The future is people, not technology
My last column called for the abolition of corporate training departments. Now some instructors and traditional instructional designers see me as a job threat. They needn’t worry. Enlightened e-learning requires more people, not fewer.
Ten years ago, venture capital firms issued lengthy reports explaining why e-learning would take the world by storm. Their underlying economic argument was cost-cutting: less travel, fewer facilities and no more salary expense for instructors. It was a classic industrial age proposition: Replace humans with machines. That first round of e-learning largely failed for precisely this reason. You can’t remove the humans from learning.
Companies should embrace network-supported informal learning because it works better, not because it reduces labor costs. People learn more efficiently at the time of need, in the context of work, from people in the know and through virtual conversation.
When my colleagues and I advocate cutting back on workshops and classes in favor of building “learnscapes,” we aren’t suggesting firing the instructors. Rather, we recommend redeploying them in new capacities, serving as connectors, wiki gardeners, internal publicists, news anchors and performance consultants.
There’s no cookie-cutter formula for assigning these new roles and responsibilities. An active community of practice is a different animal from a bottom-up knowledge management network or a corporate news channel. New communities have different requirements than old.
In their book Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities, Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John Smith describe different community orientations in terms of meetings, open-ended conversation, projects, content, access to expertise, relationships, individual participation, community cultivation and service context.
Digital Habitats posits the role of the community technology steward. Technology stewards are people with enough experience of the workings of a community to understand its technology needs and enough experience with technology to take leadership in addressing those needs.
A steward’s initial task is to shape a vision consistent with the community’s orientations. The steward then selects the simplest technology to advance the community as both the technology and the organization progress.
Digital Habitats also assigns these duties to the technology steward:
• Bringing new members up to speed with the community’s technology.
• Identifying and spreading good technology practices.
• Supporting community experimentation.
• Assuring continuity across technology disruptions.
• “Keeping the lights on” (including backups, permissions, vendor payments and domain registrations).
TogetherLearn’s Clark Quinn sees the need for a learnscape architect who nurtures the health of the learning network for collaboration, communication and learning opportunities. More a leader than a technician, the learnscape architect is the network champion who carries the vision, monitors metrics, promotes network participation and encourages continuous experimentation.
Mzinga’s Dave Wilkins describes several production roles. Producers manage the contributions of others, drawing out the best in them while also opting not to include contributions that aren’t as good. Moderators help ensure an environment of high trust by ensuring that people play by the rules. Expert moderators may vet the accuracy and clarity of information in their domains. Yet other moderators seed discussions to channel conversations in ways that might provide insight to the organization. Reporters and bloggers unearth what is newsworthy and document it for the community.
These tasks won’t happen by themselves. Furthermore, people throughout the organization will need to share the burden of helping everyone learn. Distributing learning throughout the social fabric of an organization requires storytellers, mentors, bloggers, community elders, schedulers and editors. We’re all in this together.
Some instructors will continue to instruct, but they will increasingly do so with network support and in smaller bursts. It’s a better use of their time. Face-to-face instruction packs a punch but is difficult to scale. Economics dictate that traditional instruction will play a diminishing role in corporate learning.
Traditional instructors and instructional designers are ideally suited to excel in these roles. They understand how adults learn and how to transform information into learning. It’s important for corporations to benefit from their learning people, not give them pink slips.