The pace of change in Organisational approaches to learning is being far outstripped by evolutions in the reality of learning itself. In the Social Age, technology allows us to access knowledge, and make sense of it, ever faster, and more collaboratively, than before. Today, i want to share some thoughts on four aspects of this change: the rapid iterations of our individual approaches to learning, the rapid diversification of learning support technologies, the evolution of knowledge itself, and the fragmentation of the underlying power that sits behind learning.
Whilst the ways that we are learning are changing, we are not, individually, doing all of the innovation: much of our understanding of possibilities comes through our networks. People discover new sources of curated content, new podcasts, new technologies, new communities, and they share them with us. Alongside this collective capability, we are also learning ourselves, not least out of frustration at historic models. We individually curate a set of sites, sources of knowledge, sense making communities, favoured technologies, and diverse spaces, where we can learn, and hence perform.
One thing is clear: at an individual level, our approach to learning has been transformed: many of us grew up with centralised knowledge (libraries and teachers), codified learning (reference books, workbooks, experts), and broadcast models of storytelling at scale (TV, videos, radio etc). Almost none of that persists at scale. But organisations are often running very significantly behind the curve. It’s not that they are not changing: it’s just that they are not changing fast enough.
Technology is an easy focus: we have seen two key transformative effects in this space. First, the erosion of monoculture systems, and second, the emergence of the rapid iteration ecosystem. Historically, software development was large scale and costly, and dominated, at least in the commercial space, by connected systems and suites that solved (or claimed to solve) all of your problems. Today though, that has shifted: we tend to favour diverse ecosystems, interconnected by common standards, and highly portable data. We are probably only part way through this transformation, with more change likely in the underlying infrastructure, to see the emergence of distributed personal profiles, with privacy and control loaned out to separate systems, not held within them.
A key feature of these diverse ecosystems is the rapid disposability of most of the separate components: the technologies we use for learning, and performance, tend to be lighter weight, more specialised, and more rapidly disposable, not least because we can pull our data out of them, and because they are cheap.
Again, this is an area where Organisations struggle: not simply because there is an inherent reason for them to do so, but because they often bring an older mindset to the challenge, and shelter behind arguments of security and risk which are both vital, and largely wrong. I say that carefully, but the point is this: in every organisation that tries to restrict access to technology, or limit usage, people just work around the system. When i surveyed in the National Health Service, to ask what technologies people used to access their communities, they identified seventeen different systems, only one of which was approve by, and owned by, the Organisation itself. It’s not that we have a risk of people ‘breaking’ rules: we have a certainty of it.
But these people are not breaking rules because they are bad: they are trying to evolve the ecosystem of technology at a faster pace than the Organisation itself can handle. The solution is not to abandon rules, but to focus on compliance and risk as being features that emerge from a healthy culture, not something we nail in place through control alone. Healthy systems have rules, but thrive in trust.
So the ways that we learn are changing, and the ways that we use technology to support and facilitate this have changed, but the underlying cognitive aspects of learning have not shifted. We still ‘learn’, in a neurological sense, the same way. Which means that gains in productivity and effectiveness won’t come through technology alone, but rather in an evolution of pedagogical approaches, and a deeper understanding of habit formation, contextualisation, rehearsal, recall, etc.
What has changed, at least at a pragmatic level, is the nature of knowledge itself: we have moved from substantially codified and formalised types of Organisational knowledge, towards a situation where much of the knowledge we access, at least in the everyday, is co-created, dynamic, adaptive, and evolutionary. This shift represents not simply the ‘content’ of knowledge, but also the location of control.
When we owned the mechanisms of transmission and capture, the printing presses, libraries, universities, and courses, then we inherently controlled the content and stories too. But in a democratised knowledge ecosystem, we have lost control. We still have a voice, but not a dominant one. The relationship between ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’ is more contextual, fluid, and impermanent. This leads, in turn to the greater fragmentation of power.
This is a background feature of the Social Age: the fragmentation of older, more centralised and codified manifestations of power, in favour of more diversified, distributed, and agile, ones.
I’m not talking simply about the power of control, but also the power of recognition, reward, and respect. Losing control of consequence in itself distributes these other forms of power too. Again, this needs to be reflected in Organisational approaches to learning: they must learn from, and conform with, evolved approaches to learning. They must echo the diversification and democratisation of technology. We must understand, and cater for, the evolution of knowledge itself. And we must do all of this within an evolved understanding of the fragmentation of power, and our approach to learning must both respect, adhere to, and support, this.
This makes for a significant challenge, and one which i am far from confident that many organisations can truly meet. It’s not that they are not full of great people who understand this: most people i meet, at lest at some significant level, understand some, or all, of this picture. It’s simply that, within a system, they are constrained.
Constraint itself is a significant issue: we do not need to solve all our problems today, but we do need to ensure that we are aware of our constraint, and that we are actively evolving our mindset, leadership position, and capability, to face the future challenge.
This is really important: we need our own space to learn. The odds are that the brilliance that we bring, all of our skills, our experience, our existing capability, will not be enough. For any of us. We need to find spaces for ambiguity, spaces of challenge, communities to support us, and space to learn. The secret in adapting to the new reality fo learning, is to learn.