Beyond social (part 2) : new ways of learning

In short: even if traditional approaches have fine days ahead, there’s an increasing need for niche learning in a conversational and adhoc fashion. A need that can be met with the help of social technologies but they won’t be enough to prevent enterprises from updating their view of learning and officializing emerging approaches.

So here’s at last ma second post on “beyond social business”. After decision making, we’ll tackle another major issue : learning.

The situation

Acquision and transmission of knowledge have become key to employees and business performance. There are several reasons to that :

– fast moving markets that make skills quickly obsolete, and , on the other hand, the need for developing emerging skills in a short time.

– the changing nature of work that is not about executing preassigned tasks but dealing with exceptions and solving problems.

– a matter of social responsibility for businesses that have to maintain their employees’ employability instead of letting  it depreciate as their skills become obsolete. It’s also about considering knowledge as a common good that should be freely accessible and shared and not like something proprietary that becomes a factor of exclusion.

An increasing need for niche learning

The constraints

They’re mainly a matter of time, scale and efficiency that questions our traditional view of learning.

Time constraints because the time between the emergence of a need and the acquisition of the needed knowledge is shrinking day after day. Businesses need to staff for new needs entailing new skills they can’t formalize the “old” way because they lack retrospect and specific trainings don’t exist. At the employee’s level there’s a need for making decision and solving problems on constantly evolving matters where knowledge become quickly obsolete.

Scale constraints because learners and knowledge owners need to connect in a very short time, whatever their location and positions are. What also implies that knowledge owners should be easily accessible for anyone needing them.

Efficiency constraints since it’s been proven that the most efficient way of transmitting such niche knowledge is a direct interaction with a peer who won’t only deliver his knowledge but also his experience and will guide the learner. So learning is more and more about a conversational interaction embedded in the flow of work instead of a theoretical and poorly targeted one-way broadcast that’s seldom actionable where and when it’s needed.

It questions our traditional view of learning since, besides what exists today (and not in replacement) there’s a need for new king of learning that is exponentially growing. The content is more  and more a niche one that does not need a learning module as we know them. Moreover, the knowledge-owner will more likely be a practitioner instead of a conventional trainer. Such needs makes us get out of the usual administrative and planned scope of enterprise learning. This model also turns roles upside own making learners take an active part in the learning process while they’re still often viewed as passive targets of an administrative process. Last, it’s a move from a capitalization approach to a flow one that goes against well established principles.

Even if it’s more about improving the current model rather than replacing it, such approaches crash into a near-philosophical view of an administrative and planned learning, where learning processes and materials are designed and delivered by learning professionals to passive learners who are not thought able to handle themselves the whole or part of their needs.

The idea.

As said above, the idea is to facilitate exchanges related to very practical knowledge between a knowledgeable person who’s often a seasoned practitioner and a seeker facing a work situation he can’t handle in an optimal way because of a lack of skills and experience. But that’s not all. It’s also about making the connection easy (and sometimes possible) what means making these people visible, accessible and available.

Questioning the dogma of enterprise learning

The difficulties (non exhaustive list)

I’ve already mentioned this point but we’re crashing into a conventional view of a managed learning where content should be validated a priori and where trainers should be professional ones. An ideal vision when knowledge don’t evolve much over time, when enterprises have enough time so see needs emerge, to formalize the matter and organize the broadcast of knowledge. A system that assumes that seekers are not able to understand their need and that trainers and contents should be managed and monitored. A system that trusts no one but itself and, most of all, does not trust people. An elitist view where content and the art of spreading it are more important than the impact of knowledge on work. But don’t get the idea wrong : it’s not about replacing the existing approaches but to complement them to deal with a wider scope of needs.

I mentioned the importance of trust between the system and people but such systems also need trust between people. This point is not only important for learning : it’s a global business issue today.

Then, last, comes the difficulty of making the exchange happen when and where needed.

 

Leads (non exhaustive list)

Until then, mainly two leads have been explored.

The first is to implement communities of practices, with the potential and limits we know. As a matter of fact their potential is impressive since it’s one of the most efficient way to make knowledge flow and even improve it in a favorable context. But they also have limits due the need for gathering the community which is time demanding and supposes to bring everybody in the same place.

Communities also have two other major limits. First, depending on their policies, they could be more or less open. It does not make it easy for someone whose need is not a recurrent matter in his job but only one-off or occasional. Such seekers may not be able to access the community they need for a one-shot request. Second, even if it’s possible to locte the “right” person within the community, the real transfer of knowledge often happens in a one-to-one exchange. To go deeper into details, because it’s easier to share one’s lacks in private. So communities can trigger the learning event but may not be enough by themselves.

The second one is a kind of program called “reciprocal knowledge exchange networks”. A managed and tooled approach that connects knowledge owners and seekers, based on will and adhesion to an explicit policy involving, among others, reciprocity. I won’t go deeper into details on this point because I’m working on specific post about these programs.

Making knowledge and its owners technically available is not enough

And social/2.0 in all that  ?

Here I’ll focus on “social” as a technology since, the approaches to learning exposed in this post are social by nature. As a matter of fact, as Marcia Conner wrote in The New Social Learning: A Guide to Transforming Organizations Through Social Media

Social media is technology used to engage three or more people

Social learning is participating with others to make sense of new ideas

What’s new is how powerfully they work together.

Social learning has been  around for decades, long before the arrival of social technologies.

No need for a long speech to understand that social technologies will help to deal with time and space constraints. They’ll also improve capitalization since flow of information are never capitalized in a purely human system but are in a social technology enabled exchange. At least a part of the knowledge will be, what’s better than nothing. Technology also makes an elegant mix of synchronous/asynchronous possible when used jointly with unified communication / instant messaging etc. Last, it provides instant location of relevant people and communities.

But experience shows that technology itself won’t change behaviors. Individual and community exchanges can be a natural practice for some but it’s not enough to trigger a massive adoption of new ways of learning. 50 000 employees can be put in a social network, tenths of communities created and populated with experts and devoted community managers, that won’t be enough. Seekers can be brough in, it won’t still be enough. What’s needed is at the junction of a managed program and the autonomy brought by technology that, without management, will rather cause the “fear of wide spaces” than the needed trust.

Said with other words : without a deliberate enterprise program aiming at favoring such exchanges, without cultural update on  “how should we learn today”, without making the program official and allocating time and energy to it, social technologies will only empower a couple of happy few who did not need it because they’ve been already used to do things this way with their own tools for a while.

That’s a matter I’ll deal with in a future post on reciprocal knowledge exchange networks, based on a case study. We’ll see that the balance between the system and autonomy, offline and online, even if hard to find, is the only way to avoid the traps of both the “let them do approach” made possible by technology and the “don’t let them do by themselves” approach that used to prevail.

But we should keep in mind that nothing will happen without an actual program. Here, like elsewhere, the “build it and they will come” approach does not work.