Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Scalable Learning in the 21C Workplace

Back after a long break! With the intention to write regularly again…

Wicked problems and their role in organizational learning have always fascinated me…so here are some more thoughts on the same topic.

Organizations are increasingly facing wicked problems in a complex and, often, a chaotic world. I wrote about this almost three years back in my post Wicked Problems, Complexity and Learning. Automation, robots, and ubiquitous technology have left very few jobs that require mindless following of processes and instructions for humans to do. Even outsourcing—once considered only for mechanical and tedious work—is taking on a very different flavor in a globalized economy. Vivek Wadhwa wrote about it in this short and insightful post, Outsourcing Will Grow and Even You Will Do It, where he says: 
Outsourcing is being superseded by crowdsourcing — which is enabling anyone to take a job anywhere. Having people all across the world collaborate in this way will not only disrupt industries but also change societies. 
Ross Dawson in this brilliant infographic called out the trends that will affect the Future of Work from connectivity, crowd-sourcing, and remote work to work fragmentation, social expectations to economy of individuals—each a key trend in its own right.

The very nature of the game is changing. Past rules no longer hold good. Problems are truly wicked in nature and answers cannot be found in one place. And to scale and survive, organizations must facilitate scalable learning.

When I (re)read John Hagel’s post, Defining the Big Shift, I was reminded of these trends and the way the future of work demands new learning and performance modalities. More than 4 years ago, John Hagel wrote about the need for institutions that can drive learning: 
From institutions driven by scalable efficiency to institutions driven by scalable peer learning. Today’s large institutions are more often than not barriers to effective participation in scalable knowledge flows so it is no wonder that passionate and creative talent is increasingly fleeing established institutional homes to set up shop as independent contractors and entrepreneurs. On the other hand, institutions can provide unique opportunities to scale pull platforms and build ever growing networks of long-term trust based relationships on top of these platforms.  If institutions viewed their primary rationale as fostering scalable peer learning, they could create “learningscapes” that would help individuals develop their talent much more rapidly than these individuals ever could on their own.
 In my POV, the onus of enabling organizations build scalable learning or become learning organizations lies with the L&D department. The need for training programs to cater to a set of fixed requirements will/has already diminished. A set of fixed skills and a stock of knowledge no longer suffice in the workplace today. The days of routine expertise is over. Adaptive expertise and a growth mindset are the needs of the hour. And unless L&D can gear up and help organizations make the move from delivering training programs to designing a more holistic learning ecosystem, and facilitating the growth of adaptive expertise to foster scalable learning, L&D runs the risk of becoming redundant at worst or be seen as a cost center to complete tick-mark activities at best.

Charles Jennings brings up very pertinent points in The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: opportunities and challenges for the L&D profession regarding the capabilities that L&D needs to cultivate to add value to an organization. And he specifically calls out these four:
  • Performance Consulting 
  • Content Capabilities 
  • Social Media Capabilities 
  • Workplace Learning Capabilities

He also stresses the importance of promoting a development mindset. I strongly recommend you read the entire post for a thorough understanding.

How do we move from designing training to building organizations that learn?
Technology can definitely be roped in as an enabler and a crucial partner in the entire endeavor. With mobile learning finally coming of age, wearable technology making coyly seductive appearances, tablets, phablets, and smartphones gaining omnipresence, and IT moving from considering BYOD policy to accepting that there had better be a policy, the world of tech is wreaking havoc in the workplace. The way we work defies all preset norms; the way we learn must follow suit. Organizations have to become “creation-spaces” that will nurture rapid learning, sharing and innovation.

A few things predicted by farsighted individuals like John Hagel, John Seely Brown, Harold Jarche, Jay Cross, Jane Hart, Jon Husband, Charles Jennings, Dave Snowden, et al have finally come to pass, like the automation of simple and even complicated work--Automation is out; Innovation is in. How will L&D address this? How can L&D enable people to innovate and work, perform and learn in the Complex and Chaotic zones?  (Refer to the Cynefin Framework) Because that is where work that matters is going to be.

Charles Jennings, in his post, Workplace Learning: Adding, Embedding & Extracting, points out the importance of helping people “extract learning from work
The model of ‘learn then work’ is replaced here with ‘work then learn, then work in an improved way’. Learning is not only embedded in the workflow, but new learning is continually extracted from experiences and exchanged with colleagues, customers and the entire value chain.
This is true of the Cynefin Framework where learning in the Complex zone follows the sequence of Probe-Sense-Respond and is retrospectively coherent, i.e., understood only in reconsideration. This maps to what Jennings says regarding extracting learning. However, this necessitates L&D to don the hat of facilitators and architects and to enable people develop the skills of extracting learning. The key skill required is the ability to narrate one’s work. 

In 2010, Bryce Williams wrote: Working Out Loud   =   Observable Work   +   Narrating Your Work. And by enabling this narration and sharing, L&D departments can play a key role in supporting an organization move to scalable learning making it capable of dealing with change and complexity. Harold Jarche writes about this here in Ensuring Knowledge Flow through Narration
Narration is turning one’s tacit knowledge — what you know — into explicit knowledge — what you can share. … Narration of work is the first step in integrating learning into the workflow.
More on the different models and frameworks that can facilitate narration of work as well as peer-to-peer learning in the next post. Heutagogy and Peeragogy are likely to be the premises of workplace learning in the future. 

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