Amsterdam Diary – Day 3: Our community popup learning story

Yesterday i ran my first ever community popup learning session from Amsterdam, exploring ‘learning culture’, based around these two questions:

Question 1: Is learning culture created by the organisation or the learners?
Question 2: Do you do most of your learning in formal experiences or informal ones?

I was able to connect with people in person and through LinkedIn, this blog, Twitter and email. Today, i will narrate the learning as i tell our story.

Which came first? The chicken or the egg? There was a definite familiarity to the discussion as i sat in the cafe looking out over the square through the rain to the Van Gogh museum. Is learning culture created by the organisation and inhabited by learners, or do learners create the culture and impose it on the organisation?

We ran the discussion all day with people contributing through different channels.

Paul stepped in first with the view the ‘the organisation wants to drive the culture and in some ways tries (i.e. forcing participation), but ultimately it’s the user population this is really the driving force.‘ Certainly this is a view we can recognise in parts: around compliance or regulatory training, organisations do ‘force‘ the learner to adopt certain behaviours. This type of training falls fully into the core, ‘formal‘ curriculum, those materials that the organisation needs us to master. Formal learning is often time bound and you have to pass the assessment, so the culture here is always ‘command and control‘.

Kayla presented a slightly softer view, observing that ‘It’s important for the organisation to set a foundation, and nurture learning.‘ The use of the word ‘nurture‘ is interesting and relevant, reflecting that the organisation has dual responsibilities: sometimes to drive participation, but sometimes to nurture and catch people. I’d add that the community may share this responsibility to nurture, and we typically see this within the motivations of some people to engage in social learning communities: that they want to support others as a primary driver to participate.

Of course, sometimes people learn things in spaces that the organisation doesn’t even think are central to the space. A culture of incidental, emergent learning. I reached out into the community forum for the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, to the group of mentors and mentees who connect across the world to build business skills and drive development. In this space, the majority of people i asked stressed that the key benefit they derived was learning English: ‘Hi Julian… Before this program I don’t know to speak english well.I don’t know how to build a business. Now I know that. Not too much, but in case I know how to find friend,customer,make a deal something like that.

Kayla comes back to us with a caution though, relating to the risks if the organisation tries to shape the culture too far, ‘too many times learning is developed in one very structured, formal attempt to get their employees to adopt whatever message they are trying to convey. Ultimately the culture of learning stems from the users, and it’s up to the organisations to listen and leverage how their teams are engaging.‘ In other words, the responsibility lies firmly with the organisation to react to what the community is telling them.

Shona works with businesses across the world, often with their senior stakeholders, so i was particularly interested in her perspective, which i’ll quote in full: ‘Hi Julian – in the organisations I work with the leaders can have a powerful impact either facilitating or inhibiting the culture of learning. Their own approach and openness to new ideas, to training, to informal learning approaches seems to really influence how their team engage with learning. I see great leaders inspiring learning and generating an excitement for new ideas and individual growth and others who disincentivise learning through their own disinterest! There can be diverse learning cultures within 1 organisation. This is of course only part of the story and many individuals create their own learning agendas despite the organisational culture or leaders actions

Interesting how, whilst i tend to refer to ‘the organisation‘, Shona brings a focus on the leadership team, correctly recognising that there is no such entity as ‘the business‘! She observes that leaders can have a ‘powerful impact‘ and that their own approach is significant. I like this idea, that the attitude of leaders to learning permeates the whole culture and, of course, recognise this in action. It’s a neatly phrased observation. The other point that stands out is the idea that individuals ‘create their own learning agendas despite the organisational culture…‘. Clearly some learners are ‘independent‘, able to do this, but it tends to be the motivated minority. Sometimes we can therefore observe success despite organisational barriers to learning.

James summed things up nicely around this question, bringing us back to the chicken and the egg: ‘Falling back on some good old social theories, we know that it’s pretty much impossible to uncover who/what creates a culture first. It’s always the interplay between people that create a structure. This is hard to change, as we both create learning cultures and are socialised by them. I think this is why encouraging learners to take charge of their learning is difficult for both an organisation and the learners themselves to accept.

The thing i liked about James’ observations were that he recognises how both organisations (leaders!) have a role alongside individual learners, but that, once the culture is created, we can almost become trapped by it, ‘socialised‘ by it. This is what we see with the adoption of social learning or mobile learning within businesses, even ones with successful learning cultures. Sometimes they still struggle to adapt.

So how about our second question, the second part of our story? Is most of your learning formal or informal?

I wanted to explore how, whatever the learning culture, we are seeing a change generally towards far more informal or semi formal social learning experiences. Do people now feel that this is their primary way of learning, or does it vary. Or, indeed, is it not relevant!

Let’s go back to Paul, who had a neat, simple view of things, ‘Since I view each and everyday as a learning experience, my learning is informal.’ This view was reinforced by James, ‘My personal learning comes in all shapes and sizes, but after university has been almost entirely informal. Taking part in a personal knowledge management or personal learning network exercise really helps emphasise just how much you learn informally.

A useful concept that James talks about is how our learning may change over time, starting out relatively formal (school, University, Induction) and becoming progressively less formal as time goes by. Maybe that’s because we become more adept at informal learning, or maybe the opportunities for formal learning are less common, more expensive or harder to prioritise.

Kayla bought a good view to this, ‘Learning happens every day. Through experiences, conversations and yes…making mistakes! I would say maybe 10% of the learning I do is through a formal or planned event. On the informal side, I tend to be a grazer of information on the internet and social channels to find industry news, articles on trends and find relevant learning webinars. I have feeds set up and I follow thought leaders and innovators in the industry that are successful at the goals I’m trying to accomplish.‘ To me, Kayla’s approach is one of an experienced social learner, clearly she is not perturbed the technology. The notion of ‘grazing‘ is very much a semi formal learning style that i recognise.

Time can be an issue though, and Sheri introduced a good point here: ‘I greatly prefer the informal learning that occurs in the formal setting. In the US our schedules are so overbooked that sometimes the formal learning is nice to at least set a placeholder for us to stop, take pause, and engage.‘ For me, this introduced a new concept, that formal learning is actually viewed as time to reflect and integrate learning done in the more chaotic social spaces. This is significant as we see trends towards minimising formal learning in favour of self directed experiences (which involve less travel and time). It may be that we run the risk of driving out too much reflective time.

Jeffrey summed it up nicely for us, ‘my own learning: it’s mostly informal these days‘. I know how he feels. As does @jimbobtyer, who stayed with us to contribute throughout the day on Twitter, ‘@julianstodd i’m in. Something interesting to fill up quiet time in a day of Canadian domestic air travel #popuplearning

So, let’s summarise where we are: learning culture is created by both the organisation and the individual, but it’s not static. A culture that works today may not work tomorrow, so we need agility within our individual and organisational approaches. Leadership play a key role, both in terms of setting strategy and in terms of living what they say. Clearly inspiration is part of learning culture.

And as for learning, well, it’s largely seen as informal where we learn the most day to day, although this may not diminish the role of formal training. It may simply be that, as learning expands through social channels, there are more opportunities to learn every day, or that we are better at spotting learning opportunities.

To finish, i just want to reflect on the experience of the popup learning event in Amsterdam. Clearly my location was irrelevant: through the day i walked around the city, spent time in three great cafes (chosen for location, view and free wifi) as well as some time sat in several museums. The learning, for me, took place within my network, some people i know well in person, some i know only online and some new faces who i haven’t engaged with before.

This has been an attempt to narrate that learning: to take the voices of the community and create a legacy from our shared experience. I see this as an important part of social learning. The experience of narrating the story is, for me, part of the learning.

So thank you to everyone who participated and supported this event: i haven’t been able to include everyone’s comments and thoughts, but they were certainly all highly valued and contributed to our joint success. Not bad work for a group of connected and interested individuals spread across the globe, united in learning.

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About Julian Stodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Agile, Blog, Collaboration, Community, Community of Practice, Culture, Formal Spaces, Global, Informal Spaces, Learning, Legacy, Mentoring, Narrative, Popup Learning, Reflection, Stories, Storytelling and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Amsterdam Diary – Day 3: Our community popup learning story

  1. Julian, its Beth… from Manila, finally. I’m curious about what your virtual “team” thinks stifles or inhibits informal learning… and also interested in whether “leadership” has any role in responding to learning needss… or is it all up to the individual??

    • julianstodd says:

      Hi Beth – those are good questions. Let’s see what people think. I’ll post it out on Twitter as well. As far as the role of Leadership goes, this is something that Shona raised with us yesterday – how good leaders inspire and poor ones actively harm the learning culture.

      I greatly enjoyed your thoughts and input last week so very happy to have you joining the community here as well. Thank you :-)

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