The Power to Transform: Understanding Learning in Organizations


by Marilyn Sherman

In one School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) classroom last quarter, undergraduates were working on Capstone Projects with Chicago's AIDS Foundation. Representatives came to the class with a real problem from their organization, and after much study students designed a plan for solving it. Their focus was squarely on learning within the organization.

The Capstone Project is one example of the real-world learning that students in the School of Education and Social Policy's learning and organizational change programs experience — both at undergraduate and graduate levels. Both programs excel at exploring how organizations use knowledge and learning to create and respond to change. To change behavior in an organization, one must understand how people learn.

The undergraduate major
Senior Adil Mansoor applies his learning from the Learning and Organizational Change (LOC) program to his work as artistic director for a theatre group.
Senior Adil Mansoor applies his learning from the Learning and Organizational Change (LOC) program to his work as artistic director for a theatre group.
Photo by Andrew Campbell


Mansoor (right) engages in discussion with fellow LOC seniors Lizzy Kozak and Neal Sales-Griffin.
Mansoor (right) engages in discussion with fellow LOC seniors Lizzy Kozak and Neal Sales-Griffin. "I've learned how to work with a team and create synergy," he says.
Photo by Jim Ziv

"Learning and Organizational Change (LOC) is not something high school students usually think about, but many develop an interest in the field while at Northwestern. They get excited because it's the people side of organizations," says Susan Olson, assistant dean of student affairs, who sees undergraduates flocking to this fast-growing major.

This interdisciplinary program focuses on both learning and organizations, with required courses in each area. "It's the learning side that distinguishes us from any other program in the United States," notes Jessie Blank, the LOC students' adviser.

Senior Lizzy Kozak sees value in this approach. "By concentrating on individual cognition and interaction in group settings, I am better equipped to understand the inner workings of groups and therefore effect change," she says.

Graduates of the program often go on to succeed in consulting, education reform, nonprofit organizations and other fields. Of last year's graduating class, most became analysts for consulting companies or research firms. Others work for Teach for America, Google and Morgan Stanley or have gone on to graduate school. "A lot of graduates get attractive positions because employers recognize that this unique major trains students to look at the problems and the people," explains Olson.

Whether LOC students focus on education or business, all have an entrepreneurial spirit and problem-solving orientation. For example, in the business arena two years ago junior Rishi Shah started a business magazine distributed at 60 universities, and more recently a consumer education company. "LOC is interesting for students who want to jump into the puzzle and put together excellent organizations," he says. "I wanted to figure out why certain organizations excel and succeed at cultivating talent."

Other students apply LOC to education. Junior Tatiana Rostovtseva, for example, wants to start her own school. And senior Janet Rocha, who intends to become a professor of higher education, intends to start a youth center to prepare Latino students for "the culture of college."

LOC students have the flexibility to choose courses from a variety of disciplines for an academic program that really meets their interests, says Olson. They also gain practical experience though a 10-week practicum at a company or nonprofit. For these reasons, the LOC program, which started in 1997 to succeed the organizational studies major that began in 1987, has been growing quickly. The small interactive classes and sense of community within SESP also draw students. "The program is growing because current students talk about how much they like it," says Olson.

The graduate program
At the graduate level, the Master of Science in Learning and Organizational Change (MSLOC) program has the goal of understanding sustainable change in organizations and how learning can make it happen, according to Kimberly Scott, the program's director. "Focusing on people and individual growth is important — for individual and organizational success," says Scott, who has studied healthy companies and brings practical experience from 10 years' work as a manager and a consultant for several Fortune 500 companies.


"With what we're teaching, you can help organizations be more effective and better places for people," says Kimberly Scott, director of the Master of Science in Learning and Organizational Change (MSLOC) program.
Photos by Andrew Campbell


Pat McGrath (MS06), a Jesuit priest who supervises six high schools in the Chicago area, pinpoints what makes the MSLOC program distinctive. "It pulls two worlds together. We learn to ask questions in organizational design and management but doing everything through the lens of the learning sciences," he notes.

For Douglas Parks (MS06), a senior consultant with IBM Global Services, the program stands for leadership since it builds awareness of learning and knowing that improves decisionmaking: "When you ask the right question, you remove needless complexity and focus your efforts, energy and resources on the true problem or opportunity. That's leadership!"

With an average of nine years of job experience, MSLOC students include business executives, leaders of not-for-profit organizations, managers, consultants and education professionals. Each student has a unique background, but each is trying to make an impact on an organization. They learn from each other and from their different practical applications in their careers.

For students in business management careers, the emphasis on the human aspect of organizations makes MSLOC stand out, says Scott. These students can probe deep into the human side — for example, leadership, learning and motivation — while also taking traditional MBA courses such as operations and finance through Kellogg School of Management. On the other hand, for students interested in organizational development, the broad range of subject matter sets MSLOC apart. The three pillars of the program are knowledge management, strategic change, and learning and performance.

Historically, today's MSLOC program evolved from two earlier SESP graduate programs: Corporate Training and Development, and Organizational Development and Workplace Learning. This evolution has followed progress in the field, where the focus has shifted from training to knowledge about talent management. As reflected in the concept of "human capital," businesses have become more appreciative of people as a major asset, says Scott.

Terrence Roche (MS07) gives a presentation at a Project Showcase event for the MSLOC community shortly before he graduated in December. Roche applies MSLOC tools and concepts in his current position at YMCA of the USA
Terrence Roche (MS07) gives a presentation at a Project Showcase event for the MSLOC community shortly before he graduated in December. Roche applies MSLOC tools and concepts in his current position at YMCA of the USA.
Photos by Andrew Campbell


For the MSLOC program, quick growth tells a positive story. While the current program started in 2002 with two students, now 70 students are enrolled.

The greatest evidence of the program's success, however, lies in the story of its graduates. Alumni are achieving career objectives in varied fields, from education to nonprofits to business. For example, in education reform, Megan Talent-Bennis (MS07) is fulfilling her goal by serving as a team leader for the Gates Foundation-funded High School Transformation Project in the Chicago Public Schools. At the YMCA of the USA, Terrence Roche (MS07) is leading the development of a national initiative to build Americans' fitness habits. "I use the tools and concepts I've learned in MSLOC as part of my job every day," says Roche.

Meanwhile, many other alumni have achieved in business, including recent alumni such as Parks at IBM; Debbie Plager (MS07) in organizational development for Allstate's Global Engagement Initiative; and Nicole Polarek (MS07), a manager of organization development at Kraft Foods. "They're improving organizations in a variety of contexts," says Scott.

Alumni are integral to the MSLOC community, where they participate in events, conferences, online forums and teaching. One recent event was a Sustainability Conference on April 5 that focused on how the learning and organizational change perspective can add to solutions that promote corporate social responsibility. "Alumni are important to the continued growth of the program," says Scott, who invites all SESP graduates to get involved.

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By Marilyn Sherman