By combining the power of the human brain with technology in a way that facilitates work, collaboration and communication, leaders can turn learning into multifaceted performance support.
by Clark Quinn
October 23, 2012
The competitive landscape is more dynamic than ever, and the defining success factors have shifted. Things are moving faster, and organizations have to be more nimble, responding to changes in their audiences, competitors and the context of work. Survival requires continual innovation, and at the core is learning faster than everyone else.
Former Thomson Reuters CLO Charles Jennings highlights the 70:20:10 framework for thinking about organizational learning: 10 percent of what we need to know to do our jobs comes from courses, 20 percent from mentoring or coaching, and 70 percent is learned on the job through independent initiative. Most of the effort in organizations has been focused on formal courses, but technology has generated new options, including facilitated mentoring and coaching, self-directed learning and collaborative learning.
Lots of the opportunities to improve come through the network, through the people we learn with and from. Social knowledge management consultant Harold Jarche suggests there are multiple layers, from collaborating in work teams, to collective learning in communities of practice, to cooperative learning with peers and friends in our networks (Figure 1). Learning leaders should facilitate this learning to optimize outcomes.
The Coherent Organization
This is called the coherent organization. A coherent organization is one with a seamless segue from formal to informal learning, where individuals are aligned with the organizational mission and information flows from outside to in and back out again in ways that accelerate work. Accomplishing this requires both cultural and technological support.
There is much written about the cultural aspects of the workplace needed to make that happen. It has to be safe to contribute or people won’t participate, diverse viewpoints must be sought, new ideas must be accepted, and there must be time for reflection. Leaders are also trying to figure out how to create an infrastructure to augment the organizational culture and support formal, performance support and social learning.
Among the opportunities to support individuals and groups in performing, some are individual, such as job aids, and some are social. Allison Anderson, learning strategist for the enterprise talent organization at Intel, said her people “need, want and have asked for two simple things: one, small, short bits of information that hover as close to their work as absolutely possible and two, people they can talk to. Most broadly successful is our social computing platform.”
The goal is to support the full suite of needs. Dan Pontefract, head of learning and collaboration at Telus, has gone beyond courses to include coaching and job aids, micro-blogging, community forums, instant messaging and virtual worlds. “I wish more leaders in the talent space looked at performance support as a holistic necessity; not as a sage on the stage-only strategy,” he said.
The performance ecosystem is a suite of resources aligned for the individual. Learning leaders want tools aligned to work so the individual does not have to switch contexts and mindsets to accomplish a task, and instead has resources — informational, interactive, and interpersonal — available when and where needed, organized by the learner’s goals, not the organizational hierarchy.
The Performance Ecosystem
Optimizing performance is about matching technology support to the ways employees naturally work. Human brains are good at pattern matching and extracting meaning, and bad at rote performance and keeping complex intermediate steps in mind. Further, thinking together is far more powerful than thinking alone; Steven Berlin Johnson and Keith Sawyer have separately debunked the myth of individual innovation in their books, Where Good Ideas Come From, and Group Genius, respectively.
Digital technologies are the exact opposite. They can perform by rote flawlessly, can store essentially limitless intermediate steps, and connect individuals to communicate and collaborate independent of geographic or chronological limitations.
By combining the human brain with digital technology, employees become more formidable than either alone. There has been significant progress finding individual ways to use technology to facilitate work. It’s time for the next step, to couple individual solutions into a coherent workscape, which Jay Cross identified in his book Informal Learning.
The necessary components of such an environment are well determined. Formal learning still has a place, as does asynchronous e-learning. But learning leaders should go further to break down the barrier between formal learning and the workplace.
When possible, augment formal learning with social learning, segueing from courses to the appropriate community of practice. Leaders get better outcomes if they work with employees to create meaning. Also, there should be a continuum from instructionally designed content to content provided by other individuals in the organization. When the local expert in a particular piece of software can do a quick screen capture of how he or she does things, or the sales expert can provide a sample pitch to a particular market client, dis-intermediating the designer can be more efficient and just as effective. In some instances, the learning units can make improvements, but this becomes a facilitation and curation role, not a control model.
Performance support, whether it’s static, interactive job aids or appropriate information, is also valuable. Trying to put too much knowledge in the head doesn’t work. Information can and should be “in the world.” Designing useful resources and making them accessible via portals organized by need and not organizational structure promotes more effective performance.
The social learning environment is another component. Not only should people be coaching and mentoring, communicating and collaborating, they need to continually tap into broader changes in the market and their professional fields, self-developing as they go along. Focusing on performance means recognizing and responding to all the ways people are effective in doing their work. They need mechanisms for cooperation and collaboration, not just communication.
In the long term, the communities will take over responsibility for learning. “The role of the workplace learning professional is therefore no longer about being a training manager but being a learning community manager,” said workplace learning consultant Jane Hart.
Integrate and Measure the Environment
Underpinning these complementary components of formal learning, performance support and an online community is an integrated system. What’s needed is a tool suite that integrates tools behind the scenes to create a seamless experience at the performer interface.
This doesn’t necessarily mean a one-size-fits-all platform. Compare the Swiss Army knife with a full suite of kitchen tools. The benefits of an integrated solution, with all the pieces working together, is offset by being locked into solutions, and typically having one element or another not up to the necessary capabilities. More advanced notions of content, such as comprehensively annotated models and rule-driven delivery (see sidebar on page 21), are typically not seen in most course management systems, and social media is still rare around content engines. Yet both of these elements are important.
This pays off when a delivery environment is no longer confined to the desktop. Mobile is already here, and bring your own device is increasingly popular. Learning leaders need to address mobile as a platform, not a tactic. They face increasing demands and needs for delivery on pocketable devices, and tablets with real value propositions they will want to capitalize on, which requires a strategic approach.
As a strategic solution, pay serious attention to the investment business case. The benefits are tangible across the board, but learning leaders have to be clear about what’s on offer. The picture is richer than just ROI. While the benefit of formal learning does have a role here, it pays to get more sophisticated than costs per seat time. Tie execution to organizational outcomes, and ensure that learning actually has an impact on business metrics. Get familiar with Kirkpatrick’s levels 3 and 4.
This holds true for performance support and social learning as well. For performance support, be able to get concrete about the savings from reduced time to finding answers, and the benefits of generating more solutions per time. Similarly, by providing mechanisms for people to collaborate better, leaders can expect outcomes such as more product ideas generated or new problems solved faster.
There are intangibles that come along, too. If people are empowered to work, there are benefits to workplace satisfaction and employee retention. Such a system also can provide a mechanism to address the problem of knowledge retirement, naturally capturing tacit knowledge from experienced workers.
Learning leaders will have to go beyond the usual approaches, however, to start looking at activity and contributions in an environment, using tools such as Web analytics and the more traditional approaches of control groups and correlations.
The benefits are clear: when folks have maximal information about what they’re expected to do, and minimal barriers to achieve their goals, the organization succeeds. When they can get the resources they need and the right people to assist when necessary, the performance benefits are obvious.
The solution includes aligning the culture, but ultimately learning leaders will want a fully optimized technology environment to address those who are learning to perform, are performing or are developing new ways to perform. It’s aligning the tools to the task, to allow alignment of workers to the goals and information to the point of need.
The responsibility can and should belong to the learning organization. While they’ll need to partner with IT and the business units, the folks who know how people perform should be in charge of the conceptual architecture. But if learning leaders don’t take it, IT or the business units will because it’s clear it’s needed.
By aligning the use of technology with business needs in this way, learning leaders are demonstrating the strategic contribution to the organization that the executive suite wants to see. Failing to grasp the opportunity at this inflection point in business operations has a grim prospect. Folks know they can learn on their own and together. If learning leaders don’t get in and facilitate the full learning spectrum, it will happen without them. Then, just what is learning’s role?
Clark Quinn is a senior director of interaction and mobile at the Internet Time Alliance consultancy. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.