Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Top Six Things Organizations Must Do to Enable Emergent Learning

“…changes in mindset are more important than changes in hardware or software.”
~Steve Denning
What is common across the learning modes and methods mentioned? 
  • Social learning via an enterprise collaboration platform 
  • Mobile enabled learning accessible anytime, anywhere, on any device of the user’s choice 
  • MOOCs which straddle the line between social learning and e-learning with learner communities

While an organization can facilitate these, the onus lies with the users/learners. These are essentially “pull” and collaborative learning modes and cannot be imposed. These forms often intersect with one another, and are used in various combinations depending on the organization’s need, users’ comfort and the capabilities required to design the ecosystem. Having said that, a major percentage of organizations today are striving to put in place one or more of the above-mentioned modes and tools of learning. This is leading to a shift in the role of the L&D department – from managers and disseminators of formally designed programs to facilitators and enablers of collaboration and communities. I have written about the new skills that L&D and HR needs to make this transition in my posts here and here. In this post, I am going to explore six key requirements necessary from an organizational and leadership standpoints to make collaborative and emergent learning work. But first, 

What is emergent learning?

Emergent Learning is a condition and an outcome of organizational culture, strategy and purpose

It arises out of a combination of networked leadership, HR and L&D efforts, and meaningful work. It leverages the powers of networks and social platforms, and the affordances of mobile and cloud to build an interconnected and continuously learning organization. When fully realized and supported, emergent learning provides autonomy, mastery and purpose to learners and agility, adaptability and resilience to organizations. It empowers learners to build their personal learning networks (PLN) and personal knowledge management (PKM) by leveraging technology to connect a distributed and diverse workforce. Emergent learning by definition takes place in the workflow; it is always contextual, collaborative, and beyond the norms of formal learning. Emergent learning cuts across formal organizational structures and siloes and brings out the inherent tacit knowledge and ongoing collective experience building a shared journey for all concerned. In this context, it is important to remember that technology is an enabler, an amplifier and connector. It is there solely to serve the purpose of the users, to empower them to explore and engage.

Emergent learning = Nurturing Evolving Human Potential by giving individuals the power to learn the way they want to.

When any organization or institution shifts from a hierarchical, top-down mode to a horizontal, peer- and user-driven one – be it in management or learning – culture plays a huge role in the success or otherwise of the endeavor. “The DNA of “peer trust” is built on opposite characteristics – micro, bottom-up, decentralized, flowing and personal” (The Changing Rules of Trust in the Digital Age). This is perhaps the biggest mind shift that organizations have to make in the digital era and to facilitate an environment of continuous learning. While the pace of change and the need for constant re-skilling has adeptly shifted the onus of learning away from institutions to individuals, this comes with a new set of responsibility and change in mindset. IMHO, these are the six key changes organizations need to make to enable emergent learning. 
  1. Shift from networks to communities. The affordances of ubiquitous connectivity, pervasive mobility and cloud, and the prevalence of social media ensure that organizations today are connected. However, facilitating networks is not enough albeit it’s the necessary precursor to building communities. As Henry Mintzberg points out in the HBR article, We Need Both Networks and Communities. “At the organizational level, … effective companies function as communities of human beings, not collections of human resources.” The article resonates with my belief that organizations today must foster trust-based peer communities to encourage collaboration and cooperation. It is in communities that knowledge is exchanged and challenges solved. 
  2. Give up hierarchical, command and control mindset. While we are wont to blame the management models of the Industrial Era and their continuing prevalence today for the lack of trust and transparency we see in many/most organizations, we have to understand that this model served its purpose when scalable efficiency and productivity were the desired outcome. Today in the face of rapid change and technological evolution, this same model is failing us; it’s becoming a roadblock to seamless collaboration and flow of information. Managers schooled in the hierarchical system find it difficult to give up control. Even the physical design of organizations (although many are changing) with its corner offices, and other visible symbols of hierarchy reinforce the order. It’s not enough to espouse a belief in an open culture; it requires redefining the way leadership functions and their external manifestations. 
  3. Make employee engagement an outcome, not the goal. IMHO, it’s an organization fallacy to make employee engagement the goal. Employee engagement is not a set of isolated and random activities. It is an outcome of a number of collective activities, organization culture and overall employee experience. These experiences begin even before an employee joins an organization and continues till the time they leave, and even thereafter in the firm of alumni communities. Every step of an employee’s journey wrt the organization from the interview process to project allocation to interactions with management and peers adds up to define the culture which in turn drives employee engagement or lack thereof. Emergent learning is a key outcome of employee engagement. Engaged employees feel valued and respected; this leads them to collaborate and cooperate in the interest of the organization as well as their own development. Disengaged employees neither learn nor share. 
  4. Make the purpose bigger than shareholder value creation. In the new world, shareholders’ value will continue to exist but not as a primary driver for organizations that seek to attract, retain and build a community of talented individuals or make an impact on the world. An authentic and purpose-driven organization that is seen to give back to society is more likely to attract and retain employees. Purpose and shared value creation are strong drivers of learning inspiring people to share and collaborate towards the achievement of a bigger vision. 
  5. Stop viewing individuals as replaceable resources. Even today, well into the second decade of the knowledge era and the creative economy, organizations still treat individuals as resources. While no one would clear an interview if they said, “I am just like everyone else, and have no unique qualities,” it is precisely what organizations strive to do once you are in. Kill the uniqueness and make one fit a mold. And then perversely complain that people are not creative, innovative, or using their brains. Basically, it’s a dichotomy! What organizations need and want are being fundamentally curbed by their very systems and processes created to uphold uniformity, predictability, and homogeneity. The leaders and managers are as much a victim of the system as the employees. The systems and processes established 200 years ago were created to augment human brawn with machines. They are ill-equipped to support a world that revolves around the uniqueness of the human brain. It calls for transformational leadership and cultural mind-shift. Individuals treated like replaceable cogs will behave like cogs; not self-driven learners
  6. Celebrate diversity in all aspects – cognitive and otherwise. Learning and insight take place when diverse thoughts and ideas collide. “I have never in my life learned anything from any man who agreed with me,” Dudley Malone had famously said. And it is partially at least true. Diversity and inclusion cannot only be a part of HR policy anymore; it is necessary for the very survival of organizations as we enter the VUCA world. Emergent learning cannot happen unless diverse ideas and experiences find a place to converge and come together. Hence, the communities that organizations facilitate – online or offline -- should consciously enable the coming together of diverse individuals.  
All of these feel like massive changes and they are. I’ll go a step further and say that collectively put together, these moves lead to transformation. Change is primarily tactical, process-driven with a known outcome that one drives toward. Transformation is revolutionary! It takes us from the known to the unknown in the nature of an explorer embarking on a journey of discovery in a bid to find a new world. Here’s a telling excerpt from an HBR article that I’ll end with:

“Change management” means implementing finite initiatives, which may or may not cut across the organization. The focus is on executing a well-defined shift in the way things work.
Transformation is another animal altogether. Unlike change management, it doesn’t focus on a few discrete, well-defined shifts, but rather on a portfolio of initiatives, which are interdependent or intersecting. More importantly, the overall goal of transformation is not just to execute a defined change — but to reinvent the organization and discover a new or revised business model based on a vision for the future. It’s much more unpredictable, iterative, and experimental. It entails much higher risk. And even if successful change management leads to the execution of certain initiatives within the transformation portfolio, the overall transformation could still fail.” We Still Don’t Know the Different between Change and Transformation

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