Invention Factories and Open Learning

Thomas Edison is often referred to as the father of invention. But in my view, Edison was the first — and possibly finest — CLO.

Consider the learning environment he built during his most prolific period — between 1876 and 1882 — when he housed a team of two dozen in Menlo Park, N.J. During those six years, more than 400 patents were filed, creating products that shaped the 20th century: the phonograph, the carbon telephone transmitter, stations that could generate and transmit electricity, and the incandescent light bulb.

Edison understood that employees are only partly driven by remuneration — his young team members each earned less than a teacher’s salary. But he achieved engagement by creating an open, empowering and collaborative learning environment. One employee, Francis Upton, wrote to his father shortly after arriving at Menlo Park, “The strangest thing to me is that the $12 I get each Saturday for my labor does not seem like work, but like study, and I enjoy it.”
I highlight Edison’s invention factory because innovative learning environments didn’t just appear overnight in Silicon Valley startups. His vision and imagination inspired many of the leading creative workplaces of the past 50 years.

Edison put in place key structural and cultural building blocks that still inspire imitation. First, he believed in a silo-free machine shop culture where peer learning across disciplines prevailed.

Spencer Silver, one of 3M’s senior scientists and a co-inventor of the Post-It note, said in “A Century of Innovation: The 3M Story,” “Thomas Edison believed that a small group of people with varied backgrounds could be the most inventive. That’s what I found when I joined (3M’s) Central Research. I could talk to an analytical chemist, a physicist, people working in biology and organic chemistry — people in all the sciences. They were all within 50 yards.”

Second, innovative learning environments are inherently democratic. Look at photographs taken inside the machine shop at Menlo Park; it’s impossible to tell which one is Edison. He knew that good ideas could come from anywhere and that creativity hates hierarchy.

Third, Edison’s learning environment was highly social. When he set up the organ for communal singing, or provided beer and food for all-night invention sessions, it wasn’t very different than the free massages and food available at Google Inc. It probably provided the inspiration for Mark Zuckerberg’s pizza-fueled all-night “hackathons” at Facebook Inc. Not only social, Menlo Park was open: Visitors were allowed easy access to the shops, whether they were young boys looking for inspiration or rival inventors looking for ideas.

I call these kinds of innovative environments learning commons, but sadly, many formal learning contexts still operate as closed learning enclosures. One of the driving themes of my book “OPEN” is the process of “disintermediation”: removing the intermediaries in how we conduct all transactions, including learning.
This is the CLO’s dilemma. Outside the workplace, we all learn informally and socially. In learning theory terms, we’re moving from pedagogy — tutor-led; through andragogy — self-directed; to heutagogy — self-determined. In the future, we can expect to be more in control of our learning in the workplace.

So, how does today’s CLO build an innovative, user-driven learning commons? In interviews with CLOs, there was a palpable sense of frustration that their desire to encourage open, collaborative learning cultures was often undermined by corporate incentives that encourage individualism and short-term metrics.
“What gets badged as ‘organizational learning’ is really just the mass training of individuals,” said Matt Moore, knowledge manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Sydney. “Corporations have to balance three levels of learning: the individual, the group and the corporate … it’s usually the group that gets neglected.”

Then, consider the importance of engagement. According to Gallup, the damage to productivity from disengaged employees is $300 billion per year in the U.S. alone. Perhaps our leaders need to be reminded the key to real employee engagement doesn’t lie in incentive programs, but in ensuring that labor feels less like work and more like learning.

Originally published in CLO

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One thought on “Invention Factories and Open Learning

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