Orangutans watch, listen and experiment. So should your employees. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
Learning is so easy even a monkey can do it.
OK, that’s an overstatement. Not a monkey but definitely an orangutan. That fuzzy orange guy absently munching away on a fruit in that tree? He’s the Stephen Hawking of primates.
That’s no joke. Orangutans are an intellectual class of their own in the animal kingdom. While quantum physics isn’t their specialty, they are serious learners and compulsive tinkerers. Give them a problem and they solve it. More importantly, they share what they did.
But orangutans are more than just a simian learning novelty. For overstimulated learners and chief learning officers swimming in complexity, they are a reminder of how beautifully simple learning is.
Like their human cousins, some orangs are handier than others. They’re out in the forest digging up ants with sticks and bending and breaking branches to build orangu-hammocks.
Researchers have observed them making hats and umbrellas out of leaves and building bridges over deep water using nothing but vines and saplings. When orphans are cared for by humans, they learn a host of new things like how to use saws and hammers and wash clothes.
The most surprising part? They learn to do all that without direct instruction. They work it out by watching, waiting and experimenting. Sounds familiar, right? Learning has happened in that simple way since, quite literally, before the dawn of recorded time.
That’s not to say learning hasn’t changed. Enterprise learning has never been more complex. It is fragmented and segmented among specialties, cluttered with tools and technologies and flooded with content.
Some jobs require years of intensive academic or technical training while at the same time the shelf life of knowledge shrinks at a faster pace. Employees and the learning departments that serve them struggle and fail to ride the information wave.
New technologies also have a profound effect on how we learn. We’ve been able to innovate at an exponential rate and bring more classes and content to more people.
But more often than not, we fixate on cool new features, adding more but rarely subtracting. We create complexity at the expense of what could be learning’s greatest advantage: radical simplicity.
When e-learning debuted, prognosticators peered into their crystal ball and saw a future where legions of learners intently studied computer screens instead of blankly staring at a teacher. Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, promised to take it even further, upending traditional university education as a quaint anachronism in a world where the best courses and instructors could be available to all.
Facebook, Twitter and social networking technology promised to make the world our teacher and connect us with one another like never before. Cool new educational games promised to turn skill development into something as simple and addictive as a game of “Candy Crush.”
The forecasters weren’t all wrong. Employees are indeed tweeting, Yammering, Instagramming and Chattering like never before. Knowledge seekers are indeed signing up for MOOCs in droves, and games and simulations are impressing learning professionals with high engagement and solid results.
But more often than not, new tech features and functionality add complexity without adding value. What gets lost is the fact that learning is really a simple thing — and that technology should help rather than hinder.
Our orangutan cousins are a useful reminder. They watch, they listen and they experiment. And they share.
Like humans and just a few other animals, orangutans pass knowledge along. They teach one another new behaviors and pass it to the next generation. For orangs, just like humans, learning is a social activity.
Technology doesn’t fundamentally transform or replace that social role. It amplifies it. We now have the ability to record what we’ve learned in a number of meaningful ways and broadcast it more widely than ever.
Let’s see a monkey do that.