“We started talking about successes. Until then, we had concentrated on problems, failures, and difficulties. We discovered that we also know how to succeed. That was our turning point.” (Principal of elementary school, Netanya)
If you’ve ever worked in an organization, you’ll be familiar with the kinds of bureaucratic structures that can get in the way of making improvements: performance reviews that set artificial goals, employee assessments that focus only on problems, or turf protection among departments not wanting to share good ideas for fear of having others get credit for the success.
At the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute’s Unit for Learning from Success and Ongoing Collaborative Learning in Human Services, they’ve heard and seen it all.
What the Unit offers instead is an innovative model of collaborative, on-going organizational learning fueled by learning from successful practices, known in short as “Learning from Success.”
The roots of Learning from Success (LFS) lie in the academic work that Prof. Jona M. Rosenfeld, one of Israel’s leading social work educators, the first recipient of the Israel Prize for Social Work, and founder of the Unit on Learning from Success, conducted some 50 years ago on poverty in Israel. He found that social workers and others in the human service professions were rarely given the opportunity to reflect on their successful practices.
In the early 1990s, MJB initiated a partnership with Prof. Rosenfeld and Prof. Donald Schon from the MIT Sloan School of Management, who had developed the concept of the reflective practitioner. The combination of Rosenfeld and Schon’s approaches led to an attempt to draw out lessons for success from eight innovative projects on children and youth at risk. This effort was based on the idea that by engaging in focused, collaborative reflection with the program implementers, one could develop lessons to help other organizations to provide better services for families and children at risk.
The Learning from Success Unit was formally established in 1995, and since then the Institute has successfully brought the Learning from Success approach to a wide range of sectors in Israel, including health care, social services, education, employment, and even the military.
“This is an incredible tool for developing a different organizational culture." (School Learning Companion)
The method emphasizes using learning from success as a catalyst for creating an environment that encourages continuous, on-going learning in organizations.
The approach to Learning from Success is based on three types of interconnected, collaborative learning:
The “retrospective method,” or learning from past success.
The “prospective method,” or introducing a learning process with respect to an important unresolved issue, implementing the conclusions, testing them out, and measuring the results. Learning from past success that might be found within the organization is also part of the process.
The “learning-on-learning for action method,” or introducing on-going reflection within organizations to continually upgrade the effectiveness of their learning process.
Set within a framework of a Learning Group composed of 10-15 members of an organization, the LFS approach contains a series of steps that serve to identify the staff’s “tacit” knowledge—knowledge that people have but don’t know that they have, and hence are unable to share with others. At the heart of this process is revealing the specific actions that contributed to their success. In this way, the Learning Group formulates principles of action that constitute the essential elements of what has led to success in the past and can do so in the future.
The process begins with each person in the Learning Group identifying a personal or professional example of success. This immediately shifts the focus to an optimistic one, also because being asked to identify a success takes people by surprise. Often people have difficulty thinking of any success that they’ve had, and many are unable or reluctant to articulate their own successes—especially in front of peers—out of fear of being criticized or engendering jealously. But when they are helped to recognize previous success, it is a transformative and empowering moment.
The Learning Group then selects one example to study in depth. They systematically describe the “before” and “after” of a successful activity, discuss the positive outcomes and the possible negative consequences, identify key moments or “turning points” on the path to success, and hone in on those actions that brought about the success. The result is a set of principles of action that can guide others.
Learning from Success creates an environment where people are comfortable to pursue on-going learning. This is where the Prospective Method comes into play, as people learn to address crucial, unresolved issues for which in the past they didn’t have a clear sense of what actions could be effective.
The process of organizational learning is facilitated by a Learning Companion who has been trained in the LFS approach.
“Learning Companions help to create a process and provide tools, but it is ultimately up to each person to make the journey,” says Prof. Rosenfeld.
Sarit Ellenbogen-Frankovitz, the Unit’s Deputy Director, works closely with the Learning Companions and agrees that they are there to create the right environment for learning. “Ideally, being part of a Learning Group transforms the individual participants, so that they adopt a Learning from Success perspective in all of their work,” she explains. In the process, the entire organizational structure can be transformed to promote on-going learning among all parts of an organization.
“Learning from Success changed their mindset completely.”
For Prof. Rosenfeld and Ellenbogen-Frankovitz, one of the most rewarding projects has been the recent work with the Israel Defense Forces. The goal of the project is to train Learning Companions within the IDF’s Training Department, the central unit that is responsible for organizing training in all of the units in the military, so that they can integrate a Learning from Success-based method into their on-going work.
Working with the military offered unique opportunities and challenges. The military has very structured and entrenched processes of learning that provide a framework in which to disseminate new methods. At the same time, these processes are very much focused on failures and serious errors, and the shift to a focus also on successes is a significant change.
In addition, another component of Learning from Success is to open up new lines of communication within an organization. LFS relates to every member of the team as a source of ideas and invention, and exposes those ideas across an organizational hierarchy. Thus, the Learning Group that allows for collaborative learning among the different ranks is a much different orientation than that which is typical in the military.
The work with the IDF was a challenge, Prof. Rosenfeld admits. But the resistance decreased as more and more participants experienced the significance of reflecting on their own successes and those of others.
In addition to the growing interest in the Learning from Success method within Israel, the word is spreading internationally. The LFS method was recently adopted as part of the global training program for the French-based ATD (All Together for Dignity) Fourth World, a leading international organization dedicated to the eradication of poverty. The method will be used to train anti-poverty workers in the 30+ countries where ATD works.
Other international organizations are also beginning to consider the Learning from Success method, as they recognize the impact of increasing people’s sense of ability to achieve their goals, to take pride in what they are doing, and to be open and excited about learning and exploring new ideas.
By emphasizing the on-going value of a person’s success and contributions to an organization, Learning from Success is transforming human service organizations and their capacity to serve their clients.
The Unit for Learning from Success and Ongoing Collaborative Learning in Human Services has received on-going support from the Marshall Weinberg Fund for Professional Collaboration and Development.