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Committed Sardine

“Changing the attitudes and behavior or hundreds of thousands of people is very, very hard to accomplish…what you can do is create conditions for transformation.” – Lou Gerstner

What does it take to change attitudes and behaviors about teaching and learning?  Why does it seem so easy to accomplish within other settings and so difficult within educational institutions?

Let me start by saying this reflection is a very broad generalization of educational institutions.  I know pockets of excellence exist, but I also speak from ‘real world’ experience in educational environments – over a period of 30 years. Ian Jukes, an educational ‘futurist’ refers to these pockets as ‘committed sardines’ – here’s why:

 If you take a careful look at a school of sardines, you’ll notice that although the fish all appear to be swimming in the same direction, in reality, at any time, there will be a small group of sardines swimming in a different direction, in an opposite direction, against the flow, against conventional wisdom. And as they swim in another direction, they cause conflict, they cause friction, and they cause discomfort for the rest of the school.

But finally, when a critical mass of truly committed sardines is reached – not a huge number like 50 percent or 80 percent of the school, but 15 to 20 percent who are truly committed to a new direction – the rest of the school suddenly turns and goes with them – almost instantaneously!

Three excellent examples of organizational learning ‘committed sardines’ were presented last week in class – all with different institutional backgrounds:  corporate, military, and medical.  These are lessons Education can take away from them as they relate to changing Learning:

One – focus on who the learner really is

The Mayo Clinic has always focused on what is in the best interest of the patient, on innovation for a better patient experience.  The Army, over the years, has adapted to learning styles, particularly in their innovative use of technology and contextual-based delivery of the AAR process – learning is driven by experience (Kolb).    IBM shifted from” bringing the worker to learning to bringing learning to work” because they realized learning doesn’t happen only in a classroom on a given day and time.

Two – learn from each other

Each of these institutions understands the necessity of the team approach to work, of the importance of peer and expert contributions.  They have developed whole entities for this:  Mayo Clinic’s Center for Innovation (CFI), IBM’s – Center for Advanced Learning and Institute for Business Value, and the Army’s companycommand.com -– a social media portal that is a “means of connecting past, present, and future company commanders in an ongoing conversation about leading soldiers and building combat-ready units” Connecting leads to conversations, which leads to content – to advance the practice of the company command. (read more about this in Company Command:  Unleashing the Power of the Army Profession).

Three – use data to improve practices

The Mayo Clinic uses shared medical records, the Army collects AAR data and focuses on knowledge sharing and innovation, IBM is the daddy of data generation and use, but one specific example for improvement of practices is their Client Team Advantage program for team building.

Four – change the environment

The big idea here that all of these institutions understand is that learning takes place anytime, anywhere and always.  It is not confined to space, time, or context.  These can be simulated through technology.

Five – invite outsiders to join the conversation

Lou Gerstner of IBM fame sums this one up perfectly:  “Anything of value to us has value to others…one of the lessons we are learning (was that knowledge) can’t be proprietary.”  IBM’s idea that we are living in a time where there is not only fierce competition, but broad collaboration (love the term coopetition) is an essential lesson for the institution of education.  The Mayo Clinic understands this, having always sought out the ‘experts’ in the field to add to their knowledge bank.

In each of these examples, there were committed sardines – some that swam in the opposite direction for a long time and through long periods of adversity before the group joined their direction.  What I love about committed sardines is that it doesn’t take many to ‘convince’ the majority – just the will to keep swimming against the crowd.  Can the pockets of excellence in our institutions of education meet the required ‘critical mass’ to turn the crowd? 

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3 Responses to “Committed Sardine”

  1. Joanne – I really liked your sardine example in your blog. From what we’re reading and learning it doesn’t sound like it takes a lot of people to initiate a change in an organization. The sardine example gives hope that the critical mass will eventually turn and jump in with the changes.

    Out of your five lessons that educational environments could learn from corporate, government, and medical environments, the two I found the most intriguing were changing the environment and inviting outsiders to join in the conversations. Changing the environment in educational environments seems to be slow moving. Financial ability of the institution will also impact whether to add more technology in school systems. When I think of teachers, I don’t think of them attending conferences or inviting outsiders in to learn from them. Is this an area for growth for educational environments?

    • I so agree about your assessment of inviting outsiders in – how can we change this behavior?? Perhaps it’s part of culture…

  2. Joanne – trust me, there are many organizations in addition to education that are not making huge strides in changing the environment. Innovation, sweeping cultural changes, and moving to employee-focused learning environments in organizations takes courage from the leader. Many companies and educational institutions find solace in keeping things organized, complacent, and mediocre. As I’ve said – if you know better, why not do better! On the note of outsiders – many companies seriously frown on this – outsiders are a threat to the “brand” or an insult in some kind of way to the “internal intelligence”. That is so baloney! That kind of insecurity will shut them out from useful information, insight, ideas, value, and competitive advantage.


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