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Improvement Requires Learning: Learning Happens at the Organizational Level, Too

How do organizations expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, encourage and nurture members to see the whole together, and work collectively to solve problems? Gareth Lock, principal of The Human Diver explains what is needed to create a “learning organization.”

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By Gareth Lock

Header image courtesy of Julian Mühlenhaus. Other photos courtesy of G. Lock unless noted.

Fourteen wildland firefighters died on July 14, 1994, when their attempts to limit the spread of a fire in the Storm King mountain area failed. Due to a series of factors, which were obvious in hindsight, the firefighters were trapped as the fire spread up the hill. They had no means of escape, and the limited time meant they couldn’t build fire shelters. This tragedy triggered the interagency TriData Firefighter Safety Awareness Study that recommended a permanent “lessons learned” program be established for wildland firefighters. In 2002, the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center was created. Today, the Lessons Learned Center operates as a national, interagency, federally-funded organization with interagency staffing. Their primary goal is to improve safe work performance and organizational learning for all wildland firefighters. 

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Credit: 123rf.com

They are a true learning organization. They have created behavioral changes regarding:

  • capturing data from events. 
  • sharing events across all wildland firefighters.
  • changing behaviours as a consequence of the identified and shared stories and analyses. 

Their website can be found here



So, what has this got to do with diving and diver training organizations? The goal of these diving organizations is to educate instructor trainers, instructors, and divers to a standard which they have defined in their own documentation. In the modern safety world, this documentation makes up part of the concept of “Work as Imagined” – what should be done to remain compliant and, as a consequence, keep divers and instructors safe—both operationally safe, and also safe from litigation.

However, these standards provide some “freedom for maneuver” because the real world is rarely aligned with what is written in a book, and even if the books could be written with all those variations, they would be so large that no one would read them! Consequently, there is a gap between what should happen and what does happen. What actually happens is called “Work as Done.” 

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Credit: Gareth Lock

The gaps between “Work as Imagined” and “Work as Done” are risks that individuals and organizations should manage, especially if the risks can lead to adverse events. Unfortunately, this gap was not recognized in time for the Storm King mountain event, which is why the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center was formed, and why for the last 10 years it has been operating as a learning organization closing the gap between “Work as Imagined” and “Work as Done.”

What is a Learning Organization?

The following definitions provide different insights into what a learning organization is.

  • Learning organizations [are] organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together. (Senge 1990: 3)
  • The Learning Company is a vision of what might be possible. It is not brought about simply by training individuals; it can only happen as a result of learning at the whole organization level…an organization that facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself. (Pedler et. al. 1991: 1)
  • Learning organizations are characterized by total employee involvement in a process of collaboratively conducted, collectively accountable change directed towards shared values or principles. (Watkins and Marsick 1992: 118)

In a learning organization, learning happens across the whole organization, and while some might be led and directed top-down, others will be informed bottom-up. What is common to both is the need to share the information to create learning opportunities, and then change behaviors afterwards. 

The Fifth Discipline

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In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge distills the concept of learning organization down to five principles. Note that while this InDepth article is written from the perspective of an “organization,” this term could also apply at a team level too. 

  • Shared vision – a shared vision is an important characteristic of a learning organization, as it provides a common goal to the members of the organization. As a result, they feel motivated to learn to achieve a common goal. The vision for the organization must be built by the interaction with the members, not by the organization itself. Through this authentic interaction, members feel motivated to learn to achieve that common goal.
  • System thinking – this means the organization doesn’t look at issues at the individual level, it looks at them at them with a view that recognizes the interdependence of the components. So, when changes are made to one part of the system e.g., changes to training courses or equipment configurations, the wider perspective is taken to see what other things are impacted. Or, when one instructor has identified an issue, it is addressed system-wide and not just seen as “their problem.” The identification of trends is unlikely to happen quickly. This means that by the time the individuals’ problems are widespread, they are much more difficult to correct. Learning organizations are proactive, not reactive.
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  • Team learning – organizations can only become successful learning organizations if the leadership focuses on the learning of the whole team rather than the learning of an individual. Team learning happens through the accumulation of individual learning, and learning organizations encourage openness and boundary-crossing of established groups or teams. In the context of diving, this could be through co-teaching or taking part in larger projects with members from different teams coming together and sharing ideas and then taking them back to their own original teams and others who were not present. Instructor trainers and examiners play a crucial role in organizational learning because they have access to many different individuals across the organization.
  • Personal mastery –this is where the individual puts 100% of their effort into the task, bridging the gaps between what they know and what needs to be done. In the context of teaching, this could be improving their own personal knowledge to pass onto students about a parallel and linked activity like communication, leadership, decision making, or situation awareness. While an organization can provide training opportunities, the individual must want to learn and improve themselves for the change to happen.
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  • Mental models – in the context of a learning organization, this is about ensuring the models (expectations) of the individual are aligned with what the organization’s values and goals are. This happens through personal engagement and visible leadership. 

What is needed to create and support a Learning Organization?

If the goal is to capture, analyze, and share information so that behaviors can be changed, what is needed to support this?

There are a number of building blocks required for an organization to evolve into a Learning Organization:

A Supported Learning Environment: 

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Photo Credit Gareth Lock.

An environment that supports learning has four distinguishing characteristics:

  • Psychological safety. To learn, members of the organization cannot fear making a mistake, be that speaking up, asking a naïve question, making a contribution, or presenting a minority view. Instead, they must be comfortable expressing their thoughts about the work at hand. This is not about being brave; it is about the environment being safe, and leaders create this environment through role-modelling. Bravery is needed to overcome fear; if there is no fear, there is no need for bravery. This video provides more insight into what psychological safety is. A series of four blogs on the The Human Diver website expands on this in more detail too.
  • Appreciation of differences. Cognitive diversity, the ability to think differently and through different lenses, has been shown to be a key factor in successful organizations and teams. This diversity can increase energy and motivation, spark fresh thinking, and prevent drift. However, it can be hard for some to separate standard operating processes and standardized equipment from a fixed view of the world.
  • Openness to new ideas. Learning is not simply about correcting mistakes and solving problems. It is also about crafting new approaches to problems. The members within the organization should be encouraged to take risks and explore the untested and unknown. This is linked to learner and contributor safety in Dr. Timothy Clarke’s “Four Stages of Psychological Safety.”
  • Time for reflection. There is an essential need to reflect on what happened and not immediately move onto the next task. Learning can be catalyzed through an effective debrief. In the DEBRIEF model I teach, “F” relates to follow-up/file so that the lessons identified can be learned. Supportive learning environments allow time for a pause between activities and encourage an analytic review of the organization’s processes.
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Graphic Credit Gareth Lock.

Concrete learning processes and practices.

Learning across the organization doesn’t happen immediately, nor does it happen without effort being applied by the leadership and members. There is a need for structured processes and tools which allow and encourage the generation, collection, interpretation, and dissemination of information. This could be something as simple as a forum with two key themes: “I need help to solve a problem” and “a lesson I have just learned.”

To achieve maximum effect, the knowledge must be shared in systematic and clearly defined ways, and this is one of the challenges in the diving sector given the geographically dispersed nature of most organizations. Sharing can take place among individuals, groups, or the whole organization, and the knowledge shared should move sideways and vertically (both ways) across the organization. 

The knowledge-sharing process can be internally focused, which looks at how an instructor failed to deliver a class effectively, or handled a difficult student, or why drift is happening with students post-class. Alternatively, knowledge sharing can be externally focused, where students or potential instructors are surveyed to understand their perceptions of the organization. 

As well as having the culture needed for learning, there is a need for a tool or forum that allows this learning to be shared. Such tools ensure that essential information moves quickly and efficiently into the hands and heads of those who need it.

A few questions for you to consider. What learning systems or processes exist within your team or organization to manage the information flow from event to learning and altered behaviors? How do you know it is working? What would make it more effective?

Leadership that reinforces learning

Organizational learning is strongly influenced by the behaviour of the leaders within the organization. When leaders actively question and listen to members, which leads to dialogue and debate, those within the organization feel encouraged to contribute and learn. If leaders signal the importance of spending time on problem identification, knowledge transfer, and reflective debriefs, the prevalence of these activities will increase. At the same time, if leaders close conversations down with statements like, “We’ve always done it this way,” then input and contributions will cease, and learning will wither.

Leaders don’t need to have all the answers themselves. In fact, the strength of a leader in a learning organization is the ability to ask team members  curious questions. When I teach my human factors classes, I am not too bothered about whether the students succeed in getting home to GemaBase, but I want to know and understand their thought processes involved. Positive outcomes are seductive, but it is the decision-making process that counts when it comes to learning. Curious questions include: “What criteria did you use?”, “Why did you think the way you did?”, “What alternatives did you consider?”, “What were your assumptions based on?” The questions are not designed to yield particular answers, but rather to generate open-minded discussions so that learning can flourish.

In Summary

This might have appeared to be an intensive blog, which doesn’t give much practical advice on how to create a learning organization. However, the first steps to creating a learning organization are in your head as a leader or member of that organization. The tools and interactions needed to capture, process, and share the information come second.

For those who want to embark on a journey of learning, once you’ve got the attitude, work out how you start the conversations with those who have the knowledge. Then encourage them to share their stories, their learning, and their changed behaviors. There are plenty of remote conversation tools like Zoom, Google Hangouts, or WhatsApp to facilitate this. However, if you don’t have a psychologically safe environment, then your conversations are going to be limited. 

If you’d like to know more about how to create a psychologically safe environment, get in touch, as I have access to tools and processes which you can use to assess and develop it within your organization or team. 


Since 2011, Gareth has been on a mission to take the human factors and crew resource management lessons learned from his 25 year military aviation career and apply it to diving. In 2016, he formed The Human Diver with the goal to bring human factors, non-technical skills, and a Just Culture to the diving industry via a number of different online and face-to-face programs. Since then, he has trained more than 350 divers from across the globe in face-to-face programs, and nearly 1500 people are subscribed to his online micro-class. In March 2019, he published “Under Pressure: Diving Deeper with Human Factors” which has sold more than 4000 copies and on May 20th, 2020, the documentary “If Only…” was released, which tells the story of a tragic diving accident through the lens of human factors and a Just Culture. As a presenter at dive shows and conferences round the globe, he has shared his knowledge about and his passion for diving. He has also been called upon as a subject matter expert to assist with a number of military diving incidents and accidents focusing on the role of human factors.

Cave

A Perspective on Teaching Cave CCR

Veteran Irish cave and CCR instructor cum sports psychologist Matt Jevon explains how he teaches divers to become competent underground rebreather divers who “err safely” and thus are likely to return home at the end of the dive.

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by Matt Jevon
Header image courtesy of Marissa Eckert

“To err is human” Alexander Pope

In his “Essay on Criticism,” Alexander Pope wrote “To err is human, to forgive divine.” However, if you are not prepared to err safely in cave or rebreather diving, you will come face to face with your preferred divine being, begging for forgiveness.

Stratis Kas’s book, Close Calls, a compilation of stories from a roll call of “who’s who” in diving, attests to the fact that the very best of us can and do make mistakes, or err. That they are still here to share these lessons with us affirms the huge amount of training, preparation, and experience required—and, as many will admit, no small amount of luck.

Gareth Lock, author of Under Pressure, is fond of the phrase “fail safely,” and with good cause. As he puts it, and I paraphrase; the human in the machine is at the heart of likely outcomes. In my own experience as a psychologist with expertise in human performance, the best systems, processes, and technologies are often outwitted by an unwitting fool or an arrogant wise man.

The ultimate dream of becoming a cave diver accessible for all? Photo by Marissa Eckert.

Today there is a surge of divers wishing to become cave divers, perhaps because it is perceived by some as the pinnacle of diving—in skill and status—or perhaps because it is seen as more accessible. Certainly, social media has given access to the incredible and beautiful environments that were once the playground of a select few. Divers are discovering that cave and modern diving practices, equipment, and training are making it a much safer environment until they start exploring virgin caves. Closed circuit rebreathers (CCR) are now mainstream and in wide use by many divers. In cave and deep dives, I would say they have become the primary tool; the limitations of open circuit scuba are seen as making it inappropriate for most “big” dives.

By the time a diver reaches their CCR cave course, they will, or should be, a knowledgeable, skillful, and competent diver on a CCR. Perhaps the odd one will find a shortcut, but it is the exception rather than the rule. In addition, the majority will already have some open circuit cave training, at least to intro level if not to full cave. The pathway from zero to hero in the cave is much longer and more difficult to shortcut than, say, open water to instructor status. Starting cave diving on CCR from cavern to full cave is, and should be, a much longer route.

[Ed.note: There are arguments against allowing a student to pursue any form of diving before gaining open circuit experience. Some argue that one should first become competent on open circuit in the relevant environment and THEN train in that environment on RB/CCR. This argument asserts that RB failures will find a diver on open circuit, requiring them to be proficient on this equipment in the relevant environment. These factors may be progressively more relevant with more complex environments.]

So, the CCR cave instructor is not dealing with an inexperienced CCR diver; nor, if they are as careful in their acceptance of students as most are, will they be dealing with an adrenaline seeking-junkie. See “Why We Cave Dive” (video) for reasons why some divers seek out the karst realm, as well as examples of divers we hope to encourage into the sport and those we prefer to avoid it.

How do we handle tricky situations? Photo by Mirsoslav Dvoracek

The job of a cave CCR instructor is not to prevent all errors or mistakes. It would be both arrogant and foolish to believe that instructors can overcome human nature and the situational factors found in closed circuit cave diving. The instructor’s role is to lessen the frequency and severity and to mitigate the consequences of those errors as, and when, they occur. The instructor must do this in the course, ideally exposing students to likely errors or challenges in controlled conditions and embedding appropriate solutions. Students should acquire appropriate and controlled emotional, cognitive, and behavioural responses.

Being a cave instructor has a few significant differences from being a deep technical rebreather instructor. Here are a few:

Kit

Cave diving demands a greater equipment load. The number of backups can be summarised as “Three is two, and one is none.” So, three sources of light sufficient to complete an exit, three cutting devices, reel/spools, markers, breathing sources, and more. Before entering any overhead environment, the instructor must help students configure, become familiar with, and master accessing and manipulating their configuration. For this reason, cave divers opt for simple, easy solutions that are robust and definitely not prone to failure. This applies to their primary gear (CCR choice) and to every single piece of backup gear.

Preparing the kit. Photo by Petr Chmel.

My own choices are primarily sidemount-based in the cave; the Liberty rebreather; Divesoft computers, primary reel and markers; plus O’Three 90ninety shell suit; and Apeks regulators and spools, all based on a Razor Sidemount System. In backmount I use a JJ-CCR, but I am now using the Liberty Sidemount rebreather as a bailout system. All simple, proven, tough, and each piece having substantial built-in redundancy/failure management options.

Safety

The instructor’s primary role—despite what many believe to the contrary—is, in any diving, to ensure that the students are safe and that they go home unharmed medically, physically, or mentally. Secondary to this is teaching skills, having fun, and awesome and epic dives. What a big ask in cave diving!

Progression in open water diving is more straightforward, especially using mixed gas. In the absence of narcosis, divers can build up deco time gradually and have a pre-rehearsed familiar exit/ascent permanently above them. Although not different in terms of time to exit, an open water deco ceiling somehow seems, to most, to be less of a psychological threat than several hundred tons of rock.

Penetration stress can occur within only a few meters. Photo by Kathrine Livins.

I have seen cave divers suddenly go from a point of being perfectly happy to being very unsettled and distressed within a few meters. There is actually a term for this: penetration stress. Penetration should be slowly built up over time with confidence in the linear distance built through many dives—some, but not all, including stressful exits (blind, bailed out, manual control, or touch contact). 

To do this, an instructor needs considerable empathy. Some instructors may shy away from this and instead use a pseudo militaristic approach by battering, bullying, or belittling the student, constantly tearing off masks, shutting down gas, or more. (We are talking personality types here, not problem solving training.) Stay away from these people at all costs.

Instructors cope with a high task load. Not only do they have to monitor the group’s penetration distance, navigation, and teamwork, but they also need to monitor the students and their own PO2, decompression obligations and time to surface (TTL), bailout supply and limits, on board gas supply, scrubber durations, as well as to teach. In order to do this, a few tricks are employed. Some of these may be useful when diving in any CCR team:

  1. PO2 monitoring. HUDS can easily be seen reflected in students’ masks. It’s much easier than trying to read someone’s handset.
  2. Instructor Ghost Mode. Not just used for sneaky (pre-warned and planned) drills, the lights off/blackout ghost mode is often accompanied by pull and glide along ceilings or cave walls where no damage to the environment is possible. Instructors, especially on quiet CCRs, can get within a few centimeters of a student without their knowing, or they can shoot ahead. It is a bad practice to turn off (as opposed to cover) one’s primarily in a cave. The on-off button/switch is a weak point, especially at depth—sufficient working backups are required.
  1. Buddy lights on CCRs are brilliant for instructor/team monitoring, Divesoft’s show up well and Sentinels almost too well. When I was a student, my instructor found ghost mode difficult to fully pull off, since I saw this green light above me every time he tried it!
Lights are an integral part of safely experiencing a cave. Photo by Kathrine Livine.

Teamwork

As an instructor, you want the students to develop their own robust team dynamic. If you are part of this, too often, students will always defer to your authority and default to you for leadership and solutions. So, if you do join the team to make up numbers, always be number 2, the weakest member, and play the part. Students don’t need to see how clever or skilled you are, they need to develop their own skills.

Navigation: Know the cave you are teaching in. For students’ first dives where I may not know them or their capabilities, I like to be in caves where a lost line would not be an issue for me in terms of exiting. Take Ressell in France for instance: A quick glance at the ceiling and a look at the scallop shapes in the rock, and I know which way is out.

Know where you are and where you’re going. Photo by Miroslav Dvoracek.

Pre-Dive Checks

These assume a whole other level of importance in cave and rebreather diving. A checklist is useful but only if you properly check everything on it. Turn backup lights on and off, breathe bailout regs at least 4-5 breaths. Fill and dump wings and drysuits. Prevention will ensure survival. It will also give students confidence, which means you are less likely to have issues, you’ll get a better response if you do, and you can actually enjoy the dive. [Ed.—Check out GUE’s Pre-Dive Sequence here]

Here are a few tricks I also like to instill:

  1. Link routines. For example, PO2 check and back reference. I use a hand mirror, so looking back is easy, and a quick over the shoulder is not difficult. Every time I check PO2, I look behind me. Caves often look very different on the way out and if I can, I will mentally imprint landmarks that I will see on exit. Some caves have distance markers every 100-150 m/328-492 ft on the main line, especially training caves. I’m not a huge fan of these for my own diving, as it’s a bit like graffiti; but, for trainees, PO2 plus back reference anytime you pass any navigational marker is a good routine.
  2. Wetnotes use. A good habit in a new cave is to make a note of time, distance, gas, and the navigation marking/direction in your wetnotes at any substantive navigation. On some dives, this will be two or three notes. Do this in some Mexican caves and you will get about 300 m/0.2 miles from the entrance and need a new Wetnotes book, so be sensible!


Finally, students will learn a lot of new skills, from what to do when you lose teammates, lose or become entangled in the line, encounter a broken line, have light and equipment failures, and more. Many of these will be done with blindfolds or blacked-out masks (mine say, “Use the force” on the front). On an open circuit, these situations can be challenging. On CCR, doing blackout drills while controlling loop content and volume, handling multi bailouts, and more, requires time both to learn and to embed. Don’t do it until you get it right, do it until you can’t get it wrong. Sometimes the lost line drill will provide unique challenges to get it right. If conducted correctly, you will probably get it wrong half the time!

Ultimately, graduating a new CCR cave diver is a moment to enjoy for the instructor—one with a need for appropriate gravitas and consideration. I have certified divers who were less proficient than other divers that I failed or asked to repeat. That was because a student’s attitude, mental strength, and sound decision-making ensured that they would likely go home safely from each dive. As the sign posted at the entrance of almost every cave reads, “Nothing in this cave is worth dying for.” There is an awful lot of cave diving worth living for, and I have been privileged to see some spectacular caves.

References:

 Barnson S.C. (2014) The Authentic Coaching Model: A Grounded Theory of Coaching. Human kinetics, Champaign, Il.

Troy A. Moles, Alex D. Auerbach & Trent A. Petrie (2017) Grit Happens: Moderating Effects on Motivational Feedback and Sport Performance, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 29:4, 418-433, DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2017.1306729

Swann, C., Crust, L., Jackman, P., Vella, S. A., Allen, M. S. & Keegan, R. (2017). Performing under pressure: Exploring the psychological state underlying clutch performance in sport. Journal of Sports Sciences, 35 (23),2272-2280.

Additional Resources:

The Darkness Beckons by Martyn Farr

Basic Cave Diving a Blueprint for Survival by Sheck Exley (Freedownload)

Facebook Pages/Groups:

Psychological Skills for Diving @PSTforDIVING

Diving Educators – Teaching and Learning Techniques (Group)

Human Factors in Diving

Web pages:

www.mattjevon.com

www.swt.ie

www.thehumandiver.com


Matt Jevon, M.Sc. F.IoD, is a Full Expedition level Trimix and Cave instructor on OC and CCR with TDI and ANDI. He is a JJ-CCR and Divesoft Liberty Sidemount instructor and dealer for Ireland. Matt’s personal diving has included cave exploration in the Philippines and wreck projects in Croatia and Ireland, and he was one of the inaugural Dirty Dozen in Truk! Matt has held accreditations as an interdisciplinary sports scientist, sports psychologist with the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES), and was a British Olympic Registered Strength and Conditioning Coach and invitee on the Olympic Psychology Advisory Group. Matt works in the high performance business as a board advisor and non-exec, high performance sport, and expeditionary level diving as a partner in South West Technical Diving in Ireland (), and hosts the Facebook page “Psychological Skills for Diving.”

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