When I was 19, after a year and a half of wandering around a college campus and working odd jobs, I enlisted in the United States Air Force. Like many young people who entered the recruiter's office, I was looking for some guidance and goals. The military promised to meet both those needs. After a short waiting period, I was sent to a regional processing center where I entered as a civilian and left as an airman upon taking my oath. I didn't think much about it at the time. I was sleep deprived and running on a lot of adrenaline, but what I had experienced that day was the beginning of second-order change.
Characteristics of second-order change
Second-order change involves fundamental shifts in the way we perceive ourselves and the world. Unlike first-order change, which consists of minor alterations to the way we do things within a particular paradigm, second-order change transforms that paradigm into something totally different. In organizations, paradigms are constructed around an organization's mission, its product and placement in the marketplace, and even its CEO (think about Apple or Microsoft). These paradigms partly inform employees' personal identities. What makes second-order change so difficult is that most people, as well as organizations, are unaware of the existence of these paradigms.
In the corporate environment, second-order change most commonly arises out of mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations; all of which involve transitioning employees from one organizational paradigm to another. It often falls to instructional designers and trainers to equip employees with the specific skills they need to adjust to the new order. However, second-order change goes beyond minor behavior alterations; it is deeply personal, systemic, and emergent.
Therefore, to facilitate second-order change successfully, instructional designers and trainers need to create a nonjudgmental learning environment in which realistic scenarios can be used as a way for employees to explore the meaning of the change through group discussion and personal reflection.
Second-order change is personal. It touches the very core of our individual identity. The first part of my identity that changed when I enlisted was the part connected to my wardrobe. The military understood, as each of us does intuitively, that people derive a significant amount of their identity from their relationship to standards and norms in society.
This also holds true in organizations that have their own unique standards and norms that contribute to their employees' personal identities (think about how often you are asked about what you do for a living and for what company you work). Consequently, when those standards are changed as the result of a merger, acquisition, or reorganization, employees' personal identities are changed as well.
Imagine a middle manager who has become very comfortable in her role leading a team of sales reps. Under her guidance, her team consistently meets or even exceeds the goals the organization has set as indicators of success. However, after being acquired, those goals significantly change or even go away entirely because the organization has made a fundamental shift in the way it does business.
As a result, that same middle manager who had aligned her sense of success with the original values now has to redefine her relationship with, as well as to, the new organization. She no longer has the same foundation on which to build her self-image.
Second-order change is systemic. It changes the very way we see the world. When I joined the military, I thought that I was simply signing up to serve my country in uniform. But other than that, nothing else about me would change. I quickly realized in basic training that being enlisted in the armed forces was significantly different from being a civilian.
The military was not a job; although I left work each day at a specific time, whether I was in uniform or not, I was never outside its jurisdiction. That single act of swearing an oath to protect and defend the constitution and follow the orders of the President and all officers above me fundamentally changed the way I perceived the world. There were now people above me who could tell me where to go and what to do; I couldn't just quit my job, because I had taken an oath and made a commitment to serve.
When faced with second-order change in the corporate environment, employees are compelled to reevaluate their actions, judgments, and even beliefs based on the new organizational paradigm. For example, when TimeWarner merged with AOL, most in upper management believed that each company could take advantage of the other's strengths. AOL would have access to a vast amount of news and media content while TimeWarner would gain a significant share in the online market. No one foresaw the upheaval that such a merger would cause for the employees of these companies.
It had tremendous implications for the way they handled customers, marketed services, and conducted their day-to-day operations. What was intended to be a straightforward decision to boost market share devolved into one of the most costly failures in U.S. corporate history because those in charge failed to consider the breadth of the implications for their respective employees.
Second-order change is emergent. Often, it does not have a specific end point. Upon arriving at basic training in San Antonio, Texas, I was issued fatigues, dress blues, boots, hats, gloves, and the first of many training manuals that sought to outline expectations and protocols.
However, I quickly learned that there was no manual that could teach me about what it meant to be an airman. This was due to the fact that the military is constantly changing to respond to new technologies and emerging threats. As a result, my Air Force experience was very different from my father's enlistment 40 years earlier during the cold war and from the experience of those serving now in the post-9/11 security environment.
Similarly, organizations that want to survive in a competitive marketplace need to be ready to make radical shifts. That agility sometimes comes at the cost of long-term planning. That is not to say that organizations do not have specific expectations about performance and profit when they initiate major changes; it simply means that those expectations are developed by managers prior to entering the change.
Ironically, the very people who initiate change are among those affected by it. This, in turn, transforms their initial expectations about the change. Second-order change is not a journey from one known point to another; rather, it is a progression that responds to shifting realities.
Creating a meaningful learning environment for second-order change
The personal, systemic, and emergent nature of second-order change has profound implications for instructional design. Whenever there is a change that threatens to challenge peoples' perceptions of themselves and the way they interpret the world around them (and, on top of that, is nearly impossible to define), instructional designers need to go beyond the traditional framework of job aids and learning goals. While the suggestions that follow are not new to the designer's toolbox, the way in which they are combined creates a unique learning environment that is well suited to facilitating this type of change.
Use realistic scenarios. Realistic scenarios are an essential part of any instruction that endeavors to teach and test cognitive and behavioral skills in real-world conditions without real-world consequences. Additionally, they can assist in facilitating second-order change by giving learners a genuine experience of the future. Learners not only realize what they need to do, but who they are and who they need to be to make the transition. These scenarios should mimic the future situation as closely as possible; however, they should not be exact replicas, otherwise the upheaval out on the office floor will simply spill over into the classroom.
Create a safe place for expression. One consequence of using realistic scenarios is that learners are able to experience their emotions and form their opinions about those scenarios. These reactions will be extremely personal, and sometimes, they may reveal deep insecurities. Therefore, designers need to create a nonjudgmental place that allows learners to feel comfortable enough to express them. One way of accomplishing this is for facilitators to devolve power to the learners by allowing them to engage in the scenarios and genuinely interact with each other with only minor oversight - just enough to ensure that mutual respect is maintained and important questions are answered.
Encourage group discussion. To successfully navigate second-order change, learners need to discuss their thoughts and feelings about the changes with each other. This allows them to see other people's perspectives of the change and understand how they cope with it. This, in turn, provides comfort and builds camaraderie; however, this kind of meaningful discussion does not happen in an afternoon. It must be carefully cultivated over time; for without this preparation, group discussions will rapidly deteriorate into counterproductive gripe sessions.
Promote personal reflection. Personal reflection is probably the most underrated aspect of learning. Most training is focused on transferring the skills acquired in the classroom to the floor and, more importantly, increasing the speed of that transfer. Without time to reflect, any commitment that is made to the change can only be superficial, thus leaving employees vulnerable to doubt and negativity. Since employees are largely unfamiliar with how to reflect in the corporate environment (and how to set aside specific time for reflection), they should be provided with a framework for reflection. This could be as simple as a list of questions that encourages them to contemplate the implications of the change for the organization and their own roles.
Benefits beyond the bottom line
Designing instruction that supports second-order change goes beyond simply communicating the behavior and knowledge needed for the change. Justifying the alternative curriculum and the extra time it takes to implement it may be a hard sell to some in middle and upper management; however, there are some real benefits that go beyond the bottom line.
Creating loyalty. Despite the sometimes cynical rhetoric that one hears around the water cooler, employees have a deep and abiding belief that the organization will look out for them. This trust is often violated by the way second-order change is facilitated. However, if a company demonstrates the capacity to care by acknowledging its employees' emotional needs, then its employees will happily pledge their allegiance to the process.
Fostering a deeper commitment. Second-order change cannot be forced. It must be willingly accepted. But first, employees need to understand what will be asked of them. By increasing the time and space employees have to explore the implications of the change, organizations increase the likelihood of having a more persistent workforce that can withstand the pressures of this type of change.
Building camaraderie. Second-order change can be very emotional, and as with any other traumatic event, employees need the support of those around them. This support has the potential to be very positive or extremely negative. Organizational policy has often been to deny the emotional aspect of change altogether, which leads to instances of the latter. By carefully striking the balance between domination and denial of employees' emotions, organizations can help employees build a more positive camaraderie.
Second-order change will continue to be a dominant feature of the corporate landscape as long as there is a need to remain competitive and gain efficiency through mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations. By providing more than guidance and goals, instructional designers and trainers can significantly improve the experiences of those affected by second-order change and increase its chances of success.