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Change through learning

It all started on the train to St Ives. There’s a particularly beautiful part of the five-hour journey near Dawlish in Devon, where the track winds along the coast, just metres from the sea. I was travelling on this section in the spring of 2015 – on my way to see the people at Tate St Ives – when my conference call with Arts Council England began. The call was about ‘resilience’: how could Arts Council England help arts organisations up and down the country to adapt, as state funding declines?

Not easy, when many of these organisations are short of time and often can’t afford face-to-face training. We talked about our success with our branding course on FutureLearn, and we landed on the idea of an online course for arts managers – practical learning at a very affordable cost, which they could do whenever and wherever suited them best. Even better, it would be highly social, with learners constantly comparing notes online, forming a long-term supportive community.

A year later, the course, called Building Resilience, created through Wolff Olins’ new learning platform Curve, is live. We’ve worked very closely with the AMA – an independent network of arts organisations – to make it happen. It’s been hard intellectual work (with some more glamorous days filming on location too), so now feels like a good time to reflect. They say that learning is the best way to change – so what, in creating this course, have we learned?

I’d pick four things. Each, in its own way, has meant we’ve overturned our preconceptions. The view now looks different from the view from that train by the sea a year ago.

First, the value of collaboration. A year ago, we’d imagined that the online courses we create – for Arts Council England and other clients – would be Wolff Olins teaching a grateful world about our own experience in branding, leadership and creativity. But our collaboration with the AMA has enabled us to make something much richer, spreading not just our experience but that of the experts who teach on the AMA’s Future Proof Museums programme. Our role is less the expert, more the amplifier.

Second, the power of a simple model. The resilience course has three modules, and each is based on a framework that learners can readily apply to their own organisations. A year ago, I’d imagined that we’d teach a number of models, some created for the course – but in fact we’re using only a few, all of them tried and tested, such as our own model for defining purpose (which has been around for 20 years) and Alex Osterwalder’s highly respected business model canvas. Helping others to learn is less about inventing models, and more about helping to translate them.

Third, the gold-dust of testing. For fifty years, Wolff Olins has been a consultancy, a service company, aiming to arrive at perfection before handing work over to its clients. But this course is a product, and suddenly we’re a product company. And products get tested, repeatedly, with real live customers. The testing we did produced such helpful, sometimes painful, often unexpected feedback that it felt more like another form of collaboration.

Fourth, the potential impact. A year ago, we’d imagined that our online courses would help our clients’ employees learn a new skill. Now, we see a much wider potential: they could help a whole sector, not just one organisation. And they could help people not just to learn, but also to change. You could even say that learning might be a highly effective indirect route to change. It’s notoriously hard for us human being to change. But we do like to learn. Of course, this hypothesis has yet to be proved – but it’s certainly reframed our objectives.

As the product goes live, we’ll learn a lot more. Helping others learn is always experimental: each time you do it, you learn how to do it better next time. So though the product is launched, the learning has only just begun.

Robert Jones is Head of New Thinking at Wolff Olins London. Follow him at @robertjones2