Archive for December 2011

I’ve been spending some time with the Internet Time Alliance’s 5 Stages of Workplace Learning diagram, and with a lot of folks who are champions of informal learning and the Workplace Learning Model. The desired end point is stage five, where there is no longer any traditional workplace learning managed and controlled by L&D, but rather there are autonomous learners, collaboratively working and informally learning together.

Color me old-fashioned, but the notion of a stage 5 organization where there is no formal learning; where the learning organization (if it still exists) is only in the business of encouraging autonomous, independent and inter-dependent, self-directed learners – well, honestly, that sounds like Narnia rather than the world that my customers, my colleagues, and I live in.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m an old baby boomer who went to a college with no grades and no required curriculum. I went through the human potential movement, taught college courses in self-actualization, and have the accolades, degrees, and scars to prove it. I get the importance of believing in people, encouraging autonomy, and putting lots of energy into the folks we work with.

But call me crazy, I’d still like to have my brain surgeon have a smidgeon of formal classroom instruction coupled with years of formal and informal on-the-job learning – much or most of which was probably not self directed. And yeah, I would even go so far as to buy into that old fashioned, command-and-control, hierarchical model that says that she should be certified as capable – using criteria that she didn’t have an equal voice in developing – before she cuts my skull open.

And similarly, if I were the VP Sales for a major corporation, with my livelihood dependent on quarterly sales figures, most likely I’d want learning professionals supporting my department who would not simply be encouraging self-directed learning on the part of my new hires. Nope. I’d want to have a seat the table when we determine what skills I’m looking for in sales reps, and I’d not only expect but demand that the learning professionals use whatever tools are in their toolbox to equip new hires with these capabilities as quickly as possible, and to help us determine which ones weren’t making the mark – even if this meant using some tools that were not, strictly speaking, self directed, informal, and non-hierarchical.

If you weren’t reading the papers, blogs, forums, and social networks created and inhabited by learning professionals, you’d probably think I was nuts to make what seem to be some pretty obvious points.

But here’s the thing – there are many, many “thought leaders” in the learning space who shudder every time they hear the dreaded word “training,” who think ADDIE (along with instructional design in general) has long outlived its usefulness, and who believe that the world would be a better place if we shifted entirely to a self-directed, informal model of organizational learning.

And, honestly, I understand where they are coming from. When two week, highly effective, off-site leadership courses emphasizing small group interaction in the 80’s became 160-slide death by PowerPoint eLearning “courses” in the late 90’s, we began to replicate the worst practices of education electronically. In effect, as a profession, we put on our stupid hats when we first got eLearning authoring tools. We added propellers when we eagerly agreed to devote most of our mind share and budget for two to three years to implement these monsters.

With a focus on compliance training (AKA litigation risk management), technology, and horrible eLearning courses that do not create capability changes, something had to give. And informal learning has been the new panacea, and its social media technologies the new shiny object.

But at the end of the day, it’s vital that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Effective formal learning is still the intervention of choice in many, many situations. So is informal learning. So is creating performance support systems. Let’s use the right tool for the right job.

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You’d have to be living under a rock to be unaware that the use of social media is considered to be THE hot skill effective knowledge workers must master. What you might not realize is that you are probably already a pretty effective user of social media, even if you do not yet have a twitter account. Let’s take a look at how:

1. Search!

Just who do you think makes all those resources that show up on google search? Those would be people, though likely people you don’t know. Search is often the first place we go to find resources published by other humans. And if the thing you find which has the answer you are looking for is something which puts your mind in touch with somebody else’s thinking, it’s profoundly social. So think about the places you search and how often you search them —

a. Google and other Internet search engines
b. Local disk drive
c. Shared organizational disk drives
d. Shared organizational resources
e. Shared commercial resources (Lexis-Nexus, etc.)

2. Personal Inquiry!

a. Asking the folks you know who might know, calling, dropping by the office, or shooting an email to a colleague
b. Posting to a forum where the topic you need information on is under discussion (often found using search, above)

3. Crowdsourcing –  asking  a question of “Everybody” (for values of “everybody” which may exclude the folks you really need to contact)

a. Everybody following you on twitter
b. Everybody following a certain hashtag on twitter
c. Everybody following you on facebook
d. Everybody reading your blog
e. Everybody following you on linked-in
f. Everybody following your group ‘s discussion on linked-in
g. Everybody following you on Google+

There is a reason why crowdsourcing as a strategy is not as ubiquitous as search and personal inquiry are, and it’s the same reason that things are always in the last place we look – once we find it, we stop looking!

Most of us can find most of what we need most of the time through channels one and two. And for those of us whose jobs require us to locate proprietary organizational information, that stuff isn’t out on the open web, anyway.

In some fields of endeavor, the careful curation of contacts and followers on Twitter, Linked-in, Google+ and/or Facebook brings rich rewards (often, the addition of folks to one’s list of people to make personal inquiries of in the future!) But in others, the minds we need to touch just are not out there in the crowd hanging out on social media sites, and sifting through the responses offered by well-meaning folks who can’t really know the context within which our answers have to work is awfully expensive in terms of time. We need to find the right people where they live, which might be in an organizational knowledge base, or in the company directory.

Highly productive organizations develop a wealth of information on their “secret sauce” approach to answering tough questions. Forward-thinking organizations are finding ways to use social media tools to put their folks in touch with that store of info, and with subject matter experts within and outside of the organization. I’d argue that one measure of success in that enterprise will be the extent to which workers can find the organization’s answer to any given through search and personal inquiry, without ever having to turn to the anonymous crowd.

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