New Paths to Learning at Work

I did a three part interview series recently with HRM Online introducing emerging approaches to learning.  You can probably guess what they are:

  • Informal Learning
  • Social Learning
  • Mobile Learning
  • Virtual Learning
  • Gaming and Simulation
  • Performance Support

Part one introduces the new paths to learning at work. I’ll post each part in the series here as they are released.  I’ll be doing a Webinar on the same topic on May 15.  Information on how to register are listed with  the video or you can register here

Here’s the preamble for the video:

“As technology and workplaces change, the way we learn needs to adapt to meet the needs of your employees. Classroom learning and traditional online courses aren’t sufficient on their own anymore, but what replaces it? From social media and mobile technology to gaming and virtual tools, there is a lot to learn and there are lots of tools available”

Click the image to play the video…

Click here to play Embrace new paths to learning

Update May 1/2013:

Here is part 2 of the interview.  The focus is on social and mobile learning with some discussion of gaming and simulation. Click the image to play.

Click here to play Social, mobile and gaming: the new training tools

Update May 14:

Here is the third and final instalment of the interview.  The focus is on virtual learning, performance support and implications for the learning and development professional.

Click here to play What HR needs to know: keep up with new tech for learning


Mapping Informal and Formal Learning Strategies to Real Work

During the Q&A at a recent conference session on Social Learning, a retail industry attendee asked “I have to train 300 store level associates in new product knowledge in the next three months.  Is social learning really what I want?”  What would your answer be?

I advocate informal and social learning when appropriate and get as excited about them as you likely do, but it’s not a panacea for all our learning woes.  The current zeal around social learning solutions can distract from real performance needs (we’ve been distracted before).  Social learning gets positioned as the enlightened and “correct” solution for the modern workplace. Formal learning is old, tired, and reluctantly tolerated for the vestiges of the traditional, mechanistic workplace.

But, set aside your biases one way or the other for the moment and simply think of the roles and functions you support in your organization.  It will vary by industry of course, but your list is going to be some subset of the following

  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Product Development
  • Manufacturing
  • Operations
  • Administration
  • Service Delivery
  • Order Fulfillment
  • Information Technology
  • Procurement
  • Management and Leadership

Now think of the jobs or roles within those functions…the engineers, technicians, account executives, managers, IT specialists, health care workers, service specialists, and operations staff you support.  Do they demand a singular approach to developing skill and capability necessary for their job?  Is social learning or traditional skills training the most appropriate for all job types?  I hope your answer is no.

Consultants have been telling us for years that traditional, mechanistic organizations are disappearing, and with them linear and routine work.  There is no doubt that is the economic direction, but look around you…at the auto assembly lines, big box retail, supermarkets, call centres, healthcare technicians, administrative clerks in government, insurance, finance and elsewhere. Think about the jobs you support and you’ll see many examples of traditional work where social media based learning will simply not be feasible to quickly develop skills.

Task variety and standardization: Routine vs. knowledge work

Instead of over generalizing the value of any solution it’s best to truly understand the skill and knowledge requirements of the jobs, roles or initiatives you support.  I’m not talking about task or needs analysis (through both are valuable tools).  Instead go up one notch higher and categorize the types of “work” you support in your organization.  Almost all work, indeed entire organizations and industries, vary on a continuum of two broad factors: task variety and task standardization.

An approach for categorizing jobs, roles and work environments

In between these ends of this spectrum is work that combines standardization and task variety to different degrees. The following framework provides a classification tool to place work types, jobs and roles. It’s an adaptation of the work of Yale Organizational Sociologist Charles Perrow.  Jeffrey Liker and David Meier used a different variation of this model in Toyota Talent.

Work Types, Task Standarization and Task Variety

Routine work

Routine work is highly standardized with little task variety. Job fundamentals need to be learned quickly and performed to company or industry defined standards. There is little room for variation and the skills that need to be learned are narrow and focused. Progressive workplaces will also involve workers in problems solving and continuous process improvement where experience will result in tacit knowledge in problem recognition and problem solving than can be shared with others through informal vehicles.

Sample jobs and roles:

  • Assembly line workers
  • Bank teller
  • Data entry clerk
  • Oil and gas well drillers
  • Machine operators
  • Fast food server

Learning approach:

  • Formal structured, job specific skills training, performance support tools that enable standardized procedures

Technician work

The work of the technician is less standardized and includes more variety in the tasks and skills required by the role. Work still has many defined procedures and processes. However, they are more complex and often based on sophisticated systems and technology. The sequence can vary depending on the situation so employees have more autonomy in selecting appropriate procedures. There’s also greater variety in the procedures and tasks to be completed and as a result the learning programs need to consider problem solving, decision making and continuous improvement. Tacit knowledge will be needed to solve real technical problems that arise and there is often a service element in technician work that can benefit from informal approaches to learning. Performance supports system are a natural fit for technician oriented work as is mobile learning for customer support technicians often working at customer locations.

Sample jobs and roles:

  • Lab analyst
  • Quality Control Specialists
  • Radiation technologist
  • Maintenance workers
  • Technical support specialists
  • Most “trade” occupations

Learning approach:

  • Formal structured learning for required procedures, performance support systems. Informal learning and apprenticeship approaches for building “know-how” and problem solving

Craft work

Craft oriented work introduces even greater amounts of variety in tasks, skills and knowledge, but retains significant amounts of standardization for optimal performance. While there is a definable number of tasks, each situation faced by employees is somewhat different, and each requires creative and slightly unique solutions. Over time patterns in problems and solutions emerge for individual employees and this becomes valuable experience (tacit knowledge) that they can pass on to novice employees through informal approaches. Basic skills and procedures are most efficiently taught through formal methods but the most critical parts of the job are learning through years of experience facing multiple situations. Management is more flexible and with fewer rules and formal policies. Teamwork and communications are paramount.

Sample jobs and roles:

  • Nurse
  • Sales professional
  • Call centre agent
  • Graphic designer
  • Air traffic controller
  • First level supervisor
  • Insurance administrator

Learning approach:

Formal learning for foundation procedures and skills. Informal learning and deep work experience and mentoring models for tacit knowledge.

Knowledge work

Finally, knowledge work involves little task standardization (although there is always some) and a great amount of task variety requiring a wide range of skills, knowledge and collaboration. Professionals move from task to task and each situation is unique calling for spontaneous thinking, reasoning and decision making. Knowledge workers must adapt to new situations, assess complex data and make complex decisions.  They also need refined people skills.  The most critical aspects of what experts and knowledge workers do (after formal education) can only be learned on the job over time through experience, mentors and knowledge sharing with other professionals.

Sample jobs and roles:

  • Professional engineers
  • Middle and senior management
  • Professions: Law, Medicine, Architecture, Scientists, Professors etc.
  • Software developers
  • Creative director

Learning approach:

Professional education, extensive job experience on a variety of situations and work assignments, action learning, mentorship, Communities of Practice.

Balanced approaches

Of course most work requires a combination of knowledge work and routine work. These characteristics of jobs and work environments call for different approaches to training and development. There is a continuum of learning solutions that range from formal to non-formal to informal. I’ve posted my view on this continuum in the past (Leveraging the full learning continuum).

Avoid over generalizing your solutions at all costs. Participate in social media and learn it’s value to develop tacit knowledge and create new knowledge in your organization but don’t assume it is the “correct” solution for all your audiences. Start with the functions you serve. Truly understand work that is done by the jobs and roles within those groups and the skills necessary for them to be successful. Only then create a solution that will meet those needs.

Making Informal Learning Assets Work

Seeking ways to leverage new social media environments, learning departments are discovering ways to sneak a little formal learning through the informal learning back door. Some of our clients for example, are looking to load up their social learning environments with small bits of learning content related to business goals. The notion being that these informal learning assets will live or die on the strength of their connection to employee performance need. Informal learning assets (or perhaps more accurately formal learning assets designed for informal consumption) are small segments of learning media such as videos, podcasts, documents, animations, short interactive pieces, images, performance guides, job aids, process descriptions, anything with a learning intention that can be posted to a social media environment. They can be created by anyone, from learning designers, to managers and employees and team members.

Survival of the fittest

The strategy creates a kind of Darwinian free-for-all of digital learning resources. Those of best fit to real learning and performance needs will get viewed, liked, shared, discussed and commented on more than those that don’t quite measure up. The best become internal learning memes that do their viral tour of duty and those that don’t hit the mark fall off the social radar, never to produce their learning offspring to see another day. Or so the theory goes. It’s an interesting strategy with loads of implications for designers, suppliers and users of learning content. The idea (I hesitate to call it a trend) is leading some organizations and training suppliers to deconstruct their existing learning programs into learning bits and pieces for populating internal social media environments such as they are.

Making informal learning assets work

I like the idea of infusing communities with digital learning assets but there are a few cautions to watch as we enter this new path. Foremost is the profusion of “information” oriented learning assets at the expense of the practice, application  and reflection that we know is at the heart of real learning and improvement. Information based assets no matter how novel or entertaining we make them are not enough. To bastardize an old Magerism, if telling alone resulted in learning we’d all be so smart we could hardly stand it.

There are ways to structure and design informal learning assets to maintain the best of what we’ve learned from formal design and bring them into the informal learning world. A model we’ve been experimenting with connects formal, informal and social learning, based on five learning essentials (you’ll recognize them if you are familiar with David Merrill’s First Principles or Bernice McCarthy’s 4Mat). Effective learning requires solving authentic problems and tasks, connecting new knowledge with existing mental models, uses powerful ways of presenting and demonstrating new knowledge, provides many and varied opportunities to practice new skills with coaching and reflection, and finally guides the the application to new situations on the job.

Too many informal learning assets target only the “key knowledge” requirement (#3), without any connection to the remaining four learning essentials. Well designed learning programs will account for each of the essentials, but there is no reason they all have to bundled up together in a tidy formal learning bow. In fact, the essence of good informal learning is that the guided application essential (#4) takes place on the job with feedback and coaching from colleagues or mentors inside social media environment or face to face. Forums and discussions are excellent ways to gently guide application. Job aids and performance support systems are effective vehicles for building skills into workflow (#5). Real business problems and tasks (#1) can be used instead of artificial cases. My point is that with care each of these other essentials can be developed as informal learning assets as effectively as a good information driven asset.

This view can also serve as a guide when deconstructing classroom programs for  conversion to social media environments. Instead of retaining only the key knowledge from your programs, look for effective ways to create assets that support the other learning essentials as well.

Learning assets associated with a specific knowledge domain, role or learning objective can be connected through tagging, linking or even a good old fashioned learning path.

Once loaded into social media environments users and community members will begin using them to improve their performance and manage their own knowledge. Not only will they consume the learning assets, they will create their own and in doing so create new and emergent knowledge. As new ideas emerge they will evolve to standard practice and can feed the development of new or revised formal learning programs.

This connection between formal, informal and Social learning might look something like the following:

The 30 Second MBA

I came across this interesting resource recently–The 30 second MBA.

It’s a venture of Fast Company Magazine.  Leaders and entrepreneurs from a variety of industries are asked to describe their approach to various leadership problems and topics in 30 seconds or less (ticking clock and all).  The site describes their mission like this:

The great lament of any reporter is what to do with the jewels that routinely get left on the cutting room floor after a really great interview. Enter the 30-Second MBA, an ongoing video “curriculum” of really good advice from the trenches, directly from people who are making business happen.

The “professors” providing this curriculum include the likes of Mark Zuckerberg (CEO, Facebook) Alan Mulally (CEO, Ford), Padmasree Warrior (CTO, Cisco) Vivian Schiller (President, NPR) and a host of others.  They each take on topics and business problems such as leadership, teamwork, decision making, customer relationships, growth, communication, crisis management and more–all within the 30 second video format.

The site is interesting from a few perspectives.  You can take or leave the messages provided, but the site demonstrates a model that can easily be mimicked inside organizations for capturing and sharing knowledge.  The site also includes community features to discuss the perspectives from the business leaders and post post your own perspectives.  Knowledge captured like this can be used as informal learning assets to support a management development approaches like the one I described in my recent post Management Development Redux.  Learning assets like this are not the complete picture however, and should never be used as a replacement for a targeted management development program.   They should used as learning resources to support solving unique business challenges through discussion and reflection in action learning teams, communities of practice or other collaborative approaches.

Sites and management development services like this are popping up more frequently.  They’ll likely start to change the shape of management development inside organizations, both as suppliers of content for internal communities and simply as models for the direction internal management development might take.

Management Development Redux

My last few posts have been about management and leadership development.  In this post, I thought I would bring some of those ideas together in the form of a process or heuristic for a management development system built around defined business challenges, informal learning approaches with less reliance (or no reliance at all!) on classroom learning.

Here is an alternative management development process then…in just 5 easy steps!…built around authentic learning tasks and supported by informal learning assets and small team action learning sessions.

Step 1:  Define a management/leadership model suited to the organization

Too many senior leadership teams abdicate responsibility for defining coherent roles and expectations for their managers.  Instead, they “buy” a management model in the guise of a training program, rather than defining one consistent with their values, organization design and business goals.

HR and Training enthusiastically taking up the charge and end up buying management programs currently in vogue or that suits their personal vision of leadership.  Also many purchased management programs focus only on the “people” side of a manager’s role and ignore the many other important facets.  I’ve seen many management development programs that are completely at odds with the actual management culture of the organization.    Behavior and performance that gets rewarded and encouraged on the job is not what is taught in development programs.   Not good.

HR and Training have a role in helping the senior team craft a vision and approach for management but they should not be digging it out of the recesses of a commercial management program. Learning and training initiatives should support a coherent model of management not the other way around.  Of course, the model can and should be fluid. Adjustments should be welcome and encouraged as an organization learns and matures over time.

Step 2:  Develop an inventory of management scenarios and business challenges

Using the management model as a guide, create a series of realistic scenarios, cases,  and business challenges  (whatever your term of preference) that will be the core of your management development program.  We know the best management development is built around authentic problems, tasks and opportunities.  Managers also tell us it’s the way they prefer to learn.

Make it your mission to work directly with the managers of the business units you support to understand their day to day challenges, responsibilities, successes and best practices.  Use this inside knowledge to create a progression of challenges from simple to complex, perhaps based on the levels of management in your organization.    The inventory should be highly dynamic and constantly evolving as goals and objectives change.

Challenges can and should have focus on desired competencies and target all of the spheres of responsibilities managers have including business, functional, financial and human. Mangers themselves can start creating challenges and problems scenarios to add to the inventory.

Step 3:  Organize the business challenges into learning paths.

There are a variety of ways the business challenge scenarios could be organized.  By management level, by progression of challenge complexity, by competency or skill area, by management responsibility.   All of the above are possible using simple tagging tools.

The most important thing is to provide an organizing structure for managers to access and use the learning assets.  One of the early failings of social learning environments is the assumption that people will fully manage their own learning in personal learning environments.  Some may, but the majority prefer guidance and a few nudges along the way.

The learning paths are most useful for new managers.  More experienced managers will begin using the business challenges on an as needed basis, which is the way it should be.

Step 4:  Acquire and/or develop a series of learning resources and performance aids to support solving the business challenges

Using the business challenges and problems as a guide, purchase or develop learning assets that contain the key concepts, principles, practices and practices that will help managers solve the full range of business challenges in your inventory.  Use media appropriate to your audience and technical infrastructure including print, digital video, performance guides, e-learning, people (coaches/mentors), job assignments and others.  They are getting easier to find as learning content suppliers are starting to deconstruct their programs into smaller learning assets for use in social media environments.

They can be housed in your organization’s social media suite , Management Community of Practice,  Learning Management System (if you still have one), or in an old-school style learning centre.  Most importantly they must be connected directly to the business challenges managers will be assigned to solve as part of their development.

Learning assets should not be the exclusive purview of the learning function.  Social Learning has taught us that “user-generated” content is both powerful and motivating.  Get managers involved in contributing learning assets.

Learning assets will be used by managers individually and in action learning teams to research and discuss solutions to the business challenges from your inventory.  Assets can be organized into clusters or paths matched to the scenarios. The scenarios are the learning motivators.  The content is only the path to the solution.

Step 5. Assemble action learning teams

The learning assets can and should be used independently to solve the business challenges, but doing so exclusively misses the benefits of social learning.  We’ve learned that small teams of managers working together (face to face or virtually) to solve business challenges is a key success factor in management development.  Action learning has refined a robust approach to small group learning that incorporate the best of informal learning.  Other problem-based and case-based learning models also offer springboards to build management learning teams.  See the links here for a few examples).  I offered an approach using management communities of practice here.

Whichever approach is used the goal is for managers to share their experiences and perspectives together as they solve the business challenges.   Here here is a diagram of how management teams working together can use the business challenges and informal learning assists  to continuously develop.

How Managers Learn

For years we have dragged managers into training programs then do it again in a year or two to “renew” their skills or expose them to the “next  thing” sparked by the newest management trend.  But take the time to ask managers how they prefer to hone their skills, they invariably offer informal approaches like trial and error (experience), observing other managers, and sharing with trusted colleagues.  A couple of studies I like (one newer and one a little older) validate this informal approach to learning and provide some interesting models that can help shape approaches to management development.

What do Managers have to tell us about how they develop skills?

The first comes from Good Practice, an interesting informal learning service for managers and leaders.  Last year they commissioned a survey of hundreds of managers across a variety of industries on learning activities and their effectiveness.  The study, which you can download here, found that the most frequent and effective learning activity  is an informal chat with a colleague (82%) and that 55% of managers will use trail and error at least once a month.  Four primary conclusions are drawn from the study:

According to the study, the top 5 learning methods used by managers are the following (interesting how self-directed each of the strategies are).

  1. Informal chats with colleagues
  2. Search engines (internet resources)
  3. Trial and error
  4. On-the job instruction
  5. Use of professional literature

How managers develop core management competencies

An earlier study of over 200 managers in the Insurance industry got similar results but made the link to specific core management competencies. You can review it here.  Investigators (from the University of Connecticut) asked to what extent and in what ways managers learned core managerial skills through formal training and informal learning. Results found managers consistently reported learning twenty core managerial skills mostly from informal learning activities. The diagram below, from their study, shows a comparison of the number of managers reporting that they learned each specific managerial skill formally and informally.

Click for larger view

Drawing from these and other results from the study the authors offered, quite accurately I think, a model for how managers learn.

Click for larger view

In the model informal learning mechanisms include job experience (solving problems through action) watching other managers, and interaction with others.  These activities build tacit and explicit knowledge which, when regulated through goal setting and other meta-cognitive skills develops proficiency over time. Notice the role of formal training. Managers apply what is learned only if relevant to their job experience. This doesn’t negate the influence of formal training but again reinforces how job relevant it needs to be before you can expect any transfer.

The future of management development?

Managers have always learned through informal methods. The last thing we want to do is get in the way or start over-formalizing these successful “informal” approaches. Social Media offers an interesting platform for manager informal interaction (especially in the form of Communities of Practice) but managers are still warming up (or not) to on line networking.

I think informal management development needs some direction and shape from proven management practices from both inside and outside the organization.  And to keep the wheels of informal learning greased, action learning facilitation, useful performance support tools and access to on-demand informal learning assets are all a part of the mix.   Any strategies that provide managers with a forum and support to discuss and share their experience in the context of leading ideas and best practices will clearly be received well by managers.

Sparked by the recognition of untapped market for informal learning services, new vendor services are emerging that are likely the forefront of a shift in management development services.  Internal and external Communities of Practice like What Do You Want from Them are starting to emerge.  Traditional management development companies are re-purposing their content for more flexible delivery on line like Good Practice. And informal coaching services like Coaching Ourselves, driven by content from leading academic thinkers, are gaining real traction (see my  discussion of Coaching Ourselves here).  Formal management development isn’t going away (and shouldn’t), but shifting more of the load to informal learning may start to produce the business results long sought after by management development practitioners.

e-Learning: What’s Hot and What’s Not?

e-Learning: What’s hot, what’s not

I received a request from a colleague last week who is helping a company put together a learning strategy,  part of which will focus on e-learning.  Her question was this:

what’s hot and what’s not in e-learning these days ?

I gave it a bit of thought and came up with the following lists.  I would love to hear your additions or deletions from the list (as would my colleague).

What’s Hot

This list is more what learning professionals and e-learning designers are talking about than what they are actually doing.  Very little of the following has moved to the mainstream of practice as far as I can see.

  • Social media and e-Learning 2.0

Take a quick scan of professional conference topics, e-learning blogs and tweets, professional publications and pretty much any discussion between e-learning professionals and the conversation is crackling with web 2.0 and learning 2.0.

Almost everyone is trying to figure out how to best use web 2.0 technologies for learning.  Like learning 1.0,  it will need the broader acceptance of a generalized web 2.0 platform on which to piggy back and an acceptance of the legitimate social and informal aspects of learning before it really takes off inside organizations.  It’s coming.

  • Informal Learning

Tell me you haven’t had at least one “70-20-10” conversation in the last month.  The “rule” that development is best achieved through a mix of experience (70%) mentoring/coaching (20%) and formal learning (10%) has been around for a while (most sources point to it’s origin at the centre for Creative Leadership in the late 80’s) but has caught a second wind in recent years.

Entire programs of learning are being developed around the principle.  Or at least classroom programs are being extended and enhanced with attempts at informal learning. Web 2.0 is filling a need by providing a platform for the 70-20 part of the equation.  I think this is all a good thing although formulaic adherence to the “rule” seems a bit silly.

  • Simulations and scenario-based learning

While web 2.0 and informal learning are dominating the e-learning zeitgeist some good old fashioned Web 1.0 ideas are making a comeback.  Simulations, Scenario-based learning and other forms of immersive e-learning have long been heralded as superior learning strategies that emphasize doing over telling.

Until recently they were technically and financially difficult to implement but recent templates, tools and creative thinking has brought them back to the table.  It’s hard to think of a management development e-learning solution that does not contain some form of scenario-based exercise. .

  • Virtual Worlds

I’m yet to be convinced of the real value Second Life based learning environments in organizational settings, but there’s no denying the inroads they are making.  There is lots of info out there.  Here are some links to an ASTD question of the month on Second Life/Virtual worlds.   Make up your own mind.  Don’t let your demographic get in the way .

  • Rapid Learning Tools

For better or for worse rapid e-learning tools continue to grow.  The popularity of blogs like the Rapid e-Learning Blog and others are a clear indicator.   There is truth to the argument that in the right hands highly effective learning can be created from the likes of Articulate, Adobe Connect and Lectora.  But more often than not they simply result in another PowerPoint with obligatory quiz.

  • Mobile Learning

Another “future” technology that is finally seeing its day.  Blackberry,  iPhone and other PDA’s are now more or less portable internet devices with  impressive media capabilities.  Both highly useful for mobile e-learning.  Larger organizations with mobile workforces are leveraging the capabilities for some interesting just-in-time training.   Here’s an interesting example from Sun from an earlier post.

  • Open source learning technologies and tools

Web 2.0 has had a democratizing effect on the web and it’s no different in the learning world.  Free and open source learning tools such as Moodle (LMS), Dokeos (authoring, LMS, (collaboration), NING (custom social networking ) DimDim (web meetings) and many others (Jane Hart’s e-leaning pick of the day is always a rich source)  are a growing alternative to proprietary tools.  The proprietary vendors  are taking note.  Microsoft recently offered it’s Learning Content Development System for free download.

  • Performance support

Is it just me or is electronic performance support making a comeback as a vehicle for informal learning.  If so,  I’m all for it.

What’s Not

  • Learning 1.0

Still the mainstream of e-learning.  Some can be very good, but budget realities and less than creative learning designs have resulted in a collective sigh of  “is that all there is?” by users who appreciate the convenience of e-learning 1.0 more than it’s quality.  (Senior management appreciates it cost savings more than its quality) Static pages turners, and linear assessment driven programs will soon see their day.

  • Learning Objects

If video killed the radio star then web 2.0 killed the learning object. It was a compelling concept that was difficult to implement and maintain,  not to mention that in the six or seven years it was “hot” nobody could land on a decent definition of a learning object.

Articles like this one started to appear a couple years ago.  Now people ask , as Gary Woodill did on a recent CSTD LMS panel, “does anyone talk about Learning Objects anymore”?.  I’ll admit, I still like the idea of knowledge and media objects that can be used in the context of learning, communication and performance support.  Objects a little further down the food chain than the a “learning object” are easier to implement and more truly re-usable.

  • Learning Management Systems

When LMS vendors introduced e-learning delivery and management to their bag of tricks they very effectively created an excitement around what used to be the boring administrative tasks of training and created an on-line home for all things learning.  Now everybody’s got one.  Not so exciting.

With notable exceptions, they have been slow to adopt Web 2.0 collaborative tools and when they have it’s been more of  an add-on to what is essentially a learning 1.0 environment.  As learning 2.0 starts to get more traction the LMS will either be replaced by other more open learning environments or evolve in that direction themselves.  Dan Pontefract at Training Wreck gets to the heart of it here:  The standalone LMS is Dead

Poor Scholar’s Soliloquy

Here’s an article written in 1944 by Stephan M. Cory (University of Chicago January 1944 edition of Childhood Education).   It is a classic satire written in the first person of a seventh grade student discussing his experiences in elementary school.

I think it’s a great example of the contrast of learning in rigid formal environments and learning in the context of meaningful problems and authentic tasks.   The focus is public education but it’s not a stretch to extend to classroom training in the workplace.


No, I’m not very good in school. This is my second year in the seventh grade, and I’m bigger and taller than the other kids. They like me all right, though, even if I don’t say much in the classroom, because outside I can tell them how to do a lot of things. They tag me around and that sort of makes up for what goes on in school.

I don’t know why the teachers don’t like me. They never have very much. Seems like they don’t think you know anything unless you can name the books it comes out of. I’ve got a lot of books in my room at home-books like Popular Science Mechanical Encyclopedia, and the Sears & Wards catalogues–but I don’t sit down and read them like they make us do in school. I use my books when I want to find something out, like whenever mom buys anything second-hand I look it up in Sears or Wards first and tell her if she’s getting stung or not. I can use the index in a hurry.

In school, though, we’ve got to learn whatever is in the book and I just can’t memorize the stuff. Last year I stayed after school every night for two weeks trying to learn the names of the presidents. Of course, I knew some of them–like Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln, but there must have been thirty altogether, and I never did get them straight. I’m not too sorry though, because the kids who learned the presidents had to turn right around and learn all the vice-presidents. I am taking the seventh grade over, but our teacher this year isn’t so interested in the names of the presidents. She has us trying to learn the names of all the great American inventors.

I guess I just can’t remember the names in history. Anyway, this year I’ve been trying to learn about trucks because my uncle owns three, and he says I can drive one when I’m sixteen. I already know the horsepower and number of forward and backward speeds of twenty-six American trucks, some of them Diesels, and I can spot each make a long way off. It’s funny how that Diesel works. I started to tell my teacher about it last Wednesday in science class when the pump we were using to make a vacuum in a bell jar got hot, but she, didn’t see what a Diesel engine had to do with our experiment on air pressure, so I just kept still. The kids seemed interested though. I took four of them around to my uncle’s garage after school, and we saw the mechanic, Gus, tear a big truck Diesel down. Boy does he know his stuff!

I’m not very good in geography either. They call it economic geography this year. We’ve been studying the imports and exports of Chile all week, but I couldn’t tell what they are. Maybe the reason is I had to miss school yesterday because my uncle took me and his big truck down and we brought almost 10 tons of livestock to the Chicago market.

He had told me where we were going, and I had to figure out the highways to take and also the mileage. He didn’t do anything but drive and turn where I told him to, Was that fun. I sat with a map in my lap, and told him to turn south, or southeast, or some other direction. We made seven stops, and drove over 500 miles round trip. I’m figuring now what his oil cost, and also the wear and tear on the truck–he calls it depreciation–so we’ll know how much we made.

I even write out all the bills and send letters to the farmers about what their pigs and beef cattle brought at the stockyards. I only made three mistakes in 17 letters last time, my aunt said, all commas. She’s been through high school and reads them over. I wish I could write school themes that way. The last one I had to write was on, “What a Daffodil Thinks of Spring,” and I just couldn’t get going.

I don’t do very well in school in arithmetic either. Seems I just can’t keep my mind on the problems. We had one the other day like this:

If a 57 foot telephone pole falls across a cement highway so that 17 3/6 feet extended from one side and 14 9/17 feet from the other how wide is the highway?

That seemed to me like an awfully silly way to get the width of a highway. I didn’t even try to answer it because it didn’t say whether the pole had fallen straight across or not.

Even in shop I don’t get very good grades. All of us kids made a broom holder and bookend this term, and mine were sloppy. I just couldn’t get interested. Mom doesn’t use a broom anymore with her vacuum cleaner, and all our books are in a bookcase with glass doors in the living room. Anyway, I wanted to make an end gate for my uncle’s trailer, but the shop teacher said that meant using metal and wood both, and I’d have to learn how to work with wood first. I didn’t see why, but I kept still and made a tie rack at school and the tail gate after school at my uncle’s garage. He said I saved him ten dollars.

Civics is hard for me, too. I’ve been staying after school trying to learn the “Articles of Confederation” for almost a week, because the teacher said we couldn’t be a good citizen unless we did. I really tried, though, because I want to be a good citizen. I did hate to stay after school because a bunch of boys from the south end of town have been cleaning up the old lot across from Taylor’s Machine Shop to make a playground out of it for the little kids from the Methodist home. I made the jungle gym from old pipe. We raised enough money collecting scrap this month to build a wire fence clear around the lot.

Dad says I can quit school when I am sixteen, and I am sort of anxious because there are a lot of things I have to learn–and as my uncle says, I’m not getting any younger.

10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work (part 4)

This is the fourth post in the 10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work series.   Organizational Learning Practices (Strategy #8) offers opportunities to build learning into day to day work.  The methods can help individuals, teams and entire organizations surface and understand patterns of behaviour that lead to sub par performance and to adopt more positive patterns to improve personal and organizational effectiveness


1. Understand the job
2. Link Learning to Business Process
3. Build a performance support system
4. Build a Community of Practice
5. Use social media to facilitate informal learning
6. Implement a Continuous Improvement framework
7. Use Action Learning
8. Organizational Learning practices
9. Design jobs for natural learning
10. Bring the job to learning

8. Organizational Learning Practices

Organizational Learning (OL) means different things to different people.  These days, it is often used as a catch-all label for traditional (formal) training which it most certainly is not.  OL is broader than that label implies.  It is usually focused on individual and team transformation through participating in tangible activities that change the way people conduct their work.   It builds new capacities in individuals and teams that collectively begin to shape the culture and performance of an organization.

Peter Senge in his groundbreaking book The Fifth Discipline defined his view of what those new capacities should be and in doing so launched the Organizational Learning movement.   The Fifth Discipline contains a collection of practices from system dynamics, organizational development and psychology that Senge organized into a cohesive whole structured around “five disciplines of organization learning”.

OL practices have grown and evolved beyond Senge’s framework but his still remains the most cohesive.  This post lists his five “disciplines” along with some guidelines for the learning professional to help their clients achieve them.  It’s important to remember that each of the five disciplines listed are considered a “lifelong body of study and practice” so none are meant to produce immediate impact,  but rather continuously move towards understanding and behaviour change that collectively shapes the organization.   Also, the sample exercises I list below are not self explanatory.  They are mostly drawn from “The Fifth Discipline FieldBook”, a great source for activities that ground the often esoteric ideas in the Fifth Discipline.  See that source for further details.

Personal Mastery

Personal Mastery, the first of the five disciplines is effectively the skills of personal effectiveness–defining and accomplishing personal vision.

Learning professionals and facilitators can guide individuals through the process of identifying and clarifying a personal vision, realistically assessing it against the current state, and help individuals to understand and manage the creative tension between the two.  The goal is to help people make better choices, and to achieve more of the results that they have chosen.

Sample exercises:

  • Drawing Forth Personal Vision: An exercise to surface, define and clarify individual purpose and goals.
  • Cycling Back: Current Reality and Revisions: An exercise to continuously define, monitor and act on barriers to achieving the vision.

Mental Models

Mental Models are ingrained assumptions and ways of thinking held by individuals and organizations.  Adjusting mental models can lead to breakthroughs in personal and organizational performance.  Learning professionals can help their clients improve how they govern their actions and decisions through the skills of reflection and inquiry and develop an heightened awareness of the attitudes and perceptions that influence thought and interaction.

Sample exercises:

  • The Left Hand Column: An exercise developed by Chris Argyris in which individuals record “what they were thinking” vs. “what was said” during important conversations.  Analysis of the result helps to surface and confront existing attitudes and assumptions (mental models).
  • The Wheel of Multiple Perspectives: Rotating roles to widen a team’s perspective and see issues from as many vantage points as possible.

Shared Vision

This is the practice of collective vision and mutual purpose vs. the individual vision of personal mastery. Management and professional networks can be guided through activities to create a common vision of the future they wish to create and the methods and means they that will most effectively get them there. In doing so meaning is created and relationships strengthened.

Sample exercises:

  • What Do We Want to Create?: Guide your team through a series of structured questions that bring pertinent issues to the forefront and results results phrases, ideas and governing ideas around which a vision can be built.
  • Backing Into a Vision: A great exercise for surfacing common goals without taking on a full fledged visioning process.

Team Learning

The skilled practice of group interaction and collaboration.  Through techniques like dialogue and skillful discussion, teams modify their problem solving, collaboration and interaction to produce results that are greater than the sum of individual members.  Team Learning is not team building although a more cohesive team is usually a result.  Instead as a facilitator you want to focus on improved dialogue and team discussion skills.

Sample exercises:

  • Fishbowl: To get immediate feedback on communication styles. Half the team discusses and issue while the other half watches and provides constructive feedback.
  • Undiscussables: A card game in which people can anonymously raise questions that never get raised.

Systems Thinking

System Thinking is “the fifth discipline” and it is my personal favorite.  Over the years I have found many ways to use systems thinking to help clients and understand my own work practices.   The systems perspective is a powerful conceptual framework that allows teams to understand deep inter-dependencies and forces that shape the consequences of actions. Tools and techniques such as systems archetypes, feedback loops, and various types of learning simulations help people see how to change systems more effectively.

Senge’s view of systems is more about surfacing predictable patterns and outcomes of human behaviour and decisions as contrasted with the (equally powerful) view of organizations as systems that process inputs to valued customer outputs.   Senges “systems archetypes” help teams understand their problems in system dynamics terms and “see” the underlying patterns that are causing their problems.

Sample Activities:

click to view

Shifting the Burden Archetype: click to view

  • Organization and Process Mapping: Documenting and analyzing an organization as a system to identify disconnects and problems and to re-design for improved effectiveness
  • Problems as System Archetypes: Help clients examine problem situation in terms of typical combinations of feedback (reinforcing and balancing).
  • Breaking Through Organizational Gridlock: A seven step systems exercise based on Senge’s “shifting the burden” archetype

Organizational Learning Technology

Some learning technology solutions have emerged that support the Organizational Learning methods described above.  The most interesting are the use of the system archetypes to develop management simulations.

  • Decision Support Systems based on system archetypes
  • Generic management learning simulators to help managers understand the underlying system archetypes.  For example the beer game is a role-play supply chain simulation that lets learners experience typical supply chain problems based on systems theory principles.
  • Software to support system modeling of organizational behaviour and dynamics.  For example STELLA, iThink and Powersim
  • See this example for how simulations based on organizational system dynamics can be used for management training

There is room for much more work in the use of system modeling for training and learning purposes.


Organization Learning (like organizational development) has been considered a sister profession to Learning and Performance.   I’ve seen some situations where the units compete and as a result sub-optimize their services to the organization.  As Learning and Performance begins to adopt more informal and non-formal learning solutions there is much to learn from organizational learning and development and the potential for overlap increases.   I think it makes sense to consider a combined business unit that provides service in the full range performance improvement solutions.

Learn more:

Society for Organizational Learning

Peter Senge and the Learning Organization

Learning for a Change: Fast Company Magazine interview with Peter Senge

The Learning Organization

Peter Senge will be a Keynote presenter at the Canadian Society for Training and Development (CSTD) annual conference this year in October (in Toronto).  See here for conference details

Posts in the “10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work” series:

Part 1:

  • Strategy 1:  Understand the job
  • Strategy 2:  Link Learning to business process
  • Strategy 3:  Build a performance support system

Part 2:

  • Strategy 4:  Build a community of practice
  • Strategy 5:  Use social media to facilitate informal learning

Part 3:

  • Strategy 6:  Implement a continuous improvement framework
  • Strategy 7:  Use action learning

Part 4:

  • Strategy 8:  Use Organizational Learning practices

Part 5:

  • Strategy 9:  Design jobs for natural learning
  • Strategy 10:  Bring the job to the learning

10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work (part 3)

This post continues the Ten Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work series.   Last post I discussed communities of practice and social media, two strategies focused on collaboration and networks where learning and knowledge are a natural byproduct.  This post shifts focus to how structured problem solving and Action Learning approaches can intimately wed learning with working.   I’ll discuss strategies 6 and 7 from the list.  Each uses problems and work tasks as the subject matter for learning, reflection and behaviour change.


1. Understand the job
2. Link Learning to Business Process
3. Build a performance support system
4. Build a community of Practice
5. Use social media to facilitate informal learning
6. Implement a Continuous Improvement framework
7. Use Action learning
8. Organizational learning Tools
9. Design Jobs for natural learning
10. Bring the job to learning

6. Implement a Continuous Improvement Framework

Continuous Improvement Frameworks seem to come and go in waves  (TQM, Six-Sigma, Lean, process re-design and others).  There are many reasons why these programs endure or fail that are beyond discussion in this post but when they succeed natural learning is a key outcome and success factor.

Continuous Improvement methods (at least those originating in Japan…and most do) are based on the concept of Kaizen.   Kaizen is essentially the discipline of making planned changes to work methods, observing the results, making adjustments and standardizing on the improvements–repeated continuously in a pursuit minimizing errors and improving quality.   When applied to the improvement of work methods it mixes personal learning, productivity and innovation.

Kaizen methodology includes making changes, observing results, then adjusting and standardizing the improvements.  Changing, reflecting on feedback, adjusting behaviour…this is the stuff of personal learning.  When applied to work methods it mixes personal and work based learning to the benefit of both.

Brian Joiner in Fourth Generation Management (an excellent resource on management practices grounded in continuous improvement) identifies learning as both a foundation and important outcome of continuous improvement methods.  He states:

Together with an understanding of the links between quality and productivity and of systems thinking, rapid learning [through continuous improvement] helps to create a foundation for translating theory into effective action.  Rapid Learning is the best survival skill we can grow in our organizations”

Kaizen is essentially the Scientific Method  built into jobs and workflow.  W. Edwards Deming translated the method to the Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle that is at the heart of the Toyota system and most Quality approaches since the 1950’s .

The PDCA cycle is as much a natural learning cycle as it is a work improvement methodology.  But it is the “check” step that is the real driver of learning.  It requires a meaningful measurement and feedback system.  Without it improvement is nearly impossible.

Joiner again:

“Performing a check is something few organizations do regularly or well. Instead they execute the plan and do…with an emphasis on DO!…what many people think of as decision making.  By getting conscientious about check, by treating decisions as experiments from which we must learn, we get all the components of PDCA to fall into place.”

Here is a video which I’ve posted before that nicely summarizes the natural learning driven by Kaizen methods.   The presenter Matthew May was a senior consultant to the university of Toyota and his this presentation is based on his book The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation.

7. Use Action Learning for management and professional development

Action Learning is essentially the PDCA cycle applied to personal effectiveness.   Personal Kaizen if you will.  It involves teams or individuals learning from experience.   Again the emphasis is on observing results from action and making adjustments.  Action learning is very popular in the UK and is growing in North America for management and professional teams that want to use real work as vehicles to learn more effective practcies.

The method has many variations but the general process as described by the World Institute for Action Learning is based on six important components. They are:

1. A Problem (project, challenge, opportunity, issue or task)
The problem should be urgent and significant and should be the responsibility of the team to resolve

2. An Action Learning group or team.
Ideally composed of 4-8 people who examine an organizational problem that has no easily identifiable solution.

3. A process of insightful questioning and reflection
Action Learning tackles problems through a process of first asking questions to clarify the exact nature of the problem, reflecting and identifying possible solutions, and only then taking action. Questions build group dialogue and cohesiveness, generate innovative and systems thinking, and enhance learning results.

4. An action taken on the problem
There is no real meaningful or practical learning until action is taken and reflected on. Action Learning requires that the group be able to take action on the problem it is addressing. If the group makes recommendations only, it loses its energy, creativity and commitment.

5. A commitment to learning
Solving an organizational problem provides immediate, short-term benefits to the company. The greater, longer-term multiplier benefits, however, are the learnings gained by each group member and the group as a whole, as well as how those learnings are applied on a systems-wide basis throughout the organization.

6. An Action Learning coach
The Action Learning coach helps the team members reflect on both what they are learning and how they are solving problems. The coach enables group members to reflect on how they listen, how they may have reframed the problem, how they give each other feedback, how they are planning and working, and what assumptions may be shaping their beliefs and actions. The Action Leaning coach also helps the team focus on what they are achieving, what they are finding difficult, what processes they are employing, and the implications of these processes.

You can see the how the process builds on the natural cycle of taking action on a problem, observing and monitoring the consequences and impact of the actions, making adjustments and trying again.  Action learning works because it integrates learning and work.  It brings immediate meaning and context learning while improving real time performance.

  • Solve Complex Urgent Problems
  • Develop Skilled Leaders
  • Quickly build high performance teams
  • Transform Corporate Culture
  • Create Learning Organizations

This video provides an overview and some examples of Action Learning at work.


The strategies of Continuous Improvement and Action learning are two sides of the same coin.  Both are based on the natural cycle of acting, observing and reflecting on feedback and adjusting behaviour based on results.  Continuous improvement is focused on improving process and work methods with learning as a byproduct and Action learning is focused on personal learning with business improvement as a byproduct.

Posts in the “10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work” series:

Part 1:

  • Strategy 1:  Understand the job
  • Strategy 2:  Link Learning to business process
  • Strategy 3:  Build a performance support system

Part 2:

  • Strategy 4:  Build a community of practice
  • Strategy 5:  Use social media to facilitate informal learning

Part 3:

  • Strategy 6:  Implement a continuous improvement framework
  • Strategy 7:  Use action learning

Part 4:

  • Strategy 8:  Use Organizational Learning practices

Part 5:

  • Strategy 9:  Design jobs for natural learning
  • Strategy 10:  Bring the job to the learning