Last week, I came across a post by Mark Oehlert that really stayed on my mind. In it, he challenges us to consider what a learning system might look like if we started with a blank slate.
So let’s say you are in an org of a couple hundred people, the org is a couple years old, its grown to the point where you need to get a little bit more structured in terms of systems – not formal from a content perspective but maybe move away from the ad hoc nature of systems that people have been using until now. What’s your first move?
So much of what we read and hear in our field is about trying to reengineer some of the systems we’ve had in place forever – which is much more onerous than you might think. We’re challenged not only by our own traditional thinking but also by the fact that many business leaders and clients are still stuck in a formal learning paradigm. I started thinking about what I might do in the situation Mark described…
Where to start
Before beginning, I would want to have a solid grasp on what the organization does for a living, and its strategic initiatives and immediate challenges. I need that context as I look at the capabilities that our employees bring to that effort. More than mere background, this understanding of the business is a critical underpinning for evaluating and setting learning strategy.
I am sorely tempted by my traditional upbringing in the field to then start where the organization’s capabilities are falling behind its needs. But if I am to be more true to what I think can really make a difference, I would start with looking at employee strengths and exploring what L&D might do to support deepening those strengths. Unless there is a glaring failure point, it’s more likely that deepening people’s strengths and helping them to apply them to emerging challenges will be among L&D’s most valued contributions. (I recently had a discussion with a researcher about a yet-published study that is showing that many development challenges at the leader level are more about pivoting existing skills toward new challenges than about developing new skills.)
The learning architect approach
As a next step, I would embark on a listening tour to explore the overall health of the organization’s learning environment in a generalized sense – looking for the best of what is already being accessed across all learning resource categories (resources – including performance support, people, training and education, development practices, learning by doing, and motivation). My goal would be to evaluate how L&D might bolster and enrich learning through all these avenues. Even though we imagine that we are “starting from scratch” the truth is that the organization is already learning and it would be arrogant to swoop in and try to tell the organization how and what it should be learning.
The approach would be similar to that of an architect working on a remodel of a house. Seldom does the architect need to knock down the entire house to “start from scratch.” Instead, he or she would tour the property, explore what is working and what isn’t, seek to preserve the best points in the layout and functionality, and design changes that improve the flow and usefulness of the overall floor plan. An architect doesn’t create space according to his or her own preferences and lifestyle, but instead listens carefully to the homeowners to enable their dreams about how they want to live. Often, small changes in the architecture of a home can make dramatic improvements. And it’s the architect’s expertise that makes it possible for him or her to envision what will make that difference. We are architects of learning and should follow a similar pattern, I think.
I agree with Mark that our first line of support should NOT be to create courseware. Freed from the expectation that learning strategy begins with formal curriculum, I would look for ways to leverage what is already available. Mark says, “if you start from a place that says “people are already learning – I need to help that” – then that is a very different place than “we need to create content and build courses.” The system that suggests …is one that allows discovery, exploration and sharing.”
Jane Hart has suggested that one of the emerging roles for L&D is that of professional learning advisors. I wonder what we could achieve if we set our sights on coaching people on finding resources and leveraging their relationships and their everyday work in support of the learning they need rather than spending so much time and energy trying to package learning for a group of people who are bound to have substantially different needs – both in terms of where their skill gaps are AND in terms of how those skills are going to be immediately applied.
A learning “system”
Maybe the “system” that Mark is looking for is a support system for individualized learning. And that is not just a technological feat. We need to nurture a culture in which all employees have identified their own learning goals and are actively working on achieving them – a culture in which people (managers especially) are tuned to helping one another to learn and grow. A 2011 study by Accenture uncovered characteristics of what they termed “high performance learning,” and those characteristics included self-directing development, soliciting input and feedback, linking learning and performance, actively collaborating, and maintaining a future orientation. Their recommendations underscored the importance of developing a culture that promotes these activities and having a system that connects people and resources across the organization.
The “system” we might create would support self-directed development across all types of learning strategies. Self-directed doesn’t mean independent and isolated, but rather highly motivated and intentional – and social. Self-directed learning is naturally more long term as employees select and implement multiple strategies over time to continuously develop and tune their skills to match the emerging demands of work. Much of the learning would be embedded in work – with quick time-outs to obtain performance support, gather new knowledge, or learn a framework for engaging a skill that can be immediately tried in the work.
Eventually, we may find there are groups of people with similar needs, or roles where standardizing and formalizing some initial training makes sense and is a far more efficient way to launch people on the way to success. But even so, a training course should always be positioned as just one of a long string of learning opportunities that can be accessed to continuously develop necessary knowledge and skills. In alignment with my understanding that learning takes time, any formalized approach would be designed as a longer term blend between learning activities and application in the flow of work. There are times when stepping outside the flow of work to learn is important and desirable, but that learning needs to be immediately applied and blended into work, with time for reflection and developmental feedback in order for it to stick.
A “from scratch” solution would be quite different from the L&D structures of the past, of course. We need to emphasize supporting learning in all its forms, and not create a system that thrives only on courseware and formalized programs. Taking a learning environment perspective has consistently widened my point of view and helped me to break out of traditional molds. We need to let go of the idea that all learning should be documented and tracked and rely instead on the outcomes of learning – the resulting deepening capabilities and performance gains – as a measure of L&D success.