This is the second part of a discussion on the need to focus on people - rather than technology or the business - when developing an organisation's approach to learning.
See the first part here.
I'll be speaking about the topic on Sunday at ATD's MENA conference in Riaydh, Saudi Arabia.
Shifting from governance to culture
The ongoing, general shift in focus from formal to informal and social learning has been hugely positive for learning practitioners, learners and their organisations. As you will probably know, informal learning encourages ongoing, real-time, self directed development of knowledge and skills supported by the rise of Google as what was for a time our most powerful learning tool. Social emphasises learning with, rather than just from, other people so that we can create new meaning together and is supported through the use of Twitter and other social technologies surpassing Google as the top tools for learning.
These newer approaches provide substantial benefits for efficiency, effectiveness and potentially even competitive advantage. Efficiency comes from cost savings, often from lower travel expenses due to not having to bring everyone together into a training room. Effectiveness is provided by people learning what they need rather than being mandated and directed to learn a certain thing. It also helps people learn better, forget less and transfer more because learning is more connected to the work people do and the people they do it with. This also avoids the new learning being rejected by the rest of the organisation. But the biggest benefit and the one which has the potential to provide a direct contribution to competitive advantage is that learning shifts from the individual level to the team and organisation as a whole. Organisations in which people learn together can become learning organisations which are more agile and adaptable, flexing organically and avoiding the need for mechanistic change.
The use of modern technology is an essential part of this shift and as well as Google and Twitter includes corporate social communication tools like Yammer and Jive, social learning tools like Saba and informal / social tools like Coursera.
As well as enabling learning, these technologies often provides useful and easily accessible measures of learning activity. This might include, for example, the number of times a performance support app has been downloaded and accessed on a mobile device. However even using technology, the move to informal and social learning makes it harder to measure the outcomes of these development activities, that is the increased knowledge and skills.
Informal and social learning are more organic - development is happening out there in the organisation somewhere but as learning practitioners you do not always know what or when something is being learned. This provides an interesting paradox for the learning professional - as the potential of learning becomes more powerful so does the risk that it will not focus on the most important things or potentially may not even happen at all.
This has of course been the big problem with action learning for decades. Where action learning sets have been properly introduced and people understand their value these can provide some of the most powerful types of learning for the learners and their organisations too. But our experience is often not like that. Most attempts at using action learning end in failure. People attend and enjoy their first couple of action learning sets whilst these are facilitated by a learning practitioner but when told to keep the sets going by themselves organisations often find that a few people will attend a few more set meetings but then the initiative collapses and the learners and organisation moves onto other things.
We are now seeing the same thing with social media based learning. People may, with the right encouragement, start to use our sexy new learning tools and technologies but without ongoing support, and especially good community management, people soon lose interest and the learning communities turn into virtual ghost towns.
This is one of the reasons that learning practitioners need to focus on the individual learner and helping motivate item to learn which was the topic I wrote about in my my article in October’s edition of Learning Technologies magazine. However we also need to get much more serious about organisational culture - ensuring that this recognises the importance of learning and supports an environment which is conducive for learning to take place.
We all know that anything to do with technology in HR and Learning is always more dependent on culture than the technology itself but I am still not sure that the central importance and full role of culture is always understood.
So yes, we need to develop cultures which encourage people to meet their own learning needs, value social communication and collaboration, and enable people to speak freely - all basic requirements if informal and social learning tools are going to be used.
But we also need to create organisational cultures in which people prioritise investment in their own and others' capabilities, reflecting on learning required to support overall business and individual needs, making time for learning to take place and participating in learning with some understanding about the way they learn as well as a desire to generate new knowledge and skills.
We can no longer count courses or people attending them, or quality assure their delivery to ensure people are learning the right things. We can survey people about the learning which is going on but I would suggest that even this is more useful as a cultural enabler, helping people remember the need for a focus on learning rather than as a true means of measuring and managing learning activity.
We therefore need to shift our focus from control of learning to ensuring the organisational environment encourages people to invest time appropriately in their own development. We then need to trust people to do this. Culture is the new governance.
This shift needs to take place in tandem with the more general one if the benefits of informal and social learning are to be realised.
To achieve success against this requirement we need to communicate clear messages about what is important. This should include the high level purpose, mission and values of the organisation (hopefully one of those values will relate to learning), its key business priorities and possibly even more importantly, its main learning and development priorities. All of this is essential in helping people choose to invest their time in the right learning for them and their organisation.
By the way, this is not necessarily about injecting simplicity into the organisation. I personally believe we need to help people understand how complex businesses are these days so that people can respond to opportunities and challenges more artfully. But we still need to provide some focus and given that we can no longer even try to impose this on people we need these clear messages and communications to help people focus for themselves.
Another requirement is to integrate learning into the rest of HR and organisational management. We need to recruit people who value learning and have shown the ability to change based upon their experience during their careers to date. We also need to ensure that performance management encourages learning and identifies learning needs effectively, which probably means separating it from reward. And we need to recognise peoples’ participation in learning and development and the benefits they and our organisations obtain from investing in it.
One opportunity to support this may be gamification. For one thing we know that people learn better when they are having fun. However gamification can also be used to ensure that people are intrinsically and, where appropriate, extrinsically motivated to learn. Also if points, badges and leaderboards are used, this that does give some additional basis for monitor the amount of learning which is taking place.
Finally but probably most importantly we need leaders to act as role models of learning, to encourage learning in other people and to conduct some of the checking and validation which traditional governance would have done before. Achieving this is is something that HR and Learning professionals need to work together on.
If we do these things well we will have a good chance of creating cultures that not only support informal and social learning but which help focus and sustain it too. And it is only then that we will truly understand just how powerful these newer approaches to learning and their associated technologies can be.
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