Radical Interpretations: The Learning Economy

My new publishing project is called ‘Radical Interpretations’, and will contain a series of ‘imagined futures’. The intention is to curate a collection of essays, artwork, conversations and ideas with a 3-5 year future focus, but unconstrained by practical implementation. It’s not a series of ‘answers’, but rather of ideas to inform the debate. With that in mind, i am writing an occasional series of my own ‘imagined futures’, and today considering ‘The Learning Economy’.

The premise is to consider a foundational shift away from centralised learning, to a distributed creator economy: aspects of this we already see, to a small extent within Organisations, and to a much larger one outside of them. But let’s imagine we go further, and codify both currency, and economy, around this: what would an Organisation with a Learning Economy look like?

On one level, the main shift would be away from the codification and ownership of learning by the Organisations itself, to the distributed creation and ownership within the community, backed up by both new validation and currency systems.

In the current Organisation, where learning is owned and controlled, validation of quality and content is owned by the Organisation itself. This fits into a broader regulatory or compliance let mentality whereby we feel ‘safer’ if we hold control.

In an Organisation with a vibrant learning economy, we would need to see a distribution of the mechanisms of validation, which may concurrently require us to consider whether safety is always held in consistency, or whether it may be held in variation as well: e.g. would it be possible for guidance on fraud and anti money laundering to look and feel different in different cultures, different regions, or even different teams in the same building? Are we made safe because of the consistency and conformity of material and behaviour or by an underlying understanding of, and adherence to, the regulation?

It will similarly require us to consider questions of what is ‘right’ versus ‘right enough’.

Beyond validation, we will see a huge shift in provision: instead of central programming we will move, under a Learning Economy, to a marketplace approach to programming. This is likely to see the rapid creation of a broad array of content by the community, covering typically both broader and deeper levels of learning – but with no expectation that all of it will be universal, nor necessarily deliver a ‘return on the investment’ (and we will need to come back to consider what that investment is).

Local teams may produce local content, individual curators may take a role of moderators, or aggregators, curating collections of content, and most likely a combination of both peer, and formal, review of quality and applicability, even of validity, may come into play.

Which could lead us into interesting situations: what will we do if we find a module that is highly rated by the community for it’s usefulness, but ranked low by the Organisation for it’s validity?

We could see examples here in engineering: what if we have to regularly service a particular type of valve, and the ‘formal’ maintenance guide says ‘use a 3/4’’ wrench’, but the community curated content says ‘just use a hammer’. The hammer breaches the warranty conditions, but the community may say that it really works well. Who is right (community, organisation, or the manufacturer)? Who has the opportunity to learn (community, organisation, or the manufacturer – learning from distributed client feedback in ‘real’ engineering contexts), and what is the value of that learning (both in reputation, and monetary terms)?

But what about the ‘economy’ around learning?

In this ‘imagined future’ we shift to a multi dimensional Organisation: one where money is traded for time and utility, but other currencies are traded for ideas and engagement: so the best creators, and curators, may be rewarded according to volume (how many people engage) or a weighted ‘value’ score – for example, if i make a very specialist engineering video, which solves a problem, we could ask the distributed engineers how many hours i have saved them, and base a financial reward on the aggregated number of hours.

Or the reward may be to gain access to time, resource, or finance, to develop more materials.

What about an Organisation that instead of having a Learning and Development function has a ‘Learning Creators Studio’, with world class facilities, to which members of the community can earn access through the creation of community level resources.

Or perhaps they can be voted in for access by the peers?

Of course an economy for one country does not operate in isolation, and perhaps a Learning Economy can also trade with others, importing and exporting learning, offer visas for expert engagement, or even take out loans.

Through a marketplace of infrastructure vendors we already operate in a shared services economy, and through libraries of content we have shared learning too. But perhaps this expands to shared ‘sense making’, collaboration on content, even exchange rates for learning currencies?

What about if we had a universally exchanged currency of reputation that could be weighted into job applications? How about if groups of Organisations came together to build their ‘international space station’, creating a shared Learning Studio, and generating an economy both of reputation and finance behind it?

Why would we do that? When we share, do we not give away competitive advantage?

Well: yes and no. It depends what you are measuring, and where you see the opportunity, and how we think you will get there.

Potentially ‘engagement’, the ability to find the best talent, and to remain engaged over time, is one of the greatest challenges.

But the model of direct and continuous employment is radically outdated, and harks back to the time of ‘ownership’.

What about if someone is employed for a couple of years, acts as an independent creator for a year, then earns a placement into your internal Learning Studio as a mentor, then into a paid project role, and with that reputation currency earns a two year role in a different industry?

All the while, remaining within your ‘alumni’ network, or even within your creator economy, or simply as a valued (5 star rated) curator of external content?

Much of this relates to fluidity: a fluidity of structure (as we see in the Socially Dynamic Organisation), a fluidity of power (away from ownership and towards access), a fluidity of knowledge (away from formally codified into distributed, co-created, and fluid – alongside variable models of ownership and validation), even a fluidity of certainty and consequence perhaps.

At the broadest level, it seems unlikely to me that the future Organisation, even the one we create in that 3-5 year window, will be more structured than today, will be more formal, or have higher walls.

I think that within it’s own boundaries it will have less structure, less direct correlation between ‘role’ and ‘task’, and less direct control over content and learning, hence less direct reliance on infrastructure.

The current trends towards social collaborative frames of learning still tend to happen within the first dimensional economy – the formal structure frames, controls, and rewards it. Even on a timescale as short as that 3-5 years, i think this will start to change.

Radical Interpretations will be a magazine of ‘imagined futures’ – not a magazine of answers. In this piece i have tried to create a rapid story about ‘the learning economy’ – not fully fledged, nor fully filled in, and not fully practical either, but this is the point.

Imagination is our tool to fracture our certainty, and our own certainty (governed by our experience) is one thing that hold us within current paradigms.

If you would like to write your own ‘imagined future’, on any of a broad range of topics, you can find out more about the experimental magazine here.

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.
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