Saturday, February 21, 2015

Emergent Workplaces: Learning in the Networked World

This is my area of passion. A recent, very brief conversation with @krishashok triggered a few thoughts related to emergent workplaces and what learning in the networked world will look like. And after mulling over some of these, I thought they were worth putting down on virtual paper.

Setting the Context

Here are two definitions from Wikipedia that captures the essence of Networked Learning:
Networked learning is a process of developing and maintaining connections with people and information, and communicating in such a way so as to support one another's learning. The central term in this definition is connections. It takes a relational stance in which learning takes place both in relation to others and in relation to learning resources.  
Network learners of the future will have access to formal and informal education of their choice, wherever they are located, whenever they are able to participate … The network learner will be an active participant … learning with and from experts and peers wherever they are located.

We are in an era of ubiquitous connectivity. Agreed that the future is unevenly distributed but it is catching up way faster than envisaged. Those unwilling to or unable to accept the pace of change are in the state Red Queen describes in Alice in Wonderland
“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”

The moot point is that we have no choice but to change how we do things. To quote Charles Darwin: 

It is becoming evident that be it organizations or individuals, those who are adaptive, agile, and open to learning are the ones who will survive. Coming to the topic of this post, IMHO, we will soon cease to speak of technology enabled learning because it will be seamless, integrated and the way everyone not only learns but also works and lives. It will become the norm. Whether that will lead to a dystopian future of fragmented lives and robots for company remain to be seen. But the fact is that technology is here to stay. It is becoming all pervasive. And will impact all spheres of our lives.

The Future Workplace 

It is not as much in the future as we would like to think. The nature of work has changed. We no longer need to go to a physical building to do our work. At least a lot of us don't need to. There have been quite a few paradigm shifts that we need to wrap our heads around. I have listed a few in the diagram below. 

These shifts have a profound impact on our day-to-day lives of which work and learning are an integral part. While on the surface they are unnerving, they can also deeply and positively influence how we take charge of our own lives. No longer is knowledge and information tied to workplace hierarchy. No longer are we expected to leave our passion at home and drag ourselves to the drudgery called work. Passion and creativity and not productivity per hour will increasingly become the measure of success. In an insightful article from HBR called From the Knowledge Economy to the Human Economy, there is this telling para that reflects the organizations and workers of the future: 
In the human economy, the most valuable workers will be hired hearts. The know-how and analytic skills that made them indispensable in the knowledge economy no longer give them an advantage over increasingly intelligent machines. But they will still bring to their work essential traits that can’t be and won’t be programmed into software, like creativity, passion, character, and collaborative spirit—their humanity, in other words. The ability to leverage these strengths will be the source of one organization’s superiority over another.
A human economy is intrinsically based on collaboration, communication, creativity and flexibility. I have written earlier about Re-imagining Work and Learning in a Networked World. I will elaborate some of the key themes here. Dr. Lynda Gratton in her book, The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here encapsulates the possibilities and promises of a connected world in this para.
A crucial question for understanding the future of work is predicting what people will actually do with this unprecedented level of connectivity, content and productive possibilities. Over the next two decades we can expect the knowledge of the world to be digitalised, with an exponential rise in user-generated content, "wise-crowd" application and open innovation applications. 

However, the truth is that most organizations find themselves eminently unprepared to meet this changing state of being. They are tied to the dual masts of hierarchy and command and control while the ground beneath their feet is roiling and shifting under the pressures of various disruptions. They are caught between Efficiency and Innovation -- the former they understand and are set up for; the latter is a whole new animal that they are unprepared to meet. The table below lists some of the contrasting characteristics:

To survive, organizations have to shift from the left to the right, if not completely then at least enough to reach a median balance. And to do so they need to not only take stock of the organizational culture but also how people learn, interact and connect. This requires enabling people to learn how to learn in the networked world, providing them with the infrastructure and then getting out of their way. Organizations need to become facilitators, communities and platforms for people to explore and express their passion. Today, people are seeking solutions to their challenges--both on the professional and personal front--in various ways: 
  • Asking their networks 
  • Collaborating and participating in online communities 
  • Googling  
  • Taking a MOOC 
  • Sharing 
  • Working out loud 
  • On the job
The concept and practice of employees waiting to be trained before being put on the job is fast disappearing. Even onboarding new employees is becoming a social and experiential learning journey. Employees want to feel a sense of belonging and purpose when they join an organization. Connecting them to relevant communities and groups foster that sense of belonging and lessens isolation and disconnect, especially important for those working remotely, from client locations, from home or elsewhere. Thus, distributed organizations can stay connected via communities and build an identity as well as generate a sense of purpose. To make this change stick, organizations have to enable the process, and this involves adoption of some new skills. 

Networked Learning Characteristics

The onus is not only on organizations but also on individuals. However, for generations brought up on top-down schooling followed by hierarchical organizations with top-down training, networked learning skills don't come naturally. They have to be inculcated and deliberately practised for both organizations and individuals to benefit. The skills can be fostered in various ways, and I have tried to capture a few in the diagram below:

Needless to say, putting any or all of these in place require considerable effort and deep understanding of community building, online facilitation and collaboration skills supported by an organizational culture of openness and trust. 

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