What would happen if you called for closing your training department in favor of a new function? Imagine telling senior management that you were shuttering the classrooms in favor of peer-to-peer learning. You’re redeploying training staff as mentors, coaches, and facilitators who work on improving core business processes, strengthening relationships with customers, and cutting costs. You’re going to shift the focus to creativity, innovation, and helping people perform better, faster, cheaper. You might want to give it a try. Perhaps the time has come.
This is how Jay Cross and I finished our article on The Future of the Training Department. We showed that in complex environments, which more of us face each day, only emergent practices are effective, as backward-looking “good practices” are inadequate. Training is a method based on good practices and best practices. We establish our performance objectives based on an understanding of what we want to achieve, usually engaging subject matter experts to help us. But what if nobody knows how to do or even describe our future roles and tasks? That is the challenge for training managers in preparing workers to face complex problems.
According to Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, sense can be made in complex environments by 1) first probing through some action and then 2) sensing to understand what is happening and 3) finally responding based on what you have learned. Think of it as launching a new Web service. First it goes up as a Beta site and people join and use the services. Through their actions they give feedback; implicit and explicit. An effective strategy is to tap the feedback and actions of users and revise the service. Sometimes it is a radical change that is needed, such as when Flickr (now owned by Yahoo!) changed its early business focus from online gaming to photo sharing. In other cases it is a minor change, like accepting the use of the “@” symbol as a way of sending replies in Twitter. On the Web, and in complexity, it’s – Ready, Fire, Aim, Re-aim. I call it Life in Beta.
A key understanding about complex environments is that they cannot be planned for. Certain skills can be developed in preparation for dealing with complexity but it is just as important to have systems in place that support workers in dealing with complexity. Shifting the main effort of the training department from content delivery to connecting and communicating is needed. That means pushing learning development tools to all workers. Everyone is now a subject matter expert at some point in time. Workers need to develop practices so that they can easily capture, find and share emerging practices. Web tools like social bookmarks, feed readers, blogs, and wikis can help (See Jane Hart’s 25 Tools for Learning Professionals). The training department not only needs to teach how to use these tools but has to mine current practices as they evolve. Sense-making and pattern recognition become core skills for training specialists as they continuously develop new tools and processes based on emerging practices. Working in complex environments requires constant recalibration of methods and practices. There is no status quo.
In complex work environments we may need more coaches and facilitators but they will have to be as close to the work as possible. Standing back with a non-practitioner’s perspective will not help those doing the work. New roles such as “coach-as-co-worker” or “facilitator-peer” may emerge in this environment. As has already happened in this late industrial age, mid-level managers will become more redundant unless they can can do more than just manage. Who wants to hire a knowledge worker, as more of us are becoming, who still needs to be managed?