What is learning’s role?

My colleague, Clark Quinn, in Building a Performance Ecosystem states that the benefits of maximum information for people to get work done, combined with minium barriers to achieve their work goals, are good for the entire organization. “When they [workers] can get the resources they need and the right people to assist when necessary, the performance benefits are obvious.” Alignment is necessary.

Some of that alignment is missing between departmental silos though. While Clark says that “learning leaders” should step up to the challenge, there is also a strong need to get aligned with IT, marketing, and operations, to name a few. As Clark concludes:

By aligning the use of technology with business needs in this way, learning leaders are demonstrating the strategic contribution to the organization that the executive suite wants to see. Failing to grasp the opportunity at this inflection point in business operations has a grim prospect. Folks know they can learn on their own and together. If learning leaders don’t get in and facilitate the full learning spectrum, it will happen without them. Then, just what is learning’s role?

What is learning’s role? First of all, in the network era, a coherent organization is one in which learning is no longer a specialty. Much as writing was no longer a specialty when the majority of workers became literate, learning today is more than putting an X in a checkbox. Work is learning and learning is the work. I may have said this many times before but it is the essential change in how we must view knowledge-intensive and creative work in a networked environment.

Learning is not something done to us, it is what we do together. Learning delivery in a constantly changing work environment is an outdated notion. For example, training courses are artifacts of a time when information was scarce and connections were few. It is glaringly obvious in this time of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity that we can get pretty well any information we need whenever we want it. To make sense of this, we need network era literacies, and with these new literacies we no longer need the equivalent of learning scribes. Pulling informal learning, instead of having formal instruction pushed to workers, has to become the workplace norm. By norm, I do not mean something bolted on to a course or some function of an LMS. I mean integrated into the daily work flow.

Learning together is part of collaborating to get things done while also cooperating in order to participate in knowledge networks. “Strictly business” is less frequently the case in our lives, as our work/life boundaries get fuzzier. Meanwhile the work/learning boundaries also get fuzzier. We no longer limit our learning to classrooms, training centres, workstations, or our official company mobile devices. In this environment, we cannot leave the direction of our learning to a “learning professional”. If today’s learning professionals want to remain relevant in the coherent organization, then they need to participate in collaborative and cooperative work/learning flows. This will be a sea change for the training & development profession, but I am certain it will happen with our without their participation.

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8 Responses to “What is learning’s role?”

  1. Ara Ohanian

    Harold, you’re right that how we learn within organizations and the role of the training learning department within organizations have both changed dramatically. You’re also absolutely right that this change cannot be accommodated by bolting on some extra practices for technology. Learning is crucial to organizations today and will only succeed when it is integrated so deeply into the workflow that much of the time people don’t think of themselves as learning even when they are. Technology is a crucial part of this and we have to ensure that L&D professionals are able to make the best use of it to support all learning not only to deliver training.

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  2. Donald H Taylor

    Harold, a great follow-up to yesterday’s post. As someone deeply concerned to see the growth of our profession, I completely agree with your close:

    “…today’s learning professionals want to remain relevant in the coherent organization, then they need to participate in collaborative and cooperative work/learning flows. This will be a sea change for the training & development profession, but I am certain it will happen with our without their participation.”

    This is not to say that our existing skill sets are defunct. They will still be needed, even though the role of formal interventions and expertly crafted content will diminish over time, but we have undoubtedly moved from an era when knowledge was power to one where information is free, and the L&D profession has not yet totally caught onto this.

    We need to evolve and grow, and play a greater role in our organizations. The opportunity is there for us. The alternative that you spell out is clear, too. It’s going to happen anyway. If we don’t get involved we’ll be left sidelined and largely irrelevant.

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  3. Jon Husband

    I think knowledge is still power, Donald … it’s just that exercising it is taking on different ‘forms and shapes’ … I think now it depends to a greater extent than before who has access to the knowledge, when and why .. or where it (the K) ‘goes’ when it has been created, deployed and used.

    It’s interesting to me that interconnectedness has led us, I think, into a paradox. The more that information flows and ‘knowledge’ is accessible and has some degree of transparency applied to its use, the more difficult it is for many of us to be able to discern what is really knowledge versus what is information (false or true) put into ‘packages’ that look like and may seem to be knowledge.

    Free information has no value or power whatsoever, other than the fact that it is there and available. The social constructs applied to it are what gives it value and power … in the past turning it into critical knowledge which was guarded and used by those in power. How they used it was often one of the key factors in retaining power. Today, increasingly the fact that ‘knowledge’ can be and is built and used ‘horizontally’ or in various directions and ways changes or has significant impact on the power equation. Which is, I think, why we hear more and more about leaders in an hierarchy needing to engage and listen. This is becoming the ‘new’ way of acquiring and using power .. attending to flows of information and knowledge and the people who are generating it and demonstrating understanding and action that includes that understanding.

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  4. Charles Jennings

    You hit the nail on the head with this statement, Harold:

    ..”if today’s learning professionals want to remain relevant in the coherent organization, then they need to participate in collaborative and cooperative work/learning flows.”

    Donald (above) makes the point that existing L&D skills are not defunct. I believe that’s correct, but only to an extent, in the same way that carriage-making skills were not entirely defunct with the arrival of the motor car. Some carriage makers extended and adapted their skill-sets to meet the new challenges of building horseless carriages, others took their tools and became cabinet-makers.

    The function of the learning professional as a designer, developer and deliverer of content packaged into courses and events is fast becoming only a small part of the role. Of course, structured courses and programmes still have a place, but the whole is so much larger than that. Learning professionals need new skills and capabilities to overlay existing ones as the latter become less relevant.

    What are these new skills required to facilitate and support collaborative and co-operative work in a coherent organisation?

    For a start there are some core capabilities and skills – critical thinking, creative thinking, communication, analytic, networking, business, financial and, of course, people skills. Then there is a tranche of domain-specific capabilities and skills.

    How do we best acquire all these capabilities and skills? Through experience and exposure. By rolling up sleeves, working with business stakeholders, identifying opportunities and participating in the value creation process. By helping nurture collaborative networks, by encouraging curation and sharing activities such as internal blogging and storytelling, by supporting ways to develop an organisational culture where reflective practice is the norm, by guiding coaching and mentoring activities in all their forms …… and in many other ways.

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  5. Donald H Taylor

    Jon, fair comment. I’ve been too glib with my rhetoric. As you say “The social constructs applied to [information] are what gives it value and power … in the past turning it into critical knowledge which was guarded and used by those in power. How they used it was often one of the key factors in retaining power…”

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  6. Tom Clearwaters

    A term I’ve heard used, most recently at the CSTD conference in Toronto last week, was that of curator. It was presented that learning professionals need to become curators of information. As other responders have commented, information is everywhere and so I would also submit that one of the skills needed is that of curator. Being able to pull relevant information together and present it in an easily accessible manner will become more important. Of course this involves other skills already mentioned such as critical thinking and analysis as well as understanding of learning and learners.

    Great post and discussion!

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