EPAM is a learning organization. Which means that Peter Senge, who coined the term in The Fifth Discipline, his seminal text on systems thinking, could legitimately call us a company where people “continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”
EPAM is also an adaptive enterprise. Which means that we can pragmatically alter the composition of our ecosystem, any part of it, as necessary, when the situation requires it—as it did during the pandemic. As Sandra Loughlin, EPAM’s Head of Learning & Talent Enablement, puts it: “An ability to adapt to the inevitable changes they will encounter is a critical factor in navigating the new normal.”
The question is: What happens when our learning culture and adaptive nature overlap, as they did in considerable ways, beginning in, say, March 2020? We evolve, willfully and skillfully, the way we learn. This is the story of that evolution.
On May 4, 2020, EPAM Continuum published an insightful whitepaper about how China shifted to remote learning (long before the United States did). It demonstrated how students, teachers, and parents were forced to collaborate in a variety of ways to ensure that their children could continue their education despite the many challenges of sudden, universal distance learning.
The paper ended with three professional-development insights learned from the big shift: (1) personalize the methods of learning; (2) continue the habit of lifelong learning, tailored to specific subjects and topics that can be mastered at one’s own pace; (3) enable employees to learn new skills and develop their careers. Turns out, these three elements would guide our organizational learning patterns in the months ahead.
While the idea of having to become partners with our children and their teachers in remote learning was new for us, the idea of operating within an effective, disbursed and remote way was very familiar. We’d been Remote By Design for years.
A Different Kind of Remote Learning
Even for an organization accustomed to adapting, we found ourselves dealing with a wildly unprecedented degree of change. For instance, we quickly understood that a new kind of “remote leaning” was necessary in our own innovation practice. “Remote human-centered research requires understanding our key learning goals, then adapting to the constraints of our remote moment so that the right tool still captures that same value,” wrote Darryl James and Alison Kotin, of EPAM Continuum, in a piece published March 31, 2020.
This meant dropping prototypes off at people’s houses and watching them unbox our latest ideas on video calls. It also meant that we were less limited in terms of geographic research; video interviews had given us “room to roam,” and the ability to add many more clients into the video-based research process. When whiteboards and post-its we not possible, we powered up Miro and made that work. “The idea of getting to reinvent portions of our process and experiment with new ways of learning is exciting,” wrote James and Kotin. “It’s what we do best.”
Happy to Go the Distance
Here’s where the story gets personal. For me, the idea of teaching writing workshops to my colleagues, something I loved doing, became impossible when the pandemic came to town. All the essential experiential elements I’d brought into the workshop—which involved the design of a seriously informal, in-person Happy Hour environment, the opposite of the composition class—were incompatible with covid restrictions. It seemed wrong to even think about bringing this carefully crafted workshop experience online.
I was convinced the authentic learning environment I’d created could not be converted into a Teams-based activity. Hannah Zeavin, in her book The Distance Cure, writes about the “feeling of loss attendant on new technologies” and notes that one way to describe this situation is “to claim their addition estranges: in the supersession of one medium after another, some users experience a loss of the form of mediation they have just gotten used to and had gradually imbued with an authentic, ‘pure’ feeling of non-mediation.” This was precisely how I felt in the first innings of the pandemic.
But by March 2021, things had changed. After living through a year of Zoom Happy Hours it dawned on me that we could use that familiar format to approximate the casual-communal feeling of the workshop. Additionally, we’d spent so many hours on Teams calls that our earlier video-call self-consciousness vanished. The idea of an authentic digital workshop experience seemed possible.
So we met on Teams. And while workshoppers didn’t gather in a room for nachos and beer, everyone could personalize the experience and grab their own glass or wine or beer from their very own fridge (or abstain, if they wished). Instead of using a jazz playlist over the studio speakers, to inspire some improvisational stories, I performed my own riffs live, on an electric keyboard, while people wrote on their laptops (more personalization: They could easily mute the music if they desired to write in silence). We bonded from the comfort of our own home offices rather than coy couches lit by red lightbulbs which, it turned out, was very conducive to the solitary process of writing.
After teaching the writing workshop a few times, I expanded the distance learning to include workshops on workshops (with my colleague Hillary Tiene) and the art of interviewing. And this set off a chain reaction in which other content colleagues created their own workshops! But the big lesson was about giving up the idea that one education medium is authentic, and another isn’t. Learning to try new things—and digging into what works—that is what a learning culture is all about.
Finding Your Perfect Rhythm
But enough about EPAM. Would you like your organization to be more learned and adaptive when it comes to professional development? Here are a few suggestions:
Engage your leaders in learning. If the people at the top don’t sincerely care about learning, no one else will. If you are a leader of the organization, you need to plunge into self-education in a serious way; if not, you need to involve your leadership in learning activities. Try doing Moth-like storytelling events in which your leaders chat with others about how learning has helped them do their jobs better. Or if that’s not their style, there are other ways to use culture, such as writing about how cinema illustrates what their job is all about. Work to discover what works best.
Hold tenaciously onto the pandemic mindset. If covid showed us anything, it’s that responding to challenges with an open, creative mind is essential—and that should be part of the way you approach learning. We tend to forget how fast and furiously we had to adapt back in the spring of 2020. It’s smart to get back to that mindset. In this piece, Sandra Loughlin lists seven ways leaders can make an organization comfortable with change.
Continually craft a learning narrative. Find a way to document learning wins with the entire organization. This could be done in a variety of ways—social media posts, video, a series of blog posts, a podcast, whatever works best for your leaders—but the key is making sure that the narrative is a vital, ongoing one and that it’s properly diffused throughout your organization. It should be an episodic and true story of how learning makes the business stronger and employees more engaged.
Socialize! Have your leaders work with others—specifically with others who aren’t so highly placed in the organization. Remember when Senge talked about “continually learning to see the whole together”? That’s what you should aim for. We can take a page from Vanguard’s A+ Leadership Program for IT here, which had some wonderful success with small-group learning, as you’ll learn from listening to this episode of The Resonance Test.
Strive to learn fast. It pays to experiment with your learning, as Harvard Business School Professor Stefan Thomke told us, but only if you do so in an intentional way. Toby Bottorf and Chris Michaud, of EPAM Continuum, suggest that learning fast requires three things: (a) a tolerance of uncertainty; (b) the ability to cut losses, when necessary; and (c) a focus not on failure but success.
It may take time. It may take work. It’ll certainly take a sense of commitment—but you and your organization can, if you choose to be adaptive, learn at a perfect rhythm.