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Parkin Space: The Future of Learning


Godfrey ParkinThis week, much to his own surprise, Godfrey Parkin finds himself impressed by the learning practices of the US military and IBM. It's not a revolution, it's devolution.

I have just spent a couple of days at a small highly-focused symposium titled “Innovations in E-learning.” It was put together by the US Naval Education and Training Command and the Defence Acquisition University (DAU), who have among the best and brightest training minds that the American taxpayer’s money can buy. They are not short of budget, manpower, or technology, and they get to mess with lots of experimental stuff.

For several years now, training departments have been transfixed by the evolving internet in the same way that dinosaurs were probably awe-struck by the approaching comet. So what does the future hold? I’m happy to report that learning will thrive, but trainers will have to merge back into operational roles. Oh, and training departments are dead, at least as we know them. As are Learning Management Systems and any other relics of centralised distribution of learning. Learning that is informal, collaborative, contextual, real-time, and peer-generated, will be the mode of tomorrow.

It seems counter-intuitive that military types whose culture is defined by command and control hierarchies would advocate devolution of learning to the swab on the deck-plates or the grunt in the foxhole, but that was the gist of what was being said. Admittedly, it was being said by the civilian gurus who write their white papers for them. And devolution of learning does not necessarily mean relinquishing control – in fact there are some very scary big-brother systems being deployed that will tell anyone with access pretty much what any individual sailor anywhere in the world had for breakfast last Tuesday and, to five decimal places, what his or her competency rating is on any given skill.

Amongst the sessions was a real eye-opener from a VP at IBM. IBM used to be a blue-suit red-tie operation as monolithic as a bank, but it has been doing a lot of shape-shifting in recent years. These days any organisation that is unwilling or unable to do that is unlikely to be around very long. It’s Darwinian – those who can adapt most readily are most likely to survive in times of rapid change. IBM’s consulting wing, adrenalised a couple of years ago by their acquisition of Price-Waterhouse Coopers consulting, is doing what big consulting firms rarely do – they are advocating unique solutions that they don’t already have parked in a truck around the corner.

Here’s my quick version of the IBM line on “embedded” or workflow learning:

The most profound shift that will take place in training over the next three years is a movement away from traditional, formal, course-based learning (classroom or online) and towards clever integration into the workflow of learning-enabling tools like Instant Messaging and informal collaboration processes. As we move learning from its “separate service” role to a more integrated coal-face role, one of the biggest obstacles is the political question of who owns it. The other is the need for a deeply rooted culture of collaboration throughout the organisation.

A simple example of workflow learning in action: Tom in Finance gets an urgent request to authorise foreign travel funds for an executive. He learned how to do that in a training course last year, but has never needed to do it in practice, so he’s lost. The help system, typically, doesn’t. The FAQ gives no guidance either. So he sends out a broadcast Instant Message to a small group of SMEs and experienced practitioners asking for help.

So far this is not a lot different from “prairie dogging” – popping your head up above your cube divider and yelling “Does anyone know how to…” But here is where it gets interesting. Jill, an experienced practitioner in another city, responds to the message. She remotely takes control of Tom’s computer and talks to him as he watches her go through the steps on his screen. She identifies that the help system, the FAQ, and possibly the original training are inadequate, and updates the FAQ in wiki-like fashion.

Then she identifies a group of Tom’s peers who might benefit from knowing what Tom now knows, and sends them an announcement of a 10-minute webinar for later that week. During the webinar, she records the session, and saves it to the system where those who could not make it, or those who may encounter the problem in the future, can easily find and watch it. Then she notifies those responsible for basic training, and those responsible for the help system, that they might need to pay attention to the issue. Tom, in the meantime, evaluates the help he has received, and his ratings and comments get added to Jill’s profile for reference by future aid-seekers, and her management.

The technology is not complex, or even expensive. Most people have it on their computers already. Aspects of this are widely used already in e-commerce and e-customer support. Individuals already learn this way intuitively. What is hard is achieving the mindset and the culture that allows and encourages this to happen across an organisation.

There is nothing revolutionary in the IBM vision. If you have followed those who advocate informal learning and collaborative learning (and indeed many of my own rants), you will realise that the ideas are not new. But, for me, the amazing thing was to hear them coming from IBM. If Big Blue is advocating this approach, and is actively setting about trying to get it to work in its clients’ cultures as well as its own, then there is something serious going on. Workflow learning has moved from the drawing board to the boardroom. They say that in theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is. IBM is taking its theories on the road, and, in practice, is being taken seriously.

* Read more of Godfrey Parkin's columns here.


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