Article: The great idea in learning

Learning & Development

The great idea in learning

Imagine a world where HR does nothing particularly about learning and development in an organization. We explore how this world would look like and challenge some of the age-old beliefs. Let's wake up and realize that we are in 2019 and it’s a new world of work.
The great idea in learning

In the post-industrial revolution world, we migrated from being farm labor to factory labor. In this transition, we moved to a more organized, disciplined and repetitive way of working than earlier. In this world, for the first time, we also had to learn the skills and tools which we had no previous knowledge about. We had to create and follow specific work instructions to be able to produce the same quality and volume of work every day. 

In the 21st century world of technology, these basic assumptions are being questioned by workers and managers alike. People are increasingly pursuing self-discovery journeys and are willing and able to invest in exploring their interests. In this world, individuals are likely to decide on one or more professional skills and tools to keep them engaged and feed their families. 

The difference

In the post-industrial revolution work environment, the basic assumption was that people had to be motivated by extrinsic factors to ensure they come to work and deliver as per expectations. This necessitated a change in the education system and to familiarize workers to the standardized, assembly line like manufacturing environment, the school system became highly standardized. The standardized schooling system in terms of textbooks, assignments, examinations, classroom structure, and school organization structure, enabled the need for mass education. This cycle soon created its own extrinsic reward mechanism by offering better jobs to more educated individuals, thus enabling them for a “better” quality of life. This reward mechanism continued to fill the cycle of more production via factories thus necessitating more trained labor via our schools and colleges. 

In the post-technological revolution world, where the focus has started to shift towards self-awareness, this model of better education for better jobs is being fundamentally questioned. UNESCO has redefined holistic education to include four aspects of learning. The first two are from the industrial age – learning to know and learning to do. The third and fourth have been added to address the needs of the changing world of work – learning to be with other people and learning to be. This emphasis on human factors and its importance at work has been repeatedly highlighted in most recent studies focused on the future of work. 

Along with the need to emphasize human factors at the workplace in particular and life in journal our economic theories have evolved. Our understanding of the rational economic individual has undergone some change in the last decade with the emergence of behavioral economics. We now understand that individuals are not always thinking and acting using their deliberative system but are also likely to operate from their automatic system. The automatic system is intuitive, associative and effortless as compared to the deliberative system of thinking. 

Education and learning

When we look at organizational learning and development efforts and practices and compare them to the education system necessitated by the industrial revolution, we see a lot of similarities. We are just pointing out a few here. 

  • In both systems, everyone must assemble at the same place and at the same time for the learning to occur. 
  • Typically the ones showing up late or not showing up at all are punished by the authorities or the group or both. 
  • Typically learners would be of similar age group and very rarely would learners from different age groups are designed to be learning together and from each other. 
  • In most situations, an expert is expected to impart skills and knowledge to the students assuming that students have no prior knowledge or skill and sometimes even asking them to suspend their judgment and simply follow instructions of the expert. 

The changes

University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum points out, standardized testing has placed more emphasis on honing technical knowledge, and its quantitative, multiple-choice nature prompts rote learning in the classroom. At the same time, humanistic concepts such as imagination and critical thinking, which cannot be tested by such methods, are disappearing from college curricula. 

World Economic Forum launched the Digital Transformation of Industries (DTI) project in 2015, with an aim to understand, interpret various challenges including the identification and assessment of skills for the fourth industrial revolution. The report emphasizes the importance of softer, human aspects in an increasingly industrialized work environment. This report recommends companies to look beyond one-off classroom-based training programs. It advocates the use of a variety of options like massive online courses (MOOC), employee boot camps or rotation schemes as part of the comprehensive, ongoing training curriculum. 

While uncertainty remains about exactly which human roles might be rendered redundant by intelligent machine, it is certain that robots and humans will increasingly have to work alongside one another. This is coupled with the rise of the gig economy. This on-demand economy helps organizations avoid long and costly internal transactions that would otherwise be associated with hiring workers. 

 The idea

Given these historical concepts and the current external forces impacting the world of work, we believe the time has come to embrace liberal education within corporate learning and development. 

The liberal education concepts currently practiced in the field of education are believed to be rooted in the ancient Greece methods of teaching. In this society, men were divided as slave-men and free-men. The freemen, mostly concerned about their rights and obligations as citizens, received a non-specialized, non-vocational, liberal arts education that produced well-rounded citizens aware of their place in the society. 

In the liberal education system, the student is at the center and the system works to fulfill the student's needs and desires. These could be about a variety of interests and skills. In the traditional system, the course curriculum or the exam is at the center and everyone including the student move to satisfy the needs of the curriculum or exam. 

In the organizational context applying the principles of liberal education would mean fundamentally decentralizing the learning and development function. In this decentralized world, every individual runs their own learning and development department. The person is allocated a certain percentage of their annual fixed income as their budget and they have to choose learning opportunities from within or outside the organization to meet those objectives. The learning objectives are derived based on the continuous feedback received by the individual. The individual may choose to discuss such methods with the manager or any other person within or outside the organization. The organization can evaluate the use of such budget and its impact on the feedback received about the individual over a period of time. 

Here the focus from learning outcomes moves to not just the short-term immediate gains but also to the long term outcomes. 

The challenges

Implementing such a system of self-directing and self-regulating learning and development in an organizational environment is not easy. Several challenges are likely to come on this journey. We briefly talk about a few here.

We are so aligned to paternalistic models of behavior, since childhood that the idea of taking complete responsibility and accountability for self and actions taken by self is very alien to most of us. We tend to believe that if someone else, especially a senior or expert is taking the decision on our behalf, the said decision is automatically superior to ours. This also allows us to absolve ourselves of any accountability towards such decisions. Recognizing and then breaking this habit of basic assumption dependency is the toughest part.

Our industrialized world has prepared us to analyze and continue to look for optimized ways to work. We have hence come to believe in the power of economies of scale. We have forgotten the individual in pursuit of this scale. Moving back the focus on the individual is difficult. Most training organizational structures, systems and processes are not geared to cater to the needs of the individual. 

We have operated with a centralized learning and development function for far too long. While we have benefited by a centralized functioning by way of creating a standardized learning curriculum and efficient processes, in the liberal education environment, we may need different structures and processes. If our learning and development function focuses on building specific expertise deeply connected to the business we serve, we have a chance of survival. In the decentralized, liberal environment, our role is likely to be of providing strategic inputs based on data analytics and selection of effective technology tools to enable transactions. We may have to abandon chasing the latest and the coolest unless that’s demanded by the majority.  

The metrics of success of learning and development have been the topic of debate since the function came into existence. The Kirkpatrick model of evaluation is widely accepted as the standard for determining the impact of learning interventions on individual and business outcomes. The higher level evaluations recommended by Kirkpatrick have long been the bane for most L&D professionals. Justifying investments in a decentralized L&D operation may be a very different ball game. Treating the individual linked L&D budget similar to the annual pay raise process might look difficult. The question of fixing the responsibility of learning outcome will need to be solved. 


We all agree that the world of work is changing rapidly. But nothing changes overnight. There will be an interim period where both the old and the new would co-exist. This means that roles performed in the older way would continue to exist alongside completely new and unheard of roles. The organizational learning and development function needs to build the necessary agility to cater to these diverse needs. Creating a decentralized, liberalized model focused on the individual is definitely an option that many organizations would work with. The existing technological solutions will eventually evolve to support such models and move away from the current methods and models. 

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Topics: Learning & Development, #BuildingHRCapability

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