Nomadic Learning in action – an example
Leadership and Bread – A Visit to a Bakery
This episode is part of a three-day program for young trainees at a bank. The program’s focus: leadership and entrepreneurship.
Fifteen young men in suits, covered with aprons, are kneading dough, laughing out loud and giving it their best. Fred, the baker, walks around and sticks his finger into the dough. “You should add some water; and you, you should work on this longer, it’s not elastic enough yet.” His recommendations are followed up with intensity.
While the bread is in the oven, we talk with Fred. He is one of the owners of the bakery. He is very open about his intuitive and stubborn way of working, sharing his successes and his failures. The trainees’ questions: “What is your revenue? Are you a client of our bank?” His honest reply: “I'm no longer with your bank, I wasn't treated the way I liked. At every single step, I was asked for money. But, at your competitor’s, it's the same story.” He continues: “The car with chauffeur I had was nice, but I chose more freedom. Now I live in an old house, in the middle of nature. Lots of repairs. I never wrote a business plan, instead I gave the authorities a documentary film about the bakery. They accepted it and gave me the license I needed. We still use a recipe for the bread from 1896. It is written on every wrapping, so you can copy it if you like. In my little café, you are free to sit without ordering anything. That isn’t like anywhere else.” The trainees respond with surprise, enthusiasm and also skepticism.
We part with warm breads in our hands. Some of the trainees take a bite immediately. A little further down the street, we enter an old newspaper building. In the former boardroom, everyone writes the headline for his or her stories about the experience. We finish with an engaged discussion about the lessons learned, and more specifically, what they learned for their leadership.
The Four Principles of Nomadic Learning as experienced at the Bakery
1. Insert as much reality as possible
In meeting and connecting with the baker, the trainees meet an inspiring example of leadership and entrepreneurship. It is a real-life lesson, not abstract theory. There is sufficient recognition, and sufficient controversy at the same time. Nobody can stay neutral: it is impossible to not have an opinion, whether it is from inspiration or annoyance. In making the newspaper headlines, they get the opportunity to question and express their opinions. In the discussion afterwards, they reflect on their own situations and opinions in a natural and direct way.
Because of their surprise by the experience, the need for reflection comes naturally, and does not need to be dictated. Questions feeding their learning come up spontaneously: “Why are we doing this? What can I learn from it? What does this have to do with leadership?” They are the masters of their own learning, which is a huge motivational advantage. Their learning attitudes become clear in their reactions to the reality involved. They can see their patterns of conduct directly, and the effects they create.
Bread is so basic and such a common food item for these trainees that they all connect with it immediately. Making the bread themselves increases this effect. All the senses are involved. It activates the right hemisphere of the brain, thus making the experience more intense, and the impressions last longer.
2. Incorporate multiple perspectives
There is a difference between the baker’s circumstances and the trainees’ bank context. Natural multiplicity occurs, giving the trainees the implicit permission to discover their own perspectives. They do not have to adjust to learning from an expert, but instead are allowed to develop their own views by sharing perspectives and discussing them, creating even more diversity.
The shared experience creates good group cohesion without the need for explicit and stand-alone “bonding exercises.” At the same time, peer pressure – often strong among young male participants – is lifted by the presence of a “stranger,” like the baker in this example. Issues like mustering the courage to speak up or to differ from others are overt in the subsequent meeting. Do you have the “guts” to be critical when everyone else is excited, or vice versa? Because of the unexpectedness of the experience, participants are more explicit in what they share. To be able to do that is considered an important leadership trait.
3. Create a strong interconnection between “action” and “conceptualization”
There is no theory that needs to be proved. The baker shares his concepts, lessons and ways of working. The trainees share their opinions and interpretations. No theory “interferes,” or has to be learned. The trainees experience “continuous learning and conceptualizing.” This provokes a learning attitude, even at the bakery. It opens them up to the unknown, and makes them curious. The unknown is nearby and all pervasive. Wherever you are, there is the possibility to learn: by asking questions, by learning about the situation, by wording and expressing your own response, and by interpreting others.
4. Make the learning horizontal
Of course, this kind of intervention surprises the trainees. There is absolutely no logic to it, and no rhyme or reason, from their perspective. In a leadership program, this kind of visit is currently totally unexpected by the participants. By explaining very little in advance, we create an even bigger surprising effect. In doing so, we implicitly communicated our way of working: we do not explain, yet dive into the experience. In not being too well-informed, participants get in touch more with whole-brain thinking. The trainer is present as a facilitator. In the conversation with the baker, the trainer merely structures the process, but does not interfere in the conversation. The direction is in the hands of the trainees. They do not “talk about,” but practice their leadership on the spot.
The outcome of a Nomadic Learning experience is not predictable. Because change is essential in the paradigm of Nomadic Learning, outcomes of this learning can, in principle, always be other than expected. The element of surprise, and hence creativity and novelty, is necessarily built into the very core of Nomadic Learning.
The current demands on individual creativity and flexibility are extremely high. That means that there are risks involved, which Lynda Gratton (2011) lists as fragmentation, isolation, and exclusion. At the same time, we are no longer able to solve complex issues all by ourselves. But there is hope. As we try to deal with complexity, we find our answer to these risks. In the needed collaboration, we find our new certainty and connection. Networking, required in order to create the diversity of perspectives we need, helps us overcome the embedded uncertainty in our ever-changing realities.
Nomadic Learning provides a learning attitude for life and work. It is not a recipe for a certain kind of behaviour, leadership or organization. I believe that when an organization gives its employees the space, trust and support to become “nomads,” to become real nomadic learners, the organization will turn into a true learning community.
It is a misconception that everybody would want to become an entrepreneur. These days, we want to contribute to a greater value that makes sense. If this is in the form of entrepreneurship or as an employee, it is no longer relevant. (Castenmiller and Mulligen, 2012, p. 34) (My translation)
This learning community can reach far beyond the structure or borders of the organization. As modern nomads, the employees have their “home” within themselves; they do not expect others to bring them safety. And at the same time, these nomads are always ready to break up their camp and travel on. It frees up employees to bring in their best.
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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.
Want to experience Nomadic Learning or want to know more or be involved? Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
• The Expedition, Orientation meeting 25th june 2013. Inter-company traject for leaders, HR-advisors and professionals in Organizations. email@example.com
• Organization safari: workshop on the Learning Lane 29th august 2013. For HR-advisors, Leaders and Professionals in organizations. www.learninglane.nl
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