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An Experiment in Proxy Learning

By Kirsten Buck & Perry Timms

Introduction

Set against the backdrop of a world adapting to life with Covid, a remote-working environment has been thrust upon workplaces, resulting in a surge in courses being delivered virtually. This increase in virtual courses has enabled us at PTHR to invest in ourselves even more than we liked to do prior. Given that we are self-managed and geographically dispersed across three continents and five countries, virtual works for us. When we saw a brand new programme run by Leadership guru, Helena Clayton, kicking off in September, we knew this was a virtual learning programme not to be missed. I, Kirsten, immediately expressed keen interest to undertake this, with the subject matter sparking something in me. However with an 18-month-old and limited childcare arrangements, even attending this ​virtual​ course would be challenging if not impossible.

 

Having admittedly over-committed and fallen short in virtual learning situations before, I was gutted that I could not learn from Helena. With some ‘black box thinking’ (to quote Matthew Syed)- the acceptance that #WFH challenges area​thing and can be overcome -Perry and I came up with the following proposition: Perry could attend the course as my ‘proxy’ learner. With Helena kindly embracing this idea, it was agreed. On a Friday afternoon in September, Perry and I morphed into one learner on Helena’s “Leading from Love” programme. Perhaps the subject matter combined with the unconventional approach made this learning experience doubly contentious.

 

And so we began our experiment in proxy learning…

 

Method

Proxy learning – as we are calling it – is not something we have officially done before at PTHR. Since the primary objective of this set-up was to enable me to complete a course despite not being physically present for it, Perry initially agreed to attend all six two-hour sessions. This could have been done, and we would have made it work.

 

However, I really wanted to be present for ​some of the sessions. I could do this if Helena was OK with my son potentially having woken up from his nap during the session (not ideal, but a WFH problem a lot of us can relate to). A bi-weekly attendance from each of us was proposed and meant that the course cohort would know Perry and I, and furthermore, that we could share learnings from alternate weeks. With agreement from Helena, and our plan communicated to the cohort, this was made possible.

 

Following my attendance at week 1 and prior to Perry’s attendance for week 2, we scheduled a 20 minute stand-up-catch-up mid-week. This became the rhythm for the next six weeks. We would distill our thoughts, findings, learnings, emotions from the week prior into a shared GoogleSlides template. The bigger intention with this working document being to share it with team PTHR upon the completion of the course. We would both also complete the pre-work each week, and discuss during our catch-up.

 

Please note a caveat. I imply above that there may be secondary objectives in our experiment. There was in fact only just the one (primary objective) set out at the onset of this course: for me to be able to actually complete it, some way or another! Looking with retrospect, a secondary objective could have been for us to create an enhanced learning environment.

 

And so our experiment in proxy learning met our objectives…

 

Results

The results we have both felt would not have been feasible had it not been for the flexibility, understanding and yes, love, from Helena and our cohort: Caroline, Karen, Louise, Lynne, Penny. This close-knit group enabled Perry and me to show up, be ourselves, speak on behalf of each other, yet not be ​as physically present as them. I can speak on behalf of Perry by saying that although only attending half of the course each, we felt as if each and every one of this leading team ​knew​ us.

 

Our proxy learning set-up on the Leading from Love programme has given us the following:

 

  • Enhanced learning

Two participants, acting as one, sharing thoughts, knowledge and learnings can only mean we benefit from two perspectives. Although Perry spoke on behalf of me, and I him, where pre-work was concerned, we still brought different contributions to the table. I did not only learn from Helena and the consort, but also Perry. A brilliant point made by Meg Wheatley, in pre-work for the course was that ​we can all be listening to the same message, yet we hear different things.

 

  • Enhanced collegial relationship

During these six weeks Perry and I got to ​know e​ach other. This was in large part due to the subject matter of the course and how Helena beautifully encourages you to open up fearlessly, but our proxy learning also facilitated this. Through our weekly catch-ups, commitment to pre-work, and unplanned, spontaneous enthusiasm to discuss each week’s session immediately following, we relished in the shared learning experience.

 

  • Heightened commitment and openness to the subject matter

Being in this together gave us a stronger desire to comply with the nature of the learning. And by that, I mean not just the tasks but the essence of the learning. Opening up about emotions and love isn’t easy at first yet being together in this learning made it safer, more meaningful and yes, an even more powerful experience. It’s hard to imagine getting the same level of experience from such a course had either one of us entered into it alone. ​That is a powerful bond to create between two people in a shared endeavour and it makes us wonder why SO much learning is individualistic in its experience. Proxy learning could become a thing.

 

  • Double the appetite for action from learning

If I had completed this course alone and shared my learnings with Perry, or another member of the team, I would likely have had to create an articulate and compelling case of why we must take action from this. Having another colleague with me on this journey means we have double the power to persuade, influence and implement. (Yes Perry is the Boss at PTHR, but I do believe this result would have been found had any of my colleagues been my proxy). To quote Deborah Myerson when discussing how we can bring about change, showcased by Helena in pre-reading; “Like drops of water, these approaches are innocuous enough in themselves. But over time and in accumulation, they can erode granite”.

 

And so our experiment in proxy learning, we would recommend replication!…

 

Conclusion

Proxy learning is feasible. Proxy learning is not ​just feasible, but furthermore facilitates and promotes enhanced learning between colleagues; sharing the workload, reaffirming knowledge learned and promoting an increased appetite to implement action from the course undertaken. This is something that we at PTHR will embrace more as part of our learning and development strategy. We see proxy learning as having a place for most learning activities, excepting safety critical training.

 

Although welcomed, the results found from embarking on this ‘proxy learner’ experience are diminutive in scale versus the impact the content of the course had on us. That has been transformative in how we are now approaching leadership, communications and ultimately defining who we are at the ​soul​ of PTHR. (That is for a whole other written piece)!