A Lesson for the Modern Workplace and School: Connection Before Content

A few years ago I had the privilege of attending a discussion led by Clayton Christensen on the future of education. As you may know, Christensen is a professor at the Harvard Business School who became famous for his work on disruptive innovation. So it was likely that this discussion would leave us feeling uncomfortable.

Christensen did not disappoint. He asked lots of challenging questions about the true value of higher education as currently constructed. What were residential colleges delivering that so exceeded the educational value of a free MOOC that those colleges could justify charging over $60 thousand or even over $70 thousand per year? And what about graduate schools? In this era of back-breaking student debt, what were they offering that the school of hard knocks could not?

I have been thinking a great deal about these questions since I started teaching in the M.S. in Information & Knowledge Strategy (IKNS) program at Columbia University. And those questions became even more pressing when I became Academic Director on July 1. How do we justify the time, effort, and expense required by our program?

It would take me a while to enumerate all the ways in which the IKNS program provides value so let me focus on one thing that became very clear this past weekend: we provide a laboratory in which our students can learn proven concepts and practices that equip them for effective leadership.

On Wednesday, August 22, our new cohort of students arrived at Columbia University’s Morningside campus for four days of Intensive study (the Intensive). Our original impulse was to stuff them as full of learning as was humanly possible in such a short time. As a practical matter, this would have required lectures from 9:00am – 6:00pm daily. We could do that. But was it the right approach?

Early in our planning, we realized that we needed to rethink our approach. Given that our program is demanding and very hard to complete without collaboration, the key was to spend the Intensive building the capacity of the cohort to collaborate. So we rethought everything. Rather than making them sit through hours and hours of lectures, we first had them develop their own self-awareness and then their knowledge of their teammates. Through a series of carefully designed individual and group exercises, they built an extraordinary level of trust and empathy. Then we could focus on learning collaboratively.

Our bet paid off. Within hours, these new students moved from being strangers to being friends. And, in that capacity, were more than willing to share their own knowledge and experience to help a classmate integrate new concepts and practices. In the process, they all learned an astonishing amount remarkably quickly. Arguably, more than they could have learned sitting passively through a series of well-intended lectures.

Don’t get me wrong. We had formal teaching sessions. But only after they were ready to learn together.

This experience is a timely reminder of an insight Nancy Dixon has shared with several prior IKNS cohorts: Connection before Content.” Building on the work of Peter Block, Dixon observed that in the workplace, we all work better when we know each other and trust each other. But that knowledge and trust should not be left to happenstance. A thoughtful manager can help speed the development of professional relationship and trust through some intentional practices such as ensuring that team members connect (and later reconnect) with each other before diving into the agenda. This creates a foundation of goodwill and understanding that can act as a shock absorber for the necessary creative friction of teamwork.

If “Connection before Content” is true in the physical workplace, it is doubly true in the virtual workplace and in a virtual learning environment such as ours. The capacity to connect enables the capacity to collaborate and the capacity to share knowledge.

Thankfully, our newest cohort demonstrated this past weekend that they are well on their way to developing their capacity to collaborate with their classmates. NOW they are ready to learn in our program and share that learning with their colleagues at work.

All of us will be the better for it.

 

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