Emergent Learning

Chief Learning Officer magazine, April 2004
"Effectiveness" column by Jay Cross

Not so long ago, e-learning was a utopian dream. Networked learning would educate the world. E-learning promoters saw themselves as innovators writing corporate history. Excitement filled the air.

"Resilient organizations copy the architecture of the Internet"
That future has arrived. Today a healthy percentage of learning in corporations is technology-assisted. At first we thought it was all about content, but context-free courseware failed for lack of human support. Pioneering online communities turned into ghost towns.

Then we realized that e-learning is a bundle of capabilities, not a silver bullet. When e-learning technology supplements traditional learning, it usually saves time, money and drudgery. Properly implemented, e-learning is a powerful, cost-effective tool. No longer the “next big thing,” e-learning has hit the mainstream.

Before the World Trade Center attack, the world was more predictable. Knowledge was power. Adaptability has now taken its place. Our requirements have changed. Corporations and government agencies are on permanent alert. Networks have taken the slack out of the system. Timing is the critical variable. The performance metrics for troops on a plane headed to a new hot spot and for systems engineers countering a new competitive threat are the same: How soon will they be ready to perform?

"Learning has become a core business process."
Top-down, command-and-control organizations can no longer keep pace. Flexible hyper-organizations are sprouting up in their place. Teams, in-house functions, outsource providers and customers are linked in fluid, ever-changing value networks.

Resilient organizations copy the architecture of the Internet: lots of independent nodes with the ability to route around damage. People farthest from the center sense changes in the environment first, so managers wisely take control by giving control. Bottom-up organizations adjust to change as effortlessly as flocks of turning birds, while old structures are too rigid to change without sustaining damage.

This is shaky ground for the traditional training-and-development world. Biologists and complexity theorists have seen it all before.

Businesses are complex adaptive systems. In a complex system, independent pieces join together to form something entirely different and unexpected.

"Emergence is the key characteristic of complex systems. It is the process by which simple entities self-organize to form something more complex."
The best metaphor for a complex adaptive system is a living thing. Take a complex system apart, and you no longer have a complex system. As Verna Allee writes, “Cut a cow in half and you don’t have two cows. You have a mess.”

In their book, “It’s Alive,” management theorists Stan Davis and Christopher Meyer make a compelling case that business entities are living, complex systems. Many nodes—brains—come together to form something new—the corporate body. As my friend David Grebow says, it even has a Corporate IQ and, according to author David Batestone, a Corporate Soul.

Emergence is the key characteristic of complex systems. It is the process by which simple entities self-organize to form something more complex. Emergence is also what happened to that “utopian dream” of e-learning on the way to the future. Simple, old e-learning has combined with bottom-up self-organizing systems, network effects and today’s environment to morph into emergent learning.

Emergent learning implies adaptation to the environment, timeliness, flexibility and space for co-creation. It is the future. We haven’t figured it out yet. Or, from the perspective of complexity science, it hasn’t figured itself out yet.

Why do I suggest abandoning a word like e-learning? A new term refocuses our thinking on the future. We’ve got to cultivate emergent learning. Emergent learning encourages experiment and innovation; e-learning fosters incrementalism and complacency.

Learning has become a core business process. Emergent learning enables us to push beyond the confines of e-learning to explore combinations with informal learning, storytelling, social network analysis, appreciative inquiry, workflow learning, conversation, contextual collaboration, organic KM, simulation, dynamic portals, expert location and blogs.

I foresee exciting times ahead.

Posted by Jay Cross at April 2, 2004 07:13 PM | TrackBack

Hi Jay,

Thank you very much for your very enlightening thoughts, but I think that the crucial step is still missing and that's not changing the learning domain we're in, but simply leaving this domain altogether.
In the new corporation we have today (which you defined rather accurately), we need something that doesn't resembles the learning systems we have met till today. I still haven't quite defined it yet, but I'm in the process of doing it.People discover the knowledge they need by themselves; communities of practice are a main way to achieve the needed knowledge and traditional learning (be it eLearning, emergent learning or any other learning) is done mainly when basic skills or knowledge are needed).

How do I suggest calling it? Maybe something around performance improvement? I stiil don't know, but calling it _______ learning, will only succeed in keeping it close to what people usually see as learning.

These are my current thoughts and I'd be happy to hear your opinion on them.


Meir Navon

Posted by: Meir Navon at April 6, 2004 03:29 AM

Meir, change is hard.

I'd prefer abolishing the word "learning" from corporate discourse. Unfortunately, this would hinder communication and even blow the mental circuits of our more conservative colleagues.

Performance is a great concept but it's too general. My emailbox is filled with Spam that tells me v.iag.ra will improve my performance!

Emergent Learning suggests that we're making a break with the past, that we're looking for something that's been missing, and that whatever emerges will be substantially different from what has come before.

Sam Adkins and I talk about Workflow Learning to ground the concept in WORK. We are studying what works best to get the job done. I don't care if it takes workshops, or job aids, or howling at the moon. If it improves the flow of work, let's do it.

Sometimes a true believer has to chuck the semantic arguments and just do it. Actions speak louder than words. Hence, eLearning Forum has decided to become Emergent Learning Forum. Sam and I have founded the Workflow Institute. I generally talk more about workers than learners. My rallying cry is that "Learning is a core business process."

Posted by: Jay Cross at April 6, 2004 04:12 PM

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