Go straight to the finish line

Two of my colleagues at the Internet Time Alliance, Jane Hart and Charles Jennings just returned from speaking at the Learning Technologies conference in London.

Jane & Charles

The conference program would lead you to assume that the Learning Technologies conference would be a hotbed of social and informal learning.

Jane addressed how L&D is changing. “People naturally learn from each other, and as technology-supported social learning becomes main stream, what effects can we expect it to have on organisational Learning and Development? She argued that social learning offers the L&D function great scope for widening its impact and increasing its effectiveness. But it is also a potential threat: people will use social learning regardless of L&D – so where does this leave the L&D department of the future?”

Charles talked about experiential learning, saying “Most learning takes place outside formal training events. It comes from our daily experiences and from practice. It also comes from conversations and from reflecting on our experiences and on those of others. Smart organisations and managers recognise this, and make space for staff to cultivate these different approaches to developing their capability.”

My friend Mark Oehlert presented, “‘Making social learning work in your organisation”, drawing on his experience establishing a social learning environment at Defense Acquisition University.

BT’s Peter Butler noted, “Formal learning is costly, takes time to produce and more often than not it takes the employee off the job. BT’s new web 2.0 social learning environment enables more informal learning. The results, according to Peter Butler, are lower costs, improved time to competence and less time ‘off the job’. In this session Peter examined data from 11,000 users of the system showing its popularity and usefulness.”

Thomson Reuters’ Andy Jones described the journey from eLearning to knowledge-sharing, saying “Thomson Reuters Technology Operations has taken business-focused learning to a new level. In the 2,000-strong department, things move so fast that normal courseware production isn’t viable. Instead, learning is built into each project though a unique L&D workshop engagement model: Content is produced by experts on the project (facilitated by a learning consultant), published on the project SharePoint server, and the delivery medium decided by whether the content is conceptual or skills-focused.”

However, in our debrief yesterday, both Jane and Charles reported that many attendees are only just starting to shift to delivering some eLearning. Social and informal learning are not on their radar.

Lots of training directors have yet to grasp the concepts of learning through collaboration, the power of social networks, and less is more. Bear in mind that people who attend Learning Technologies are the leading edge. If they are just beginning the journey away from the classroom, imagine what things are like for those who don’t attend!

Americans should not feel smug because their brethren in the U.K. don’t get it. “New data on e-learning usage do not signal the death of the classroom. And despite some of the buzz, the direction of e-learning has not shifted much over the past several years,” report Allison Rossett and James Marshall in an article in this month’s T+D magazine.

Opportunities are being left on the table. Today, there is little evidence of collaborative and user-centered approaches in corporate and government settings, though there are suggestions of influence to come in the future. It is the same for mobile devices, ranked last in reported current practice, and jumping closer to the top of the list as practitioners look forward. The virtual classroom and blended learning were also less prevalent in reported practice than anticipated.

Old favorites dominated in our study. E-learning today appears to be mostly about delivering assessments and designs, testing, personalization, scenarios, and tutorials. All these are familiar, and they all have deep roots in the training and development community. Should we lament that the habits identified in this study are not much different in 2009 than they were in 1989 (although, of course, enabled by technology)? Is this good news or bad? And most important, what do you intend to do about it?

Reading between the lines, I suspect that many organizations are accustomed progressing one step at a time. They expect gradual, comfortable change. One step a year seems a break-neck pace.

Incrementalism is the worst enemy of innovation. We’re playing a new game now and it’s fruitless to follow yesteryear’s pathways.

Business is operating to an ever-faster metronome. Cycle times for product design, manufacturing, and deployment are shorter and shorter. The pace of change itself is picking up. The future is unpredictable. Our old models of training can no longer keep up. They’re racing along so fast that the wheels are falling off.

As the environment becomes more complex, linear approaches are giving way to emergent behavior. People take different paths to learn what they need to do. Our task is to prepare them for things we don’t even see coming!

Former IBM visionary Irving Wladawsky-Berger cautions us to expect resistance.

When first launching a project based on a new technology or idea, you really don’t know what lies ahead. You cannot answer lots of the questions people will have. Incremental changes are much easier, because you are essentially improving existing products and services while continuing to sell to and support a similar client base. But, with disruptive changes, the new products and services you will be working on are likely to be quite different from what you have done in the past….

One of the major reasons why breakthrough innovations have been very difficult for large, established companies is that they treat such efforts as they do any other projects. If the new venture is organized and managed based on typical business metrics, it will be buried within a much larger operational unit. It is then only a matter of time before the effort is forgotten and eventually terminated.

Disruptive change requires buy-in, something L&D professionals have not traditionally excelled at.

It is thus imperative to reach out to other parts of the company, sit down with their management and technical leaders and see how the new innovation you are leading can help their existing business. You want to make them feel part of your virtual team if at all possible. It is hard for another part of the company to support your new efforts if they feel that it will compete with them for funds, senior management attention or customers in the marketplace.

The fundamental shift toward informal learning is taking place on internet time. Instead of plodding along step by step, Internet Time Alliance is encouraging organizations to leap over the intervening steps and adopt social and informal learning patterns immediately. Our model looks like this:

Our proposal is analogous to implementing telephone service in developing countries. In much of the developing world, fixed telephone infrastructure is poor. In 2008, India had only 3.3 fixed telephone lines per 100 and Nigeria 0.9 lines per 100 inhabitants. Rather than planting telephone poles and stringing copper wire, developing countries are going straight to mobile. Fixed telephone infrastructure is costly to set up, while wireless technology is cheap to deploy.*

Courses, delivered in-person or online, are the phone poles and copper wires of learning technology.

Are you laying land lines or going directly to wireless? Here’s a final note from Irving Wladawsky-Berger:

There are many reasons why disruptive innovations fail. A surprising number do so not because the company put together a flawed strategy, executed it poorly, or the market was not ready. They fail because proper attention was not paid to the organizational and cultural changes required so that the institution and its people will embrace the innovation and work hard to make it succeed. In the end, these human elements of innovation are likely to make the most important difference between success and failure.

*Euromonitor Special Report: Towards universal global mobile phone coverage.

What’s Old is New Again, Allison Rossett and James Marshall, T+D Magazine, January 2010

The Informal Learning Page

Disruptive Innovations and Organizational Change, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, January 2010