Learning “How” and Learning “What”

Fueled by Technology, there have been many step changes in the evolution of thinking about how to deliver learning. From Learning to e-Learning, from e-Learning to Blended Learning, and now – thanks to Jay Cross’s contribution – from formal learning to informal learning.

There have been many studies on where people learn. Most of this seems to be regressing a mean of 80%. That is, 80% of where people learned to do their job effectively was leaned “on-the job.” I’m hoping that Will Talheimer will take these on to see if there is actually empirical evidence behind the claims as he did in debunking the “read, see, do myth.” My sense is though, that this meme will stick and hold up to academic scrutiny.

The thing that I really like about Jay’s work, and others like Carnevale before him, is that he emphasizes the huge imbalance in learning investment between formal and informal learning. There are many reasons for this…we know how to do formal learning so in uncertain times we go reptilian and invest in what we know, we are unclear as to what to invest in informal learning because it does not have a form factor we are familiar with (i.e. the class) etc….

The outcome is clear though….we are investing more in the place where learning happens least and in so doing we are leaving the informal learning to chance.

As I mulled on this situation today it struck me that all of these step changes have been focused on how learning is delivered and consumed. I’m thinking there’s another, perhaps more important, step change transformation is in dire need of attention…one that focuses on the “what” and the “why” of learning rather than on the “how” and the “where.”

I wonder if we don’t also need a similar positive evolution in our thinking about what kind of learning we should be focused on providing. Arguably, the purpose of the learning function is to support the strategy of the business that it serves. The prevailing mantra of most organizations today revolves around innovation, services and growth. If we are asked the question what percentage of your portfolio focuses on new service development, enabling innovation and driving revenue growing revenue…what percentage would you say?

If we fall into the trap of positioning the next learning breakthrough as the next step in “how” learning will be delivered and “where” it will be consumed as opposed to answering “What” kind of learning can this technology enable and “Why” it will deliver a fundamentally different learning value proposition, then we have missed the point and we will, in fact, unwittingly contribute to its demise.

This observation raises many complications. While it may be true that most learning happens outside the classroom. I think it is just as important to to understand what kind of learning is going on within that context. If we wanted to invoke something like David Merrill’s taxonomy we could start arguing that concepts (i.e. gravity) are best learned in a classroom, especially if it is important that they be committed to long term memory (i.e. Red Hexagon means stop in drivers Ed), but that procedural content is best learned as you go (i.e. NeverLost is a great tool to teach you how to get from LaGuardia to Armonk…do it a few times and you learned while you were not looking).

But my thinking is that we need to come at this from a fundamentally different perspective. I believe (thanks to Peter Drucker) that there are two kinds of learning: (1) Teaching people how to do things we know how to do, (2) Creating environments where we leverage people to develop new ideas and concepts that are new to the world or solve problems that we have never encountered before.

The first kind of learning focuses on productivity. It is about propagating efficiency memes throughout the corporation to reduce the unpredictability of those pesky humans who just won’t do everything the right way ….and won’t do it the same way every time. We must acknowledge that this kind of learning focuses on the denominator. It is about productivity…about wringing the last red cent out of every process, technology and person possible. In the end, I believe that workflow learning will be the technology that optimizes around this productivity. The goal is to get everyone in the organization to regress to the mean of optimal productivity in work activity. That is what workflow learning is all about. Performance Support on steroids with a presentation layer enabled by portal technology that renders obsolete the dysfunctional interfaces for each discrete application and actually renders a useful work context for the worker to productive and learn as they go. So, from my perspective at least, the productivity side of the equation will be optimized by Workflow Learning

The second kind of learning is all about looking for growth. Growth comes from innovation and insight into the market that competitors have not yet seen. This insight emerges from connecting networks of individuals and helping them develop a collective point of view on the future that none of them could have come up with individually. It is social, it is emergent it is fast and it is delicate. Most importantly it is very DIFFERENT than traditional training. There is definitely learning going on in both contexts but in the productive context the focus is mostly on the individual and on getting that individual to adopt a pattern of behavior that improves productivity. In the innovative context the learning is co-produced and co-consumed. It is then double-looped and synthesized. Shared meaning and insights are developed and these insights are a key source of future value for the organization. To me the, face-to-face (or avatar to avatar) social interaction component of learning needs to be leveraged for this kind of generative learning. What workflow gives us back in face-time…we need to invest in social learning to drive business growth.

Where do we start if we want to look at managing both the What and the How of learning in a more strategic way?

Potential Answer
Like everything else, you gotta begin where you are at ; ) I’d build a two-by-two and start mapping my existing portfolio. On one axis is the How (Informal versus Formal) on the other is the What (Innovation versus Productivity).

I’d tag existing content by cell (Informal+Innovation, Informal+Productivity, Formal+Innovation, Formal+Productivity). Anything that is operation, product, process focused would fall into the productivity domain. Anything that is about emerging markets, technologies, business models would fall into the innovation domain. Then I’d tag how these learning offerings are delivered today. Formal is anything that is classroom, e or blended. Informal is anything else that we know of.

This exercise would, most likely demonstrate that not only are we placing most investment on the formal side, as Jay has suggested, but my bet is that it would also demonstrate that the majority of the content that we offer has to do with productivity and not innovation. So, not only are we over investing in one how option we are also investing primarily in learning that is destined to maintain the status quo rather than challenging it. Today executives don’t want stagnation they want transformation, they don’t want isolation, they want globalization, they don’t want productivity they want growth.

I believe that learning that is centered around innovation has a very different form factor and theoretical underpinning than learning that is centered around productivity. With productive learning we are trying to solve for the most efficient way to teach workers how to be more efficient. Training, e-learning, blended learning and workflow learning are all modalities that fit this context.

Fall into the routinization trap and you’d be tempted to apply these same approaches to driving growth and innovation. To me this is somewhat akin to trying to play tennis with a golf club…the training tools and technologies we use to teach people what we know how to do are not suited to the reality of creating creative spaces where groups of people co-create and refine insights around a problem or opportunity that generate value to the firm.

In short, if our answer for meeting the executive’s needs for the longer term strategic needs of the firm: Innovaiton, Globalization, Transformation, Services Business Models, Organic Revenue Growth etc. is that we teach everyone Ed DeBono’s Six Hats via the web…we are in trouble. Generative learning is parasitic. I needs a host. It needs context and it needs human intuition baked into the process of sensemaking. Furthermore, it is already happening all around us but as is the case in informal learning we have chosen to leave it to chance.

When we talk of making the informal formal, I believe we collectively view this from a training perspective. “How do people teach themselves and how do we bottle that and get everyone else on that same pattern.” This is indeed a breakthrough approach to thinking about how we advance the cause of productive learning. However, if we are truly to think about connecting the grey matter in our firms around growth and innovation, I believe the better questions would be:

    How did our last last ten star products/services come about?

    What was the process that enabled individuals to come togegher and co-create insights and prototypes that led to the product or service?

    What norms or interactive working styles did they employ?

    How did they go about filling a knowledge or skill gap (individually and collectively)?

    How many options did they collectively see and how did they decide which options to pursue?

    How did they know when they really had something that would be a game changer?

    Are there common patterns across these individuals and groups of individuals in terms of how they learn individually and from each other?

The challenge then would be to create a CONTEXT that has built into it the AFFORDANCES that support innovative work. Add to that a skilled facilitator (preferably someone who has been through this…an innovation catalyst if you will) and a learning historian so the learning function/ethnographer can get exponentially smarter about how innovation happens and what it would take to propagate the meme throughout the enterprise and we’d most likely be on a path that gets us closer to that ever illusive seat at the table.

Final Musings (Typing without Thinking)
Increasing the efficiency with which we train people to work efficiently is a necessary role for every learning organization. From a business perspective though, it is not one that will earn learning a seat at the executive table. On average learning represents 2% of payroll. Take all the technology in the world to improve training efficiency…assume that you make a 100% improvement and all you return to the business is 1% of payroll. While this number, by itself, may be rather large…it pales in comparison to the desire that most executives have to see double digit growth.

We need to move beyond of the “Formal + Productivity” box and we need to do it soon. Strategically, I believe we can do so by:

    Rapidly applying performance differentiated analysis and worlflow learning to increase the efficiency with which we train people to be efficient at work

    Understand how people learn and co-create and define clearly what differentiates teams who have been successful in bringing double-digit products and services to market within your firm

    Use the face time you save in the Productivity + Formal cell to experiment with generative and social learning approaches in the Innovation+Informal cell

    Find what’s common that could be leveraged as a set of innovation affordances across the enterprise

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