For many years, learning professionals have been trying to make the transition from a training to a learning approach. For some, this transition began and ended with the re-branding of their departmental titles. For others, the transition was largely defined by how they packaged and delivered learning content. As technology became more accessible, learning content increasingly shifted online, from training manuals to online courses, videos and documents (delivered via various world-class Learning and Knowledge Management Systems). For many, the move from training to learning was primarily about the move to greater online learning delivery.
Yet, while this managed to significantly improve access to learning content, streamlined curriculum management and reporting, and lowered the overall cost of learning delivery, few organisations saw much of an improvement in staff performance. Executives, initially willing to invest in expensive e-learning design and delivery quickly lost faith in the promise of online learning as a means to enhance performance.
So what happened to the e-Learning dream, and why have so few organisations managed to accelerate staff capability? What needs to change if we are to see a step change in our ability to scale capacity within our organisations? This article aims to answer these questions, and argues that the time for incremental changes to our current educational and training models is over.
Our Current Education and Training System
Before we can begin with the answers, it is important to better understand the influence that the dominant economic, political and social systems have on our educational models, and the impact that non-alignment of these systems has on the ultimate learning result.
So lets begin with our traditional education and training system (for they are by and large similar, and are based on similar assumptions). For simplicity, I will refer to both systems as our Traditional Education System. This system is a product of the economic, political and social systems of the last few hundred years, one that strongly reflects a masculine world view, one of power, dominance and control. In all these systems, those with power set the rules and require others to follow. The role of the Education System is therefore to ensure that the rest (those not in power) see the world as they do, and are capable of performing the tasks required of them, in line with laid out rules and requirements. In effect, it is to increase the control over the thoughts and actions of the masses.
Examples of individuals or collectives who have used forms of education and training to better control people’s thinking and actions include Kings, Dictators, Governments, Armies, Industries, and even Fathers (to control the behaviour of their wives and children). For many, this was thought of as benevolent control, done in the interest of the others. Yet it required conformity, and therefore sought to reward those who demonstrated an ability to learn quickly and execute as required. Questioning subjects, citizens, church goers, soldiers, staff and children were not celebrated. Instead, these people were made to feel outsiders, as if by questioning the world view of the leader they were being bad or stupid.
Within this masculine, control-centred world view, the education and training models we currently apply were shaped. To a large extent they mirrored this fundamentally paternalistic framework. To start with, the power difference between the teacher and the learner was made to reflect that of the leader over the subjects. The teacher (trainer) role decided what the learner should learn, where they should learn and how they should learn. They even decided when they could eat, and when they could take a break. And to reinforce their power, they created a reward system that celebrated learners’ capable of remembering the ‘right’ information, and behaving in the ‘right’ way.
The education and training system was also biased towards memory and IQ, the capabilities most useful in consistently recalling and executing instructions. Successful learners were those who could recall large volumes of data, and who could apply given formula to different situations, accurately and effectively. Education and training techniques focused on optimising memory recall through mind-mapping, repetition and multi-sensory stimulation. In effect, the Traditional Education System worked because it mirrored the systems it served. It simplified things, and allowed large groups of people to perform like well-oiled machines. It allowed Generals to co-ordinate the efforts of thousands of men, because they could be relied on to do what they were told to do, even under pressure. It allowed large factories to obtain amazing levels of efficiency because each person on the production line could be counted on to execute their tasks accurately. It allowed governments to control citizens by celebrating those who did as they were told, and who were ‘good boys’. And it allowed Fathers to control the actions of their wives and children (while in their care).
Where things started going wrong
The Traditional Education System remained pretty effective up to the point when computers were invented, and the internet came into being i.e. the dawn of the Information Era. Within a decade, the economic, political and social systems started to change. No longer were the powerful few able to control the source of information. The simple yet efficient model of Control and Command began to fail, and the ‘little people’ began to rebel. No longer satisfied with being ants in the column, they began to demand individual decision-making power. They wanted to be counted. And with greater access to other information and views, the power of the old order began to dissipate. Within the last 20 years, countless regimes have fallen. Many of the once fêted ‘Built To Last’ companies have folded. In many families, women and children now have a voice. And at work, staff are no longer willing to simply perform repetitive, rule driven activities without the opportunity to reflect their uniqueness and individuality. They now want to be part of creating the organisational vision. They want to be consulted and involved. They want to express their innate creativity, and feel as individuals that they are making a contribution to a collective effort that holds meaning for them.
Within this world of rapid change, organisations have been forced to adapt. Where large capital investments had historically protected them from the competitive forces of smaller, less resourced competitors, new technology has suddenly made it possible to manufacture and distribute low volume items with precision and margin. Product alternatives quickly flooded the market, forcing organisations to increase their product ranges and embrace innovation. Where staff were historically asked to do, not think, they were now being asked to contribute to the ideas of the organisation. Where they were historically developed to be experts in a narrow speciality, they were now being asked to perform across silo’s, handling more products, more processes, more systems, and more business rules. Not only has this placed enormous demands on their ability to memorise large volumes of information, but the rate of information change has made staying relevant more and more challenging. And whereas getting things right was the end goal, it has quickly become the entry ticket. Suddenly staff are being asked to add value, to innovate, to think for themselves. Having been educated in the Tradition Education System, they are finding themselves ill-prepared to succeed.
E-Learning. More of the same.
In response to what was simplistically seen as a technology revolution, educators and trainers have looked to technology to modernise and adapt. More and more companies began to buy Learning and Knowledge Management Systems, and soon every staff member was able to access the learning content online, anywhere, anytime. The driver has become greater access to online content, and to ensure that the digestion of this content becomes more and more enjoyable. This is evidenced by the surge in interest in concepts like M-Learning, and the focus on making multi-media, online video and gaming more accessible and cost effective in our online solution designs.
However, in our rush to modernise, few have sat back and considered the economic, political and social shift that has accompanied this technology revolution. What we have effectively done is apply our traditional thinking using technology. Our text books have become e-books. Our course curricula have moved online and off the training centre walls. Our paper-based assessments have become online assessments. Our board games have become online games. And our classroom discussions have become online discussions. Yet little has fundamentally changed in how we see the role of learning, and the power dynamics intrinsically reflected in our approach. The fundamentals of our economic, political and social systems have shifted, and increasingly the Education System is moving out of line. As a result, our ability to develop people with the capability of performing effectively within the new reality is decreasing. In fact, we are now seeing how spending more money and effort on our current Education System is delivering increasingly poorer results. And unless we look to realign our Education System, things are going to get worse not better.
The changes we have to reflect
For us to offer our children and staff learning opportunities that will help them develop the capabilities required by the changing systems, we need to understand what systemic changes we need to make. While this is a very broad and complex topic, I have ventured to isolate two key considerations:
1. The power shift. As the Arab Spring so powerfully demonstrated, individuals are powerful. Stable societies are those that manage to balance the collective interest with the interests of each individual. Therefore, for learning systems to succeed, we need to find a way of empowering the individual to influence the direction of their learning, while still considering the needs of the collective (e.g. the organisation). This means moving away from pre-determined learning paths (curricula) to shared and agreed learning outcomes. It means exploring BOTH the organisational and individual need, and then agreeing how best the individual can get there. It means moving away from the parent/child roles, and moving towards partner roles. It means not only changing how we, as learning professionals, engage with learners but how learners engage with us.
2. The shifting roles of humans and technology. Much of the work still performed by humans entail the accurate application of pre-determined and predictable logic. We ask our staff to follow certain processes, and we expect them to give our clients certain answers based on clearly defined business rules. We ask them to follow very clear system steps, and we require them to explain to clients very clearly documented product information. Yet wherever there is a clear If-Then logic, technology can do it quicker and better, every time. And so any activity that involves a known number of variables and pre-determined information, and follows a predictable logic path, will increasingly be performed by technology.
So where does that leave humans? Let’s look at the role of a sales person for example. Currently, technology can be used to help analyse the client’s need, identify the right product(s), offer the right information, and generate the quote or order in real time. So in effect, clients don’t need sales people to work out what is the best product for them; technology can do it for them more accurately. This means teaching sales people all the product, process and system detail we currently require them to learn will be pointless. What they will be required to understand are the underlying concepts and principles. The rest can be handled by technology. So what then is the role of the sales person of the future? Well, in technical terms, everything else that involves non-repeatable and non-predictable logic (i.e. where we currently can’t work out a predictable pattern).
Take the client interaction as an example. While humans are in many aspects fairly predictable, there are aspects of every human engagement that feels relatively unique (i.e. many human behaviours and emotions remain unpredictable). It is typically where EQ comes into play and where the customer experience is made or damaged. And it is where humans currently out-perform technology (i.e. we are better able to learn and adapt quickly to new situations). The result is that increasingly technology will be used to execute decisions and actions that are based on known business logic, and human beings will be ask to focus on areas where they, as individuals, can make the difference.
Implication for learning within the 21st century
The implications of these two factors to schools, universities and learning professionals and departments are profound.
Lets begin with our schools first (the education part of the equation). As opposed to building more exam factories, schools will need to get far more creative in how they develop our children’s capabilities. The learning focus will need to shift away from content (subject) categorisation, and move towards a more integrated approach of meta-skill development. Learning should become more project-based, where the learner is asked to add new value (not simply regurgitate content). And the role of teachers must shift away from content communicators to true learning facilitators.
And this thinking will need to be reflected within organisational learning as well. Firstly, our whole way of thinking around curricula design, learning design and learning delivery will have to change. Increasingly we will have to involve the individual in shaping their learning journey, and not just the organisation. And given that for many individual’s, performing outcomes are more important than learning outcomes, our solutions will need to better help staff perform within complex, ever-changing environments. This means offering technologies that help staff analyse different work situations, and guide their actions and decisions according to required processes and business rules (so they don’t have to expend energy trying to get this right). It means offering them relevant learning support that can be accessed while performing, not in order to perform. And it involves enabling every staff member to contribute to the ongoing learning of the collective, not simply receive it.
In effect, it means shifting the focus of learning support out of classrooms and into the work environment. Where learning and knowledge management systems optimised the delivery of formal learning content, decision support and electronic performance support technologies will increasingly become the enablers of workplace learning. Where our obsession was on competence, it will increasingly become capability. And where we used to target specific skill development, we will increasingly target meta-skill development.
The result will be that the learning profession will begin to move back into the work environment, and will begin forming partnerships with line management and learners. More of our efforts will be targeted at developing performance support, and less on learning support. And increasingly the flow of learning information will shift from being uni-directional (from the parent to the learner) to being bi-directional (where both parties learn).
In truth, the shift has already begun. Social networks and mobile workers are forcing the shift. It is now our opportunity to respond, and to once again become relevant to the lives of learners.