The process of learning isn’t changing, but the way we deliver and enhance it at an enterprisewide level is. CLOs must rethink their organizational role to benefit from the rise of informal learning.
“There is probably no more important organizational attribute today than adaptability. In our topsy-turvy world, every organization is teetering on the brink of irrelevance, and unless it can change as fast as change itself, it will soon tumble off the edge.”
That’s according to management educator Gary Hamel, ranked as the No. 1 most influential business thinker in the world by the Wall Street Journal. He contends that to survive, organizations must find a way to make innovation everyone’s job and inspire extraordinary accomplishments from within the workforce. This is the new organizational context.
The process of learning on an individual level itself is not changing. Adults will continue to learn as they always have. What is changing dramatically is the organization’s ability to enable, extend and enhance learning on an enterprise level. This change requires not just incremental improvement in the efficiency and effectiveness but exponential change — a transformation in thinking. For CLOs, what used to be “learning to work” has become “learning is the work.”
Masters of the Rubik’s Cube
Six key imperatives dominate the minds of CLOs: align with the business; demonstrate overall value; prove the effectiveness of solutions; innovate; show return on investment; and leverage technology. They are under constant pressure while they strive to balance and prioritize them, and they do not have the luxury of time.
“CLOs really are working a Rubik’s Cube, not playing a simple game of tic-tac-toe,” said Marcia Conner, vice president of social media firm Pistachio Consulting and a former enterprise learning executive.
As CLOs work their enterprise Rubik’s Cube, the most powerful variable they can control is how they leverage the technologies that are available today and on the horizon. According to digital culture expert Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, “Technology is how human minds explore the space of possibilities. What technology brings to us … is that it increases our options and possibilities.”
Recent research from ASTD and i4cp, Bersin & Associates and Knowledge Advisors indicates organizations are looking to informal learning as the next big thing. Some estimates even indicate that 70 to 80 percent of all learning in organizations is already informal, depending on the definition used. According to the 2008 ASTD research report “Tapping the Potential of Informal Learning,” “over half of the survey respondents (56 percent) predicted that the use of informal learning as a proportion of all learning at their organizations will increase over the next three years, 40 percent believed it would stay the same and only 4 percent said it would decrease.”
But what is the informal learning they are talking about? The truth is, it doesn’t matter. We’ve been down this road before, focusing first on the what rather than the why. We should know better by now.
“I never use the term ‘informal learning’ in my work environment,” said KarieWillyerd, CLO of Sun and creator of Sun’s Social Learning Exchange (SLX), which is quoted in the research and used as an example of successful informal learning. “The terms ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ learning are really inadequate. I use the language my organization understands — leverage the power of social media, user-generated content and open content development — to describe how I will solve their specific problem.”
The first question to ask isn’t what kinds of topics are well suited for informal learning or if informal learning should be formalized. The first question to ask is: What are the most critical business problems? Is the sales organization inundated with new products to sell and support and no time to learn? Are the skills and knowledge the engineers require only in the heads of a few other engineers, and they work out of offices around the world? Is the knowledge necessary for innovation around new products evolving so quickly that there is no time to research, design, develop and deliver known learning solutions?
Once there is a clear understanding of the business problem, spelled out in the language of the business, then it’s time to tackle what part of this problem can be addressed through learning. Are there new skills and competencies required? Or is there a need for better sharing of and access to information and knowledge? This consideration then leads to the question of how to create a solution to the problem today that is different than before. And, finally, to the questions: What will success look like to the business (not through the eyes of Kirkpatrick) and how will the business measure this success?
The Next Dimension
In mathematics, a line represented by the connection of two points is one dimensional. But, when a third point is added, it creates a two-dimensional plane representing space and opportunity. Now is the time to envision enterprise learning as a two-dimensional space, defined by an ever-expanding array of approaches and technologies that can be formed into effective solutions that bring substantial value to the organization, rather than a linear, one-dimensional continuum between two end points: formal and informal.
In 2009, the economy was in trouble, and Toshiba America Business Solutions (TABS) was not immune. The company was downsizing and restructuring, while at the same time needing to leverage internal knowledge and expertise to innovate and improve ability to win business. With a new vice president in place providing support, this was an opportunity to explore an alternative to the typical formal approaches TABS used in the past.
In just four months, a cross-functional team of 10 researched, designed, developed and launched Toshiba eXCHANGE, TABS’s internal social business network. The network is the online source for finding and exchanging sales information, building professional relationships and sharing sales success. There are three elements essential to its success:
1. People. The community members who have the skills, knowledge and information.
2. Technology. The tools, such as forums, blogs, chats and videos, to share and exchange information.
3. Content. Knowledge, information, opinions, thoughts, ideas, answers and best practices that make it possible to break down silos and knowledge vacuums.
Results are already significant. In the first four months, more than 2,000 users are participating in 124 online communities. There have been 17,519 visits and 213,239 page views since launch, with an average 146 visits per day. Users have created 52 groups and six active projects, opened 848 discussions with 31,107 views (an average of 37 views per discussion) and 1,904 replies. Network users also have uploaded 322 documents that have received 5,262 views (an average of 16 views per document); added 227 blog posts with 5,233 views (an average of 23 views per blog post); and posted 115 videos with 1,443 views (an average of 12 views per video).
Leveraging Collective Knowledge Sharing
Learning and innovation are critical to the success of biotechnology company Genentech’s drive to bring new and better medicines to patients. The company’s challenges are many, including deploying better ways to generate, cross-pollinate and build on ideas as they form; enabling their many experts who want to contribute to self-organize effectively and efficiently; creating a space for sharing diverse approaches, ideas, styles and perspectives; and pushing out into the organization the context and information necessary for effective decision making.
To meet these challenges, Genentech developed a combination of interactive learning methodologies, such as open spaces, dialogue, games and sites, and online community platforms based on Web 2.0 technologies, including social networks, micro-blogging tools, alumni and mentoring communities, and Google sites and docs. One example is Genepool, Genentech’s social networking platform and online workplace community.
Managers use Genepool to vote for topics they want to discuss; learning professionals use it to plan companywide learning events and archive their discussions and decisions as they work; trainers link it to gLearn, the corporate LMS; and employees use it to engage with the content before, during and after the event.
Corporate learning and development uses it to launch one-time, large events open to all employees as well as repeated events for specific groups. All employees use it to connect with peers in the communities that form as needed around a business issue. One of the oldest communities is for new employees and is a couple of years old, while the newest is for all managers and is just a couple of months old.
In eight months, there were more than 680,000 page views, including comments on blogs, replies to discussion topics, and edits to wikis, and there were approximately 4,000 unique visitors each month. This usage data indicates that Genepool is popular, useful and valuable. There also is soft data gleaned from surveys and feedback from management that points to increased employee engagement and management visibility.
Engineering How to Teach Engineers
What do you do if you are already the world leader in your industry and yet must continue to grow and innovate by attracting and nurturing the best and brightest employees, wherever they are, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year? Imagine if these employees are too busy for anything but the most compelling engagements, such as a visit by the president, are completely committed to using their own tools and need to know things only a few others know.
That describes Google, whose company mission is quite simply to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, and the challenges the tech company faces in supporting engineers, who comprise about 50 percent of the company’s employees.
EngEDU, Google’s engineering learning platform, enables the engineering community itself to design, develop and deliver consistent quality learning based on needs they define, with minimal external guidance and support, in a time frame, depth and scale that a centralized function could not handle. Using the platform, engineers are guided through a process to select the best learning formats based on variables such as content, audience and objectives. They are then able to input the necessary content into these formats, add labels so others can easily find it and, finally, store and distribute the finished learning activity. Using the labels, Googlers, the internal name for Google employees, can then easily find the learning they need using Google’s proprietary technologies and access it wherever they are and whenever they need it — and be assured that it comes from a reliable source.
Since these are the experts, it is not feasible to have a centralized organization evaluate and approve the content. So community rating and recommendations are used. The metrics that Google cares about most — the number of engineers using the platform and the growth of the repository of learning content — are both trending to prove the value of the platform.
Poets and Prophets
As CLOs grapple with their role as architects in creating this next dimension of enterprise learning for their organization, they should look to the wisdom of Frank Lloyd Wright, one of America’s greatest architects.
In talking about the role of the architect, Wright said, “The architect must be a prophet … a prophet in the true sense of the term … if he can’t see at least 10 years ahead, don’t call him an architect.” CLOs must spend the time, devote the resources and support the people within their organizations who are exploring what’s on the horizon.
“Every great architect is necessarily a great poet. He must be a great original interpreter of his time, his day, his age,” Wright said. As such, CLOs must take the lead in helping their own organizations to understand, interpret and apply the thinking and mindsets, norms and behaviors, and culture and trends of the world around them. Now is the time for the creation of bold visions for enterprise learning that resonate with the very heart and soul of the organization, based on the world of today and tomorrow, not yesterday.