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Charles Jennings

TULSER, 70:20:10 Institute, Duntroon Consultants


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Less is more: A different approach to L&D in a world awash with information


Charles Jennings argues that the adage 'access to knowledge is power' is more fitting in today's information-swamped world.

"In 2009, more data will be generated by individuals than in the entire history of mankind through 2008. Information overload is more serious than ever."

Andreas Weigend, former chief scientist at writing in the Harvard Business Review, May 2009

Andreas Weigend knows a thing to two about data and the social data revolution, about its impact on business and its role in information overload. In his job at Amazon he had to be smart about using information if he was to help his employer make best use of the vast volume of the stuff that was arriving in its data centres every few seconds.

Social data

Social data is information produced by anyone. Some originators may be acknowledged experts. Others may simply be passionate about a topic. Either way, the data they produce can provide significant value to others. Amazon has thrived on the back of contributions and recommendations by readers and purchasers. Early on the company found that users often trusted recommendations by other users more than they trusted promotional or 'expert' views. Weigend said "by enabling users to actively contribute such explicit data, succeeded in leveraging knowledge dormant in its large customer base to help customers with their purchasing decisions". 

"Being able to find just the right information or source of knowledge at the just right time in the just right context is far more useful than recalling something we’ve learned some time ago and hoping it is still relevant and 'right'."

Other organisations have used this collaborative knowledge sharing extremely effectively. Wikipedia created a transparent knowledge creation environment by allowing open discussion and online collaboration. Many other organisations have rebuilt their customer service models to encourage user communities to share knowledge about problems, issues and workarounds as they have found the 'wisdom of the crowds' better serves customers than a small, over-burdened customer help line.

But Weigend's world was not just about managing information, one of the base metals of knowledge. It was also about managing and connecting people, the caretakers of the gold. In fact it was primarily about connecting people - connecting people and helping them make their own connections between their data so it can be exchanged, made sense of in new contexts and some of it used to develop knowledge, skill and action, often in ways the originator had never thought of.

Implication for L&D: Less is more

So what are the implications of this tsunami of information on the way we go about training and development?

Firstly, every L&D professional needs to cast aside any belief that the more information and knowledge we have in our heads the better equipped we are to do our jobs or live our lives. It simply isn't true in today's world. The old adage 'knowledge is power' no longer sits comfortably in a world where information is swamping us and new knowledge is being generated and becoming obsolescent at rates never known before.

Access is power

Today, access to knowledge is power. And if this also means access to the person or people with the knowledge or the raw information, even better. Being able to find just the right information or source of knowledge at the just right time in the just right context is far more useful than recalling something we've learned some time ago and hoping it is still relevant and 'right'. With the increasing speeds of change and the ongoing knowledge explosion, what we learned three months ago is more likely to be out of date or simply wrong today than was the case even two or three years ago. We're living in exponential times.

Living with dynamic knowledge

As we continue to move from industrial to knowledge-based economies the half-life of much of the information that we use on a daily basis will continue to get shorter. The currency of most of the knowledge we use will have smaller and smaller windows of usefulness.

The implication of this trend for the current content-rich model of training and development that's used so widely today is really profound. In short, not only is less more, but in many cases nothing is better than any at all! That's a difficult pill for many L&D people to swallow.

"The message this sends for L&D is that our jobs as enablers of performance clearly need to change from being knowledge dispensers to becoming learning guides."

But think about it in practice. Is it better to get people to commit information to memory, knowing that it will be short-lived (and possibly out of date when they come to use it), or help them become skilled in the approaches and techniques to find the current, correct information quickly when they need it? Think for a few seconds and it is obvious that the second strategy is the better one. Teach people to fish rather than providing them with fish. What use is there in someone trying to remember their tax coding, when it may change two or three times in a year? Surely it's better simply knowing where to find the current (correct) coding when you need it. Having the metadata and the search skills is far more useful than memorising the detailed information in this and many other situations in the day-to-day pursuit of our work and life.

The message this sends for L&D is that our jobs as enablers of performance clearly need to change from being knowledge dispensers to becoming learning guides. Helping our colleagues navigate their way through information and mis-information. Through what is currently 'correct' and what may have been correct some time ago but isn't any more.

A new focus for training: Forget the ephemera and get down to core skills

L&D needs to move from providing detailed task-based information to helping people develop a core set of useful generic skills that will provide them with the tools to find, analyse and make decisions to act at the point in time they need to act.;

This is a very different world than one focused on producing modules, courses and curricula full of ephemeral information – detailed content that has a relatively short half-life and is unlikely to be remembered in any detail beyond a post-course assessment, even if to that point.

We need to remember Herman Ebbinghaus' findings from 1885 - 125 years ago - that on average we will forget about 50% of what we've 'learned' within 60 minutes if the information has no context and we don't have the opportunity to reinforce it through practice.

The core skills we need

So, what are the core skills we need to help people develop so they can operate in this ocean of information?

To be honest, I don't have a definitive list. But I think I know some of the capabilities L&D should focus on. If we help people develop these, at least they'll be on a solid footing to extract positive and practical use from the volumes of information they come across each day:

a. Search and 'find' skills
To find the right information when it's needed
b. Critical thinking skills
To extract meaning and significance
c. Creative thinking skills
To generate new ideas about, and ways of, using the information
d. Analytical skills
To visualise, articulate and solve complex problems and concepts, and make decisions that make sense based on the available information
e. Networking skills
To identify and build relationships with others who are potential sources of knowledge and expertise, within and outside the organisation
f. People skills
To build trust and productive relationships that are mutually beneficial for information sharing
g. Logic
To apply reason and argument to extract meaning and significance
h. A solid understanding of research methodology
To validate data and the underlying assumptions on which information and knowledge is based

Of course there will be other core context-focused skills that people need to learn. They will tend to be complex skills that need lots of guided practice to master.

However, that doesn't change the fact that, going forward, L&D will need to focus less on content and more on developing core capabilities and skills.

Charles Jennings was chief learning officer at Reuters and Thomson Reuters. He now works as an independent consultant on learning and performance helping organisations improve performance and reduce training costs. Details of Charles consultancy work and his blog can be found on his website

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Charles Jennings


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