Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Changing Nature of Workplace Learning

Recently, I read two posts that to me reflected the changing nature of work -- from divergently different perspectives. One was from the field of architecture and the other was by Harold Jarche on workplace and learning. Given below are excerpts from both. 

Wilkinson proposed building out the entire GLG office to accommodate "activity-based working"--the theory that employees no longer need personal workstations so much as they need many different settings in which to meet, collaborate, or focus, depending on which tasks they're working on. His concept split the office footprint into a handful of smaller "neighborhoods."
The other piece is from The Post-Hierarchical Organization by +Harold Jarche 
Complex problems cannot be solved alone. They require the sharing of tacit knowledge, which cannot easily be put into a manual. In addition, tacit knowledge flows best in trusted networks. This trust also promotes individual autonomy and can become a foundation for organizational  learning, as knowledge is freely shared. Without trust, few people are willing to share their knowledge.
Read in conjunction, the two pieces shed a lot of light not only on how today's workplace is changing but also on its impact on how we learn. While the former reflects the redesigning of workplace as a physical manifestation of this change with its focus on enabling communities and collaboration, the second one squarely focuses on empowering autonomous learning and facilitating the building of trusted networks. Both articles--in their different ways--are talking about creating and facilitating communities at the workplace. Communities which in turn will facilitate the creation of new knowledge, sharing of tacit knowledge and empower workers to move toward autonomous learning.

This is a shift from the way L&D/HR have been working thus far. 
So far, the role of L&D has been to identity existing skill gaps, design training programs to bridge the gaps, and get supervisors or the individuals concerned to nominate themselves for the training, attend the "requisite" training and get back to work and be efficient. The training hours per individual seemed like a good enough matrix. We know how obsolete and redundant that matrix is in today's context. 

In the face of sweeping change encompassing complex and interdependent workflows, globally dispersed teams, cross-cultural work environment, different kinds of employees (contractors, consultants, full-time, part-time, project based, working in offices, working from home and anywhere else including moving vehicles, and any other combination), HR and L&D are faced with multiple challenges, even if we were to consider for a moment that the prior model of skills-gap analysis followed by training still works. Unfortunately, the traditional training model that organizations boasted of and even espoused as one of the employee benefits is broken, and we are faced with complexities at multiple levels.  

What does this imply for L&D/HR? 

IMHO, L&D and HR have to work together--very very closely. They have to forego the linear model of analysis --> training --> work with models that enable and empower them to foster communities, facilitate conversations and collaboration, and most importantly, breakdown organizational silos. In theory, we know this is what will work in the long run. This is the model to follow, iterate and perfect. Many organizations are also beginning to believe this and are investing in Enterprise Social Network (ESN) platforms. Only to be disillusioned by the lack of engagement on these platforms, empty discussion forums and zero conversations. What is beginning with a bang is fizzling out with barely a whimper!

As an L&D professional who is passionate about self-driven learning, #pkm and #pln, and believe in and evangelize social and informal learning, I realize it's time to take a step back and do a reality check. Whenever I talk to clients and colleagues about the power of networks and social learning--and I do so given a sliver of opportunity--I realize that everyone is struggling with the choice between what is known, has worked so far (formal, push training) and has been established in the collective organizational psyche vs. what is new and unfathomable--social, collaborative learning, open sharing, transparency and working out loud. It's not the social media tools that are held under scrutiny and doubtfully examined. It's the principles behind these tools. Principles like openness, sharing, transparency, dialogue and collaboration make organizations uncomfortable. Organizations are more comfortable with ideas like market share, sales strategy, training, competitive advantage, and such. The apparent vulnerability and the threat of exposure that social media and social networks (even within the organization) pose are counter intuitive to all good organizational strategies learned thus far.

The most common questions I encounter when speaking about social tools, sharing and collaborative learning are:
  • How will we measure the ROI?
  • How do we know everyone has learned? (Read: how do we know everyone has clicked through everything shared?)
  • How do we know employees will not be indiscreet or give away organizational secrets?
  • Who will review what employees post on these network?
And other similar questions...

We might roll our eyes and slap our foreheads, but the reality is that organizations still think like this. To make the change stick, to foster engagement on the ESNs and to create communities in the workplaces, it is essential to dig deeper into the organizational culture. Gautam Ghosh's post on How Organizational Culture is the Key to Social Business Success is a succinct summary of the key points. 

None of the systems set up in typical organizations reward collaboration or sharing. There is no apparent link between one's KRAs and performance appraisal and responding to questions on the discussion forum. If anything, those sharing or frequent postings--albeit on internal social networks--to actively work out loud or narrate one's work are likely to be viewed by peers as not having enough to do, time wasters or show offs. Given these various cultural conflicts and tensions, it is little wonder that ESNs become ghost towns, and the status quo continues to the organization's loss. 

What can L&D do to foster the necessary change?

Here are some of the steps I can think of:

Understand the industry the organization is in: It is important for L&D / HR to be thoroughly aware of the organization's business goals, where it stands in the current context, how is it faring in relation to its past, and what critical changes have affected the industry the organization belongs to in the past decade. For example, as someone who belongs to the elearning and organizational learning industry, I need to be on top of the critical impact of technology like Social, Mobile, Analytics and Cloud on workplace learning. The impact is far-reaching, complex and irrefutable. Without an understanding of this, any solution I recommend would only be a short-term band-aid.

Dialogue with the leadership/C-suite: We hear often enough the L&D doesn't have a seat at the table. I don't believe that. I firmly feel that not only does L&D have a seat, but in this time of change and complexity, it has one of the most critical seats. However, this requires an organizational attitudinal change. As long as organizations view employee learning as a good-to-have benefit to be knocked off at the slightest sign of bottom line drop, it will continue to take a lopsided view of learning. Continuous learning and autonomous learners are two goals organizations must strive toward to make an impact today. To achieve this, they require L&D teams who will facilitate this change in collaboration with the leaders of the organization.

Share well-known success stories: There are many success stories out there of organizations embracing internal collaboration and thriving. Collating these stories and sharing add persuasive power to one's conversation. L&D needs to direct the decision makers to these. Often times, a strong case study communicates more than hours of meeting. 

Showcase benefits of personal learning networks: This, I believe is one of the most critical steps. We cannot espouse with any confidence what we don't follow ourselves. So, an L&D personnel advocating informal learning is not likely to carry weight if s/he doesn't engage on a social media platform or has a personal learning network to speak of. This often becomes the Catch 22 situation. And many L&D teams back down or fail to make forceful cases because of our collective lack of exposure and experience in using collaborative networks to drive our own learning. 

Highlight the power of autonomous learners: Organizations would love to think that employees are so motivated and engaged that they do everything in their power to learn new skills to apply to their work. However, this won't happen unless employees feel empowered, rewarded and fearless about making mistakes, sharing and collaborating. All point to a need for cultural change. L&D has to be able to articulate the value of autonomous learning and drive the same. This may often mean taking on the status quo at multiple levels--C-suite, employees who will resist change, and systems and processes aligned with the old world. 

It's still easy for L&D to conduct X hours of training per year and tick it off as a task accomplished. The matrices and parameters used to measure the efficacy of L&D is obsolete. As long as L&D continues to be measured on the number of hours of training delivered and the number of people covered, organizations will continue to get exactly that. 

A systemic as well as a cultural shift is required to move to the new ways of learning and workplace. 

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