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Article Article July 11th, 2023
Delivery • Innovation • Cities

Four lessons on Human Learning Systems from the Queensland Public Sector Commission

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We've been running masterclasses with @QldGov Public Sector Commission to explore how they can apply #HumanLearningSystems in their work. Here are 4 key lessons

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Together w/ @QldGov Public Sector Commission, we're learning that: there's desire to improve public service, #HumanLearningSystems is adaptable, stewardship is complex, and getting started is the hardest.

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Do you work in and around the public sector? Are you curious about exploring new ideas, in new ways? Get in touch with @CPI_foundation's Australia and New Zealand team to find out about learning journeys!

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Developing a first-of-its-kind learning experience

The concept of Human Learning Systems (HLS) - described as “a new approach to public service that embraces complexity, human relationships and continuous learning” - is still somewhat in its infancy in Australia. While numerous case studies from across the globe demonstrate the power HLS has to transform public service, the intentional application of HLS on Australian shores is still quite nascent.

So when the Queensland Public Sector Commission (PSC) approached us to run a series of masterclasses on how the Queensland Government can apply HLS, we jumped at the opportunity! We were excited and energised by this. We want to support public servants to embrace complexity, relationships, and learning, and learn from them to better understand their context and what HLS can look like in their environment.

We developed a tailored offering for the PSC in two parts. The first was a session for roughly 400 public servants introducing key concepts relating to HLS. The second offering was a series of masterclass workshops for approximately 40 public servants, held over four sessions to deeply explore and apply HLS in their work.

By working with PSC, we were not only given the opportunity to share HLS knowledge, theory, and case studies directly with public servants in Queensland. But, through helping them apply HLS to their work, we learnt a lot about the approach ourselves.

Four key lessons

There’s a strong desire to do public service better 

To kick off our first workshop, we asked an intentionally provocative question: “is there something fundamentally wrong with the way we do public service?” What followed was a healthy and spirited conversation. While some debated whether the term “fundamentally wrong” was fair (there is much the public service gets right that shouldn’t be ignored), virtually everyone agreed that there was a need for improvement and reform. This desire to do things better was the reason many in the group were interested in HLS as an alternative to the status quo.

HLS can be applied in many different ways in many different contexts

One of our favourite moments of the series was having attendees rewrite their job titles and job descriptions to reflect a workplace that wholly embraces HLS. This resulted in an emphasis on the importance of learning, stewardship, and collaboration, with new titles including “Chief Learning Officer”, “Workplace Learning Specialist”, and “Ambassador for Change and Sustainability”.

Another valuable part of the series was having participants identify challenges from their work  where HLS concepts and experiments could be applied. From IT to policy, community development, human resources, and beyond - people working in a variety of contexts identified not only what they do (e.g. experiments to address challenges in their work) but also how they work (e.g. practising new behaviours such as making room for failure).

Stewardship can look like many things

Stewarding learning is at the heart of HLS and, for this reason, was a big focus of our program. While there are many ideas of what system stewardship looks like, we see stewardship as something that is highly context-dependent. Therefore, we wanted to explore what participants believe stewardship is in their context.

We learnt that for public servants, stewardship is about building trusting relationships, shifting from control to influence, and role-modelling positive behaviours to permit others to do so. The ideas of looking after oneself and the organisation, and shifting focus from individual performance to the collective, also resonated across the group.

Getting started often feels like the hardest part

When we paused for reflection at the series' midpoint, a common sentiment from many was, “this all sounds great, but how do we get started in applying these concepts?” HLS presents a different way of working that can feel overwhelming.

So together, we brainstormed ways to start applying HLS:

  • HLS can be applied at any place, whether by a public-facing worker or a strategic commissioner. Start from where you are. 

  • Use Trojan Mice style smaller experiments to get started and scale up over time. 

  • Enrol an “accountability buddy” who can regularly hold you accountable, and you do the same for them.

  • Identify what you’re already doing that embraces HLS and continue to grow from there (e.g. some had been using appreciative inquiry without realising).

For our final session, we put these ideas into practice and started to experience how it feels to start from wherever you are. We ran two rapid prototyping exercises and provided participants with an Experiment Canvas (based on the steps in the HLS Guide for the Curious) to apply these ideas in their work.

The first rapid prototyping exercise, an adapted version of the Marshmallow Challenge, required participants in 5 minutes to individually create the tallest tower they could with just the materials available to them. The following discussion highlighted that the best strategy is to plan less and build more, and the value of learning through active doing (and mistake-making!) rather than passive planning and analysis.

For the second exercise, we asked everyone to create a low-fidelity rapid prototype that they could use to test a new idea at a low cost. After 15 minutes, participants came back with a range of prototypes, such as website landing page mockups, journey maps, and meeting agendas. By creating these prototypes, participants could test out the feasibility of their ideas, gain focused feedback, and continue iterating and learning at a low cost and with minimal risk.

Taking an adaptive and collaborative approach with partners

After the program, our partners at PSC reflected that working on these masterclasses enabled them to experience the collaborative approach championed by HLS first hand. We worked closely with the PSC in creating the masterclass series to ensure it struck the right balance of academic rigour, relevant resources, interactive activities, and explorative learning. Through remaining flexible and adapting to the needs of the cohort as the series progressed, we supported participants to start thinking about how they can use approaches that embrace humans, learning, and systems in their work. 

For us at CPI Australia and New Zealand (ANZ), it was a great experience to be able to work alongside public servants in Queensland to gain deeper insight into what the application of HLS can look like. We’re excited to see what the seeds we’ve started planting together can grow into over time.

If you’re interested in CPI ANZ facilitating a learning experience for your team, agency or department, take a look at our Learning journeys for reimagining government.

Learning journeys for reimagining government

Our learning journeys are designed for people in and around the public sector who are curious about exploring new ideas, in new ways.

We offer half-day 'orientations' and full-day 'expeditions' on topics including collaboration in complexity, adaptive leadership, and systems thinking.

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Written by:

Jessica Fuller Program Manager, ANZ
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