Learning is such a line of flight.
Deleuze's basic principle is that society is always en fuite (leaking, feeing) and may be understood in terms of the manner in which it deals with its fuites (leaks, lines of flight). (Rajchman, 2001)

Unlike a structure, which is defined by a set of points with binary relations between the points and biunivocal relationships between the positions, the rhizome is made only of lines: lines of segmentarity and stratification a its dimensions, and the line of flight or deterritorialization as the maximum dimension after which the multiplicity undergoes metamorphoses, changes in nature. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1999)

The four principles of Nomadic Learning

1. Insert as much reality as possible
Because the main trait of the world is continuous change, and therefore unpredictability, we need a way of learning that is rooted in this changing reality. That is the first principle of Nomadic Learning: to bring in as much reality as you possibly can. This means that the “lessons” and the “applications of these lessons”are one and the same, so that there is no transfer issue to the work situation anymore. For example, if there is a need to learn about team dynamics, the program is “on the job,” or the whole team comes “to the classroom.”
This way, the atmosphere is much more informal. Participants are not even aware that they are learning; they are just their regular selves. At the same time, they are more aware of their behaviour, because the situation is not regular. This “unconscious awareness” accelerates and deepens their learning.
Another possibility is to meet an unfamiliar reality, rather than the day-to-day situation of the participants. Once, for example, I took a management team to visit a group of young asylum seekers. First they shared their life stories to get to know each other. After this introduction, the asylum seekers became the personal coaches of the managers. For both groups, this was an impressive learning experience. The asylum seekers were deeply empowered as they realized that their traumatic experiences from abroad had given them much wisdom that they could share. The managers learned the benefits of opening up and letting go of their prejudices. The reality they met was very impressive and had deep impact.

2. Incorporate multiple perspectives
In complex situations there is never a single solution. More and even contradicting perspectives are simultaneously true. We have to learn that no one can know the whole truth, which is the core property of complexity. And, yet, we all long for certainty. We are educated by a teacher, a father, and a mother who knows what is “correct” and what to do. But in complexity, we have to learn to accept more realities and perspectives at the same time. Studying harder or longer does not bring a final solution. The current complex issues of society and consequently of organizations – the lack of sustainability and the financial crisis, to name just two – cannot be solved with logical, linear, one-way thinking. Therefore the second principle of Nomadic Learning is that multiple perspectives are always needed. That makes collaboration in diverse environments a necessity.

Gratton (2011) shows this need as she describes the second shift towards the future of work: moving from isolated competitor to innovative connector. The basis of professional mastery is personal skill and knowledge development. These are rarely developed in isolation. Instead, people need to make new connections, virtual and non-virtual, to learn and develop their knowledge.

The future is about innovation, and sometime your best, most innovative ideas will come as you talk and work with people who are completely different from you - perhaps they have a different mindset, or come from a different country - or are younger. It is this wide network, the “big ideas crowd” that will be a crucial source of inspiration. (Gratton, 2011, p 262)

3. Create a strong interconnection between “action” and “conceptualization”
Nomadic Learning is embedded in the action of day-to-day working and living. There is no given structure or model to follow; we have to conceptualize our actions as we go along. We create concepts for today, which may no longer be valid tomorrow. Action and reflection are immediate and interconnected. Social media are yet again a useful image to keep in mind (Lanting, 2010). This is the third principle of Nomadic Learning: action and conceptualization are strongly interconnected. In a Deleuzian manner of speaking, one could intertwine the two even stronger: action and concept are one and the same. Deleuze uses the concept of becoming. The world is never fixed, but always becoming. Our interpretations of reality, and therefore our conceptualizations of it, are part of this becoming, and not separate (Romein, et al., 2009).

When conceptualizing and action are more interconnected we get a dynamic concept of knowledge. “Knowing is a dynamic, social and emotional process of constant development, influenced by cognitions and memories of stakeholders, their social relations, the context of learning, interpretations, ambitions and preferences” (Keursten, 2006) (my translation).

In Situated Cognition Theory, Brown, et al. (1991) write: “Situations might be said to co-produce knowledge through activity. Learning and cognition, it is now possible to argue, are fundamentally situated” (Brown, et al., 1991). Knowing and doing are inseparable because all knowledge is situated in activity bound to social, cultural and physical contexts. Nomadic Learning correspondents perfectly to this tradition.

4. Make the learning horizontal
By translating this nomadic, rhizomatic way of thinking to learning, Nomadic Learning becomes non-hierarchical. It is horizontal in the way people relate. That is the fourth principle of Nomadic Learning. There are no longer any experts telling us what to do because there no longer is one, big truth to follow. That is why the trainer becomes a facilitator and the participant becomes a co-learner. Together they are searching, learning, and creating a truth for the moment. They are creating rhizomes. Again, social media present a good example: anyone can ask anything they want to know at any moment all around the world, and share experiences, networks, and knowledge (Lanting, 2010). To put it rhizomatically: “Any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1993, p. 29) .

About the author
An Kramer has a twenty year experience as trainer, coach and consultant. She is an expert in developing learning contexts for change and transformation in organizations.

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