Become a ‘meta’ L&D manager

21st Aug 2009
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Today’s organisational turmoil is more than just a temporary downturn. The implications will be long-term and significant, calling on L&D professionals to rethink how they approach their work, says Jay Cross and Clark Quinn.

The scope of the L&D officer’s job is mushrooming. They will neither prosper, nor even survive, if they fail to take responsibility for the overall learning process in their organisations. Here’s why, and what to do about it.

If you’re looking for a way to weather the economic downturn, be aware that this is a permanent climate change, not a passing storm. Most of the time, the global economy is cyclical. It has its ups and downs, but the underlying pattern remains the same. A swing in one direction is balanced by a swing in the other. But what we are experiencing today is fundamental. Things are not going to return to where they were, for we are witnessing the birth of a new world order. We’re moving toward continuous change.

Three hundred years ago, the steam engine replaced manual labour, and industrialists built factories for manufacturing and canals to open up trade. People migrated from farms to cities. Clock-watching replaced working to the rhythm of the sun. Repetitive, mindless factory labour replaced working holistically with nature. Taking orders replaced thinking for oneself. Slums were born. Times were chaotic, but eventually, people harnessed electricity, laid rails, rationalised production and created the unprecedented material wealth we enjoy today.

As we move from the industrial age to the era of networks, once again humanity is in turmoil. Yesterday’s bedrock is today’s soup. Businesses, governments and citizens are becoming densely interconnected. The denser the connections, the faster the cycle time of the networks. Everything is relative because we all depend upon one another. The past no longer mirrors the future. Survivors will be those who learn to deal with surprises as they arrive. The industrial age ended with what we call the ‘Golden Age of Training.’

"Have you taken charge of learning for your organisation, or just training?"

Training was born in the early 20th century and is likely on its last legs. Companies are focused on sustainability. Staying alive is more important than quarterly earnings. This is a wonderful opportunity for experimentation on a grand scale. For the moment, companies can invest in longer-term projects without being penalised by financial markets that overemphasise the short term. Organisations must seize the opportunity to change while things are in flux. It’s time for them to leap from current conditions to the brave new world of the future.

Crossing a chasm takes a bold leap; baby steps won’t get you to the other side. Getting to the future will require innovation, luck and perseverance, but that’s the price of staying alive. This big-picture, longer-term viewpoint is meta-learning, and we L&D officers need to become meta L&D managers.

The view from the balcony

Your charter as head of L&D is to optimise learning throughout the organisation, not just in the pockets that once belonged to HR. This takes a broader perspective than what you deal with day-to-day. You’ve got to rise above the noise to see the underlying patterns and then optimise them.

Take a deep breath, clear your head and join us in walking up the steps to a metaphorical balcony. In the plaza below, people are working, talking, gossiping, bragging, coaching, bargaining, learning, competing and playing, as people who get together are wont to do. Among the crowd you can spot colleagues, employees, customers, stakeholders, partners and prospects, as well as total strangers. Groups form and dissipate. News sweeps through the throng. Some people enter the plaza; others depart. All the while, people in and outside of your organisation are talking with one another and learning: Problem solving, collaborating, innovating. Of course, most learning happens outside the classroom.

On a table alongside your vantage point lies an array of spyglasses, lenses, prisms, telescopes, X-ray glasses, infrared scopes, night-vision goggles, lorgnettes, 4-D glasses and wide-angle binoculars. Each lens provides a selective view of what’s going on in the organisation’s learning plaza below. Pick up the anthropologist’s spyglass to examine the behaviour in your workplace. Are people sharing information or hoarding it? Are they learning as part of their work, or is learning a separate activity unto itself? Are people treating one another with respect and honesty, or are they playing politics and posturing? Are they taking time for reflection, or are they so busy they only live in the moment? Are they experimenting and taking risks or are they doggedly following the rules? Are people working collaboratively, or are they doing things in isolation?

Now let’s look through the ‘network connection-sniffing’ scope at the quality of learning connections. Is conversation across departments free and easy or hampered by artificial boundaries? Is it easy for people to connect with people in the know? Can people instantly get their hands on the information required to do their jobs? Do our networks route around failure? Are mistakes tolerated and even encouraged? Does everyone have opportunities to learn, or just people new to their jobs? Do all stakeholders have high-quality connections to the organisation?

Take a look through the Web 2.0 lens to focus on the use of collaborative technology. Are people using instant messaging, background profiles, locator systems, social networks, news sources, search engines and multimedia resources that are as good as or superior to what they are accustomed to in their homes? Can workers interact directly with customers? Are discoveries recorded and shared with one another and documented for future use?

"Training was born in the early 20th century and is likely on its last legs. Companies are focused on sustainability: Staying alive is more important than quarterly earnings."

Do workers have blogs or other means to express themselves? Are workers trusted to view YouTube videos, speak for the organisation and access the entire Web? Now pick up the informal learning magnifier. Are there comfortable places for people to talk? Is informal collaboration encouraged? Are workers intrinsically motivated to learn and increase their professionalism, or are they waiting for the next class or workshop? Are people learning from observing others, generating or grasping nifty graphics, and reflecting on experience? Are people with common professional interests hanging out together, helping each other get better at their thing? Is any of this activity nurtured by the head of L&D or is informal learning left to happenstance? Do you see coaches, mentors, scribes, stewards, gardeners and learning ecosystem architects from the organisation improving the learning process?

Put on the learning skills spectacles and look at your people. Are they efficient in their learning? Are they wasting time on poorly structured searches? Do they mistakenly trust the information they find instead of analysing it? Are they connecting to the right people, or whoever is closest? Are they communicating clearly and interpreting data effectively? Do they re-represent problems, and are they applying useful problem-solving approaches?

Feel free to grab any lens from the table. Look at your organisation from the big-picture level. Are people helping one another learn? Are they fulfilled in their work? Are they smiling? Are they having a good time? Are they committed? Are they bringing innovation to the organisation? Are they ‘being all they can be?’ Is this sufficient to get your company across the chasm? Before you descend the steps back into the fray of business as usual, take a moment to ponder whether you’re doing all you can to create a great environment for learning for the people down in the plaza. Visualise what the view of an effective organisation would look like. Taking a meta-learning viewpoint will increase your organisation’s odds of sustainability in tough times and of prosperity in great ones.

Close the training department

Let’s begin thinking about the role of the head of L&D by clearing the slate. Imagine the training department didn’t exist. Tear up the org chart and rethink what needs to be done. If you were starting from scratch, what functions would you create? Be careful here, for the ever-faster pace of change and the inherent unpredictability of our complex world render old-style training, which focused on past practice, obsolete.

‘Execution’ isn’t the operative word; ‘innovation’ is. You need to concentrate on learning as problem-solving, collaborating to take advantage of new situations and having the connections to deal with novel situations. These are the tools needed to survive and thrive. Paint a scenario of what the new world will look like, and work backward to discover what it takes to get there. Involve stakeholders because breaking through to the other side is a group effort. You’ve got to go through the scenario planning with your people to co-create a vision you believe in.

Here are some of the characteristics we see. In business, networks supplement, surround and challenge hierarchies. Sound vision and leadership will inspire, not control, workers. Managers, workers, customers and partners will recognise we’re all in this together. Organisations are going to have to be more flexible, more nimble, be able to adapt and move faster. That requires faster and more effective problem solving. We know innovation isn’t the product of one person, but of collaboration and ongoing work by people who are motivated and supported.

In work itself, rote tasks are being automated, and knowledge work is what creates value. According to Dan Pink in his book A Whole New Mind, the greatest value is born of contributions that integrate left- and right-brain skills to be creative and capable. Furthermore, most knowledge work is boss-less, challenging the worker to make decisions on the spot. This takes knowing how to learn and who to turn to rather than trying to figure out things in advance.

"Can people instantly get their hands on the information required to do their jobs? Do our networks route around failure? Are mistakes tolerated and even encouraged?"

In essence, it requires learning on demand. Corporate culture is becoming more participatory. Authenticity, transparency, sharing, experimentation, peer power and togetherness are what it takes to succeed in a networked environment. As the tendrils of communications networks slither through silos and corporate boundaries, network values become the default organisational values. Cisco, which lives and breathes networks, is an example of baking network values into a corporate culture. Instructional designers will become rangers who nurture learning ecologies instead of planters who live for one crop but disappear after the first harvest.

Learning design will shift its gaze from events to processes; from helping people acquire skills to helping them participate in ongoing inquiry; and from focusing on explicit, top-down lessons to helping people gain the tacit knowledge to learn on their feet. Technology enables networks, but the major changes in store are not about the technology.

Our challenge, according to Yochai Benkler in his article ‘Complexity and Humanity,’ is “to build systems that will allow us to be largely free to inquire, experiment, learn and communicate, that will encourage us to cooperate, and that will avoid the worst of what human beings are capable of, and elicit what is best.” Here’s a test: In your organisation, can individuals admit mistakes? If they can’t, they keep making the same ones. Yet, you can’t celebrate mistakes, so what do you do? It’s OK to lose, if you don’t lose the lesson. The head of L&D needs to know where the organisation is headed before deciding how to get there. Does this picture ring true for your organisation? Is this where you’re headed? If not, we encourage you to shape up a scenario that does.

Assess Opportunities for Process Improvement

Is your organisation’s approach to learning sustainable? Are your people learning enough to work in concert and create the future company you want to be associated with? How do your efforts stack up against those of your peers in major corporations? These are not easy questions to answer. That’s the way it is when civilization makes tectonic changes. Ask yourself if your organisation looks at learning as an opportunity or a cost. How far ahead do you look when making decisions about corporate learning?

Do you invest in helping your workers learn to learn? Learn to teach? Have you taken charge of learning for your organisation, or just training?

Jay Cross is an expert on informal learning and CEO of Internet Time Group and Clark Quinn is executive director of Quinnovation.

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