All week i’ve been exploring learning culture from Amsterdam. We started by looking into how the culture is created and went on to run a global popup learning session asking questions about the role of leadership and the individual, as well as whether we learn more formally or informally. Today, to round off the series, i want to think about the things that fall outside the system. What are the things they never want you to learn?
The streets of Amsterdam are very clean and tidy, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t transgress the rules. There is a whole counter culture of squatting in the city: communities springing up and inhabiting empty buildings, often decorating them with graffiti and personalising them to their cause. I love graffiti. It’s the undercurrent of a city, the visual language of the disenfranchised, the disaffected, the undercover creatives, the subversives, the just plain angry and the people desperate to express their art. The only time i’ve ever considered breaking the law is to write some graffiti: how good would it feel to create a work of art that you know is illegal? Something beautiful but forbidden?
I’ve resisted the urge so far, but there’s always something attractive about those things that we try to keep hidden, outlawed, off the radar.
Much organisational learning is about how to do things right, how to comply, but there is a whole lot that you can learn about doing things wrong too. This is the learning about how to bypass process, how to cheat, how to win by any means. It may be false accounting, it may be hiding things from regulators, it may be filling out false expenses, but whatever it is, people still have to learn to do it. It may not be right, it may not be desirable, but it’s most certainly the subject of a layer of informal learning within any organisation, including yours.
There’s black, there’s white and then there’s the world of grey. Or gray, depending which continent you’re reading this on.
We actively encourage people to do some grey learning. Grey learning is where you’ve been in the job for a week or two and someone says ‘oh, we don’t bother doing that, just do it this way, it’s much quicker’. It’s the first steps of transgression from process or, as we like to call it, efficiency. Lots of grey learning is efficient: it lets us cut corners that can safely be cut. Or at least that make our job easier and we’re unlikely to be caught. It’s like taking a pen from the office. Sure, it’s wrong, it’s illegal even, but it’s kind of ok because everyone does it.
Taking money from petty cash? That’s definitely wrong, but it’s still something that people learn to do. Everything sits on a spectrum, from right to wrong, but through the grey.
Of course, not all forbidden learning is wrong, or, indeed, illegal. It may just be undesirable. Now, i have no intention of doing this (mainly out of fear of who would be monitoring me), but i guess you could Google how to make an explosive device, or a dirty bomb, or a suicide vest. I’m sure there is a whole world of information out there. Some of it would be scientific research, some the deluded ramblings of teenagers stuck in their bedrooms, but all of it indexed and available. You maybe writing a book on the subject, the latest Tom Clancy style thriller, but it still feels forbidden, hidden, dark. Or maybe that’s just my perception. Other people clearly inhabit these spaces all the time.
You could learn how to cheat on your tax return. The knowledge is out there somewhere. Spread by disillusioned tax office employees, creative accountants, bored students. There’s a lot of information available if you want to look, if you want to learn it.
In our liberal western cultures, we tend to leave it there. If it transgresses norms of decency or public safety, we probably remove it, but if it’s just naughty or mildly anti social, it’s all still there.
We don’t often talk about forbidden learning, about the darker underside, but if we are exploring learning in all it’s aspects, we should consider that at lest some of the informal learning that takes place in our organisations falls into this category.