How to Replace Top-down Training with Collaborative Learning (2)

Second post in a series. In case you missed it, here’s the first.

Who’s going to be involved?
Every Kind of Employee – Temps Included

In the Hierarchical organization, employees were the only people who received corporate training. Aside from compliance training and new product introductions, most training focused on novices – either newhires who needed orientation or workers mastering a new skill or subject.

It’s not that seasoned and elder employees weren’t learning; we all learn all the time. Rather, they weren’t learning as well as they might. HR and training departments overlooked experienced employees because they learn experientially, from stretch assignments and mentors rather than from courses and workshops. Learning by experienced employees was left to chance.

Two out of three Chief Learning Officers neglect experienced employees, but these are the very people who make money for the company. New hires and novices aren’t very productive. Raise their proficiency by 20 percent and next to nothing hits the bottom line. Raising the proficiency of top performers by 20 percent can double the bottom line. A wise Collaborative organization focuses its efforts where they’ll have the most impact.

Pre-employees and alumni

Talent managers advocate pre-employment training and internships. As an example, they encourage college students with an interest in banking to participate in bank training and perhaps work at the bank during summer break to see if they enjoy it. The bank gains a leg up in recruiting and knows more about job candidates before making an offer. On the other hand, many former employees remain loyal to their firms, and sometimes even provide leads for new business. Andersen Consulting, IBM, and Goldman Sachs pay attention to so called “offboarding” as well as onboarding. They have set up social networks for alumni and help them keep up with new developments. Many alumni are future customers.


The Extended Enterprise

We need to start thinking of businesses as extended enterprises, especially when it comes to learning, because really, each business includes distributors, suppliers, temps, partners, contractors, and, importantly, customers as well, all in addition to employees.

Michael Porter’s concept of the value chain taught us that the values and costs generated by your suppliers and distributors are passed along to your customers. Since learning improves performance, it’s in your interest to help these people learn to do better work. Customers and prospects

“An educated customer is the best customer,” said retailer Sy Sims. Colearning with customers may be learning’s new frontier. Google is teaching people to use more of its services in online courses. Google could have produced a slick, buttoned-down, tech-oriented training program, like they did for Google Wave, but this time around, Google chose a friendly, avuncular fellow to lead you through the ondemand session. He’s not a salesperson; he’s a research scientist, a true-blue Googler! He gives encouragement: you’re on the path to being a Power Searcher! He’s casual, very approachable and looks like he’s talking to you from his living room. He stumbles occasionally. He comes across as authentic, the type of guy you’d enjoy talking to at a bar.

By doing this, Google is building customer loyalty. Co-learning builds trust. As other companies realize the potential of learning as a marketing tool, we’re going to see a lot more programs like this.

Help your customers become better at serving their own needs. Beyond that, learning with one another forges of trust and goodwill. Co-learning – adapting to the future – with customers is an unexploited marketing strategy.

Who should control learning?

People are at their best when they’re doing things for themselves, when they “pull” what they need rather than have things “pushed” on them.

Hierarchies work well when the future is predictable and things aren’t prone to change. The objective in a stable situation is to get better at what you’re currently doing. Organizations develop programs, training among them, that promote conformity.

Collaborative organizations outpace hierarchies when the future is unpredictable and change is rampant. The objective in a dynamic situation is to get better at whatever comes along. Wise organizations develop platforms with standard interfaces to maintain flexibility and spark innovation. These organizations give workers a say in what they learn and how they learn it. They provide a variety of means of for workers to get the information they need. Instead of rigid training sessions, the organization supplies a platform that nurtures self-directed learning.

Companies accomplish the transition from Hierarchy to Collaborative by handing over more control to those that are closest to the customer. This may seem radical, and change can be unsettling, but this is a key to becoming a Collaborative organization.

How self-directed learners learn

When given the choice most workers prefer to learn from experience. Experiential learning takes place in the course of trying to accomplish something, often by mimicking what other people do, by trial and error, and by asking colleagues and experts; this means experiential learning is often informal learning, done outside of the classroom. Mentors and coaches give assignments that provide new challenges and therefore require learning.

Conversation is the most important learning technology ever invented. People love to talk with each other. Conversations have magic to them. Look at a written transcript of a conversation and it sounds incoherent; true conversation is a mix of empathy, emotion, body language, shared understanding, nuance, and cultural norms. Conversations are the stem cells of learning. Improve the availability and quality of conversation, and you automatically improve the amount of learning taking place.

A survey last year asked managers how they learned their jobs. Informal chats with colleagues ranked #1, followed by Internet search, and trial and error. Workers value social learning (collaboration, networking, and conversations) and informal learning (community membership, Internet search, blogs, curated content, and self-study). Both social and informal are deemed more important by employees than company documents and training.

Jane Hart offers great advice on how to design a learning ecology to match the way contemporary workers learn. It’s no longer about delivering courses in training rooms.

Here are some tips from Jane on this subject.

• Think activities, not courses.
• Think learning space/places, not training rooms.
• Think lightweight design, not instructional design.
• Think continuous flow of activities, not just respond to need.
• Think social technologies, not training technologies.


Digital Natives are the generation that grew up glued to computer screens. For them, networks and technology are second nature. Stanford psychologist Phil Zimbardo says that by the time the average boy reaches the age of 21, he has spent at least 10,000 hours playing video games. This alternative reality rewires their brains. They’re accustomed to living in a highly stimulating environment where they are in control. Their world is made up of decision making, researching and collaborating all at the click of a button, anytime, anywhere, so they won’t put up with traditional training which says what they will learn and when. If Digital Natives aren’t allowed to act, they will refuse to play the game.

Digital Immigrants are those who grew up before interactive computing took hold. Some are in denial, trying to get by without going digital; they will become fossils. Elders who do want to join the Network Era have an opportunity to barter with the Digital Natives, something called reversementoring. Immigrants swap their organizational savvy and deep smarts for the Natives’ help in using technology.

The learnscape, that overall platform on which learning takes place, must accommodate both Natives and Immigrants. It must be easy to access and understand. It must let people take control of their learning and participate actively.


The next post in this series will address how to build an infrastructure to optimize collaborative learning.

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