Over the past decade, the story of enterprise learning has increasingly been dominated by an emphasis on the “learning” part and a de-emphasis on the “enterprise” part. It’s like an adaptation of the famous line from President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: Ask not what training experiences your organization can give to you, but what learning and knowledge you can give to your organization.
But the move to bottom-up learning is no easy evolution. It’s not an either-or situation. Increasingly, conversations among learning executives are dominated by the discussion of balance: When does a company need to speak and when does it need to listen?
Fortunately, there’s a certain type of learner that eases these challenges, emerging spontaneously within the workforces of many companies. They’re what we call “superlearners.” Unusually self-reliant and media-savvy, superlearners are leading the way for their companies by exemplifying the attributes, learning behaviors and collaboration-based activities needed to win in this current era of never-ending change.
But superlearners also present some challenges of their own to companies. They’re more apt to become frustrated and leave the organization. They challenge accepted ways of doing things; they have no great love for authority and may flout the rules. Yet harnessing their energy and the manner in which they multiply the availability and value of knowledge across the enterprise will increasingly become a task for enterprise learning executives.
What Is a Superlearner?
Superlearners exhibit a number of characteristics that can be readily observed and even measured by management. They are generally highly self-directed, persistent, group-oriented and media-savvy.
These characteristics cross all age groups and types of workers, whether white collar, blue collar or administrative. Indeed, this universality is an especially important aspect of the superlearner concept: It moves executives and their organizations beyond the overly facile belief that only younger, Gen Y employees exhibit social and independent learning behaviors.
“What’s important is to see that this learning and performance style crosses all age, gender and geographical groups,” said Allison Anderson, manager of learning and development at Intel. “It also crosses job functions and different types of employees, from factory workers to executives to researchers to HR employees.”
Superlearner behaviors are good for organizations, but they’re also good — and increasingly essential — for individuals themselves. People who take initiative in their own learning acquire knowledge more deeply and permanently than those who don’t. And, given how rapidly the nature of work and the workplace is changing, all successful employees will need to adopt at least some superlearner behaviors.
Determining Their Own Flight Path
Superlearners are self-reliant and self-directed. They have the ability to learn with minimal guidance, from just about any method, any time they want. Superlearners “do not wait for the organization to serve up conventional methods for learning opportunities,” said Pablo Gaito, vice president of learning and development for food and agricultural producer Cargill. “They proactively seek channels inside and outside the organization to feed their need to learn more than is being taught.”
It would be easy enough to say that the challenge most organizations face in dealing with this kind of self-directed learner is traditional employee training, which is often associated with monolithic and non-engaging experiences that encourage dependency rather than individual motivation. The truth, however, is more subtle. Yes, many organizations still struggle to rise above passive, classroom-based approaches to learning. However, the issue is more about matching learning experiences and teaching styles with the changing needs of superlearners in different contexts.
Strong, self-directed learners are aware not only of the times when they can go it alone when it comes to knowledge acquisition, but also when they need guidance and direction — that is, when they need to become, for a time, dependent learners, more reliant on top-down direction. For learning executives, then, the key is to avoid mismatches. One such mismatch is applying overly directive learning experiences to employees in situations where action and independence is called for. Another mismatch occurs when overly open and non-directive environments are provided in situations when more explicit direction is actually necessary and beneficial.
According to Fred Mednick, founder of the organization Teachers Without Borders, which focuses on the worldwide development of teachers at the local level, an exclusive diet of directive learning isn’t the answer. On the other hand, he said, “Workforce learning that jumps to the other extreme — unlimited freedom, unfettered creativity, unbridled enthusiasm for every idea, no matter what its value — is just plain bad teaching.” Mednick said that one of the values of superlearners is that they find, and then help others find, “a sweet spot of learning and performance that balances independence and obligation; creativity and grunt work; and enthusiasm and skepticism.”
Like a Speeding Locomotive
It is the persistence of superlearners in finding solutions to problems that makes them especially valuable to organizations. According to Julie Dervin, director of business partnerships in learning and development for Cargill, superlearners are those who, when met with challenge or disappointment, “quickly distill the lesson to be carried forward that will make them more effective in future situations. Their capacity for learning remains open and fluid, not closed and constrained by mental models shaped by the past.”
As superlearners experiment, try and succeed — or as they fail and move on to other approaches — they often invent new processes or other innovations that can result in business advantage if identified and effectively harnessed.
If superlearners were simply smart people who “got” things quicker than their peers, their impact would be limited. It’s the organizational value of superlearners that makes them worth identifying and nurturing, not merely their personal intelligence and resourcefulness. Translating individual insights into corporate ones is a distinctive feature of superlearners. They build powerful collaboration networks and know-how to leverage the intelligence or collective brainpower of their organizations.
“Superlearners at Cargill apply their learning to advance the goals and priorities of their team, function and organization,” Gaito said. “These employees usually set themselves apart not only because of their personal skills, but because of their propensity for adding greater value to the organization.”
Taking the self-directed energy of superlearners and translating that into corporate energy is one of the leadership challenges for learning executives.
According to Andrew Wolff, educational methods leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers, superlearners can be disruptive if their efforts appear to advance merely their own agenda. “Sometimes superlearners can be hyper-engaged, driving conversations only where they want to go,” Wolff said. “If other self-directed learners are present as well, or if you have a skilled instructor who can manage these dynamics, superlearners can increase the quality of a course and pull other participants’ interactions up to a higher level. When this isn’t the case, their behavior can become distracting and frustrating for others.”
Media Restrictions = Kryptonite
Superlearners live in a continuous state of media interaction: Internet, TV, smart phones, online games, virtual worlds, social networks, e-mail, instant messages, blogs, wikis, MP3 players — the list goes on.
Because of the wide range of technologies available to them in their everyday lives, superlearners are often unhappy with work technology and feel that too many restrictions are placed on the use of public sources of information at work. At many organizations, superlearners are blocked from accessing sites such as Facebook and YouTube or from using instant messaging. The problem with such an approach is that when you put the superlearner’s characteristics of self-direction and persistence up against restrictive access rules, many superlearners ultimately find ways to get around company platforms, policies and firewalls to use public sites to conduct business.
As these media-savvy learners begin to exert more influence in the workplace, CLOs will have to find a way to adapt policies and procedures to accommodate the use of public sites without putting the company at undue risk.
Hanging On to the Cape
Based on experience and research, here are some ways learning executives and management teams can begin to harness the power of their organization’s superlearners.
Begin to screen for superlearners both in the hiring process and within the organization. It is possible to identify people with a proclivity for independent learning, a capability that can increase the impact of superlearners as their numbers within the organization increase. Tools such as academic Lucy M. Guglielmino’s Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale can help measure an individual’s predilection for self-direction in learning.
At Cargill, some formal methods of identifying superlearners within the company are already in place. These include talent calibration discussions, performance evaluations and reviews and development planning discussions. Karen Story, North America learning and development manager for Cargill, said, “Engaged managers not only know who their superlearners are, but they know how to leverage them to create value for the organization.”
Exercise leadership to move learners from dependent to self-directed. The needs and abilities of learners are not fixed and innate. It is possible for learners to mature and move from dependent states to self-motivated states, given the right kind of situational leadership. Gerald O. Grow, a professor at Florida A&M University, has written that management and leadership styles need to be matched to an employee’s particular readiness to be more self-directed. According to Grow, a good manager chooses a mix of directiveness and personal interaction, or “socioemotional support,” that helps employees complete the tasks at hand while also becoming more self-managing.
Design learning experiences that combine the structured and the unstructured. According to Wolff, one of the dangers of learning design today is trying to formalize interaction-based learning — trying to “formalize the informal,” as he puts it. These new platforms get built, he said, but sometimes no one comes.
“Instead, try to design activity-based learning opportunities that are structured enough for learners to complete them successfully, but unstructured enough to allow for social interactions and the tapping of existing knowledge, experience and social relationships,” Wolff said. “In other words, focus more on designing interactions and less on dictating specific delivery platforms. Let learners interact with each other on their own terms and using their own preferred means, whether that’s telephone, e-mail, messaging or the latest social networking tool.”
Design particular roles or programs for superlearners. In addition to encouraging forums and networks from which superlearners can make greater contributions to the organization, some leading companies are looking more specifically at how to help the enterprise by helping superlearners advance their skills.
Flying Over Mere Mortals
Superlearners are leading the way toward new approaches for dealing with dramatic change. In this way, they are helping organizations avoid the arteriosclerosis of a workforce trained extraordinarily well for a world that may exist only for a moment.
Sociologist Eric Hoffer once addressed this point by contrasting “learners” with “the learned.” “In a time of drastic change,” Hoffer wrote, “it is the learners who inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
Eric Davidove is a learning strategist, consultant, trusted adviser and connector. Craig Mindrum is a strategy, talent management and communications consultant and college professor with three decades of experience. Both can be reached at email@example.com.