Organisational Learning – Broad Shifts

How much value ‘Organisational Learning’ provides to an Organisation is an open question: not in terms of measuring activity, expenditure, or time, but impact (and notably whether there is a relationship between impact and the complexity of the systems that hold and support it. Or to put it another way: as the technology and context of learning become more complex, integrated, larger scale, does this directly equate to greater performance?

This is rather early stage thinking, but goes something like this: over the last two decades we have seen a fundamental shift in the design, provision, and expectations, of learning for Organisations. If we were to take very broad brush strokes, we may see the change across three areas, and through three phases.

Change has happened in the broader societal (ecosystem) CONTEXT of learning.

Change has happened in the ecosystem of TECHNOLOGY through which we design, consume, and track learning.

Change has happened in the METHODOLOGIES by which we structure, design, and support learning.

There is probably a common sense that each of these three things have become EITHER more complex in some ways (more technology doing more things), or at the least, less known and hence not yet optimised (collaboration and community, in the flow, on demand, augmented etc).

To give examples: as the notion of career has fragmented, so the onus of responsibility, the backbone, of personal development has shifted, into broader systems of provision and engagement. So too has engagement itself, into portfolio and fragmented careers. Opportunities for education have diversified and to some extent democratised, although still unevenly. Technology has fragmented, interconnected, diversified, and permeated everywhere. And learning is increasingly contextual, distributed, collaborative, dynamic, and individually contextualised.

So: three areas to consider – context, technology and methodology, and through three phases, which we could perhaps call ‘opportunism’, ‘fragmentation’, and ‘consolidating’.

Early change was opportunistic, often dependent upon emerging technology: so the scaling up of video, the inclusion of digital distribution, online testing, record keeping, and distribution via intranet etc. These deployments were often about scale (hit everything with the same thing on one day), about what was possible, and in some cases delivered radical returns (widespread ability to cut travel, or to drive consistency of message, or to launch new products and systems faster etc

Fragmentation as the second phase represents how these emergent feature and capability led approaches spread right out, leaving us with lots of ‘what can be done’ but often in different and even incompatible streams. And probably with an increasing skills gap: the capability to ‘do’ things was more likely to sit with vendors or suppliers, who were both shaping offerings and trying to leverage into business processes.

I could argue that this was a time of high spend and significant sub optimisation, friction, and waste, as we often saw where disconnected or incomplete approaches to implementation led to either zero return, or isolated excellence. A very mixed picture with increased complexity and cost, but a complex environment that was hard to measure and harder to drive predictable effects.

The third phase is possibly what we see now: some consolidation, not simply of supply, but also of capability – almost a mapping out of new business functions, alongside a significant up-skilling within Organisations themselves.

I could argue that today the dynamic between Organisations and vendors is evolved, or at the very least somewhat rebalanced – so there is pressure to sit within at least some common frameworks of data and interoperability, transport, and reporting. Not that this in itself drives excellence: conformity represents nothing more than conformity.

My description of these three phases is very imperfect, and i could easily pick holes in it, but as something of a narrative of the last twenty years it’s not completely without value.

There is probably something to be said about the current state: we are clearly a long long way from optimisation, and indeed likely to see considerable further, and possibly ground breaking, fragmentation, of both learning technologies and the structural Organisations that they operate within. Possibly this is a transformation through waves of change – fracture, evolution, consolidation, and further disruption.

This latter piece is one that is often missed by experts and incumbents (who may believe themselves to be one and the same thing) – so we see disruptors, and judge change on their success. So people say ‘social may fail’ because Facebook may fail. But Facebook, whilst a big player, is not the domain itself. Possibly every major tech player today will fail, and yet will will inhabit a technology moderated future, in a metaverse, online. The easy lesson to miss is that just because a company or technology, or social norm, fails, does not mean that the old will come back. We are already disrupted and won’t become less so.

But so what: where are we today. Have we derived value?

It’s a hard call: we certainly do things that are different, within a different context. So learning today is less constrained by the landscape (it’s easy to create, distribute, and measure), but possibly more constrained by cultural context and imagination.

We can do more, but may not truly know what we should be doing.

Of the areas, ‘methodology’ may be the weakest to have evolved, which is perverse, as in many ways it’s the one we should have been able to change most easily.

Social context just happens, technology happens at cost, but methodology is more intellectual and creative, and in theory can happen cheaper and faster. The ‘what’ we do about learning design and implementation, and ‘how’ we do it.

This space still feels fragmentary, and operating in downstream areas, when in fact it should probably be more strategic and holistically connected up.

To some extent this may mean that the learning culture of an Organisation should be more readily recognisable, and distinct, when in fact it often is not.

If i were to squint, i would say that we should start with the Learning Function itself: there has been such a significant shift, broadly characterised as being from ‘creation, ownership and distribution’ of learning, to ‘facilitation, connection, and contextualisation’ of learning that some legacy aspects of talent, structure, leadership and development are in need of attention.

It’s always useful to remember that the way that we individually learn (from an evolutionary perspective) has not changed in those twenty years.

There are probably some really top level elements to consider, about whether Organisational learning is about knowledge, about individual capability, about ‘known’ capability, about exploration, about collective capability, about consistency, about prediction or connection, and so on. What is the point of learning/a learning function/learning technologies/specific measurement/systems/rules etc.

What are we trying to do, and are we learning what we need to do to do it?

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in Learning, Learning Culture, Learning Design, Learning Journey, Learning Methodology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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