Organized learning: Why this may be a good time to reboot
As we come out of the current crisis, current ways of organizing work will get re-defined. And so will the requirement of skills and mindsets. HR and learning managers are re-focusing on managing learning in this new scenario.
There is clearly a faster transition to im-permanent workforce, gig economy and remote working of a larger % of the workforce. Newer opportunities will be created for both individuals as well as organizations, impacting and with direct links to productivity, effectiveness and outcomes.
What it will mean is also an opportunity (and necessity) to take a fresh look at Learning from an organization’s point of view, apart from the individual’s view. Both are of course interlinked.
Learning and development interventions can be a strong pillar towards success for companies that create success going forward. In some cases, even survival may depend on building new skills and being able to apply them quickly and effectively, both at an individual and organizational level. Learning and HR leaders are already thinking about the challenges and how to reorganize the way they design, deliver and measure impact of L&D interventions.
Here are some reflection points for HR and Learning leaders in this context.
Shallow learning vs deep learning:
Some topics require general information or perspective. Others require deep immersion for learning and application. Creating a learning strategy would require some thinking around this aspect. e.g. where and how does a webinar or a short video fit in --what are the learning goals? Some topics may require a build up, e.g. going from basic to advanced to expert level with time or role transition. Does the learning strategy cater to this aspect.
If something actually requires 10 hours of study and maybe doing, how does one structure the content and delivery mechanism? Availability of generic, open and cost effective content through different media does not necessarily make it effective for all learning applications.
Developing knowledge vs developing skills:
Technology access and availability of lots of open and unverified and semi-customized content (typically content off the web) facilitates easier knowledge acquisition. It also creates a lot of noise and unwanted intrusion to real learning paths. There are enough research studies which indicate that social media and general access to information are distractors and may take away from “Deep Work”. Two aspects are worth keeping in mind when driving knowledge based learning.
- Knowledge needs to be necessarily converted to insights and then to actions in most cases. How to build a process to be able to do that, else the effort on knowledge creation through learning may be wasted.
- Building skills is different from just knowledge acquisition and may require different design principles for learning interventions. Learning facilitation processes, whether tech- based or person based, need a different approach when skill building is required.
Access to learning through technology platforms:
Technology helps broader access to learning. There is a host of learning related platforms available now, apart from the older LMS systems of all shapes and sizes. But by themselves, learning technology platforms do not accelerate learning. We have already experienced that with the best of e-learning and LMS resources. Providing access through a platform can enable highly motivated learners—they will find ways and resources anyway, even if the technology platforms were not there. Unless there are other means to support and help learners to see the WIIFM in using the relevant platforms, it will not enable learning.
Learning Technology platforms can potentially change the mindset and habits of the learner and provide better and seamless ways to access content. But assuming that (only) implementing a platform will impact the quality of learning positively can be a significant strategic error, ending up with limited ROI.
What vs how of learning:
Because there is an immediate choke to learning interventions given the pandemic situation, there is a push to re-start learning activities and not let learning actions stall. The intent is great. But the focus seems heavily on the "how"- technology access and solutions, communication platforms which can be used for groups etc. Arguably, the focus needs to be on the "what" of learning in addition to the how.
Individuals will make choices in terms of what they think is important for them and for their careers. These choices will also be driven by survival, availability and cost/time considerations. Organizations and learning teams need to go beyond that and link learning activities and goals to business outcomes, short and long term.
Given business priorities and cost pressures and the need for all of us to change mindsets, the first question could be:
"What do my business, leadership, managers and employees really require to learn at this time?" e.g. A learning leader said, '"Over the next few months, I just want all my managers to learn to manage people remotely. That will be my competitive advantage. Rest of the learning can keep happening on the side."
Individual preferences vs what is required to be learnt:
Platforms and availability of vast amounts of content can be deceptive. It's like lots of ads on web pages which take us to different paths through constant clicking behavior. We lose sight of the original objective as to what we were looking for, unless we are really focused. Organizations will potentially need to think about three layers of learning content and access methods: thoughtfully curated by the organization for business fit, semi curated with the learner having some control of what they learn and thirdly open for all, where the learner makes all the choices of what and how they learn.
Employee-centric learning approach is important, but within a well built framework. There has to be a match of learning to organizational objectives as well. Non-curated open content on platforms is great for focused and deeply aware employees but may not work for everyone. Especially in cultures where self direction is not very strong.
Moreover, too much open, non-curated content, driven by non-contextual algorithms is as detrimental to choice making for the learner as too little quality content.
Generalized offerings vs specialized ones:
Whether it is platforms or content, choices have to be made between generic and specialized offerings. Learning journeys could be designed with a funnel approach. The open end of the funnel may well be for everyone (everyone gets access to generic content). As filtering starts happening, different people may end up in different funnels of learning. Not everyone needs to learn the same things deeply enough, and in the same manner. An individual's role, her own inclination and organizational goals should start creating context for learning. Investments and efforts could then be directed better.
The key question is – will this context of what to learn be created by the organization including learning paths linked to careers or allow complete self determination by the employee. Both in understanding the context and choosing learning path/s. These are two ends of the spectrum.
We have seen in the past that hordes of professionals in their own judgment spend resources to gather some generic knowledge (say through an engineering or MBA degree, or other easily available facilities). In time, they find that most of that learning is neither helping their careers nor employment. Of course there are other drivers to these choices.
Think about most managers in their mid careers. Many are losing jobs to younger, skilled professionals, less qualified in many cases. What they thought they were learning was partially useful, but certainly not enough. With rapid changes in many aspects of work and organizational performance requirements, things are not shaping up very differently to what they envisaged.
So how much guidance is required to help nudge people towards building the right skills and capabilities? Which of these are specialized skills as against generic ones?
Making generic platforms and content available helps get to a base level of knowledge and awareness for employees and managers. It does not necessarily provide enough depth for creating differentiated impact in a role. It also does not help in career building or moving ahead with building deep and relevant skills for the future.
Communities that matter
There are huge possibilities of learning from different types of communities for all employees. Peers, external networks, professional or academic bodies etc. This aspect of curating communities has started getting more attention over the last few years, e.g. mentoring communities or technology groups inside and across organizations. For learning organizers, these are not easily measurable in terms of impact. Investments in these are not planned as systematically as in other interventions. Communities, especially in cases where the person has chosen to be part of voluntarily, have many advantages. Apart from a higher level of commitment from members, trust and informality, and other underlying softer aspects—e.g. lack of political and social barriers, play a huge role in accelerating learning.
Does the learning strategy have a key element of building and leveraging communities? Are we missing out on the intangible benefits of communities in our learning focus by over investing in other aspects.
Learning will be a critical element of success for individuals and organizations going forward. As my colleague said in one of our calls “Learning is leadership. Learning is also survival. Learning is also careers and re-invention.”
HR and learning leaders, whose role it is to help others learn- by organizing, designing and executing a strong learning agenda- will be doing a great service to professionals, companies and the nation, helping them survive and thrive.
- Deep Work by Cal Newport
- Learning how to learn by Barbara Oakley
- Learning Agility by George Hallenbeck
- Encouraging learner-centric interventions will be a key ask from L&D: Bimal Rath, Think Talent Services
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