Wednesday 14 December 2011

Learning in Wonderland: the untapped potential of workplace learning

This is the first of three posts adapted from articles I have written for Inside Learning Technologies & Skills magazine. This article appeared in November 2011.  The second and third articles will be posted here a little while after they have been published in the magazine.

I’ve taken Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as a theme for the series. The illustrations here are Sir John Tenniel’s marvellous originals.

Why ‘Alice’ you may ask?

Well, the Alice story is all about growing up and developing and learning but at the same time seeing the world in very a different way. In Alice Carroll (Charles Dodgson in real life) also stretches imagination and gets the reader to think ‘out of the box’.

The Alice story is also about seeing some standard practices as rather silly and arbitrary and understanding that there are always alternatives in whatever you do.

Alice had to face the challenge of continual change and contradiction. The world was changing before her eyes at every turn and almost every encounter she had in Wonderland presented her with contradictions and contradictory characters. She could only navigate if she kept her wits about her at all times.

The three articles focus on strategies and practical steps that learning and development professionals can use to help extend learning beyond the classroom and into the workplace.

This first article looks at the changing world of work and the fact that workplace learning offers at least as much, if not more, than formal learning in developing workforce capability. It also looks at the skills Learning and Development professionals need to support workplace learning. The second article examines the 70:20:10 framework in some detail as a means of transforming organisational learning and ‘balancing’ formal and informal learning. The final article discussed the vital role of managers and why learning organisations need to forge strong links with their key stakeholders.

Down The Rabbit Hole

clip_image002‘What is the use of a book,’ thought Alice ‘without pictures or conversation?’

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit ran close by her.

There was nothing very remarkable in that; but when the Rabbit took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet…..

Many of us know the story. Alice, burned with curiosity, followed the White Rabbit across the field and down the rabbit-hole into a world where not only did she shrink to a fraction of her normal size but where her perceptions of ‘normal’ were continually challenged and nothing was quite as she had previously understood it.

Today’s world of work is very much like Alice’s rabbit-hole.

In the past 30 years nearly everything in our working world has changed. On the technical front first Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and then Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau have changed our world for ever. Together with the telecommunications revolution, the technical changes brought about by these and others forever broke the richness-reach trade-off[1]. We no longer had to opt for either richness in our working and learning environments or the ability to have great reach. We could have both. Time and geography became bit-players in our ability to reach our workers and help them find ways to develop the attitudes, behaviours, skills and capabilities they need to do their jobs well.

The technical revolution also released us to take responsibility for our own learning development. Although, of course, most of our learning has always occurred through our experiences and the opportunity to practice as well as through our conversations with others and the opportunity to reflect and improve the way we do things. Formal education has some impact, but it is in the minority in terms of real learning.

Learning From the Mock Turtle


‘I couldn't afford to learn it.’ said the Mock Turtle with a sigh. ‘I only took the regular course.’ ‘What was that?’ inquired Alice.

‘Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with,’ the Mock Turtle replied; ‘and then the different branches of Arithmetic – Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.’

‘And how many hours a day did you do lessons?’ Said Alice. ‘Ten hours the first day,’ said the Mock turtle: ‘nine the next, and so on.’ What a curious plan!’ exclaimed Alice. ‘that’s the reasons they’re called lessons’ the Gryphon remarked; ‘because they lessen from day to day.’

Just as the Mock Turtle’s curriculum and lesson planning seem strange and illogical to us, the communications and technology developments over the past 30 years have also seen off the old idea that learning is something that gets done in classes and through defined curricula. The information revolution has also seen off the idea that knowledge is power.

We need to continually remind ourselves that we are forging our lives and careers in the information age and an increasing number of us are knowledge workers. As such, we need to think about how we navigate the oceans of information. The problem that our forebears suffered, a lack of information, has been turned on its head.

Access to Knowledge is Power

Knowledge was power when it was held by the few and dispensed to the many in a controlled and managed way. However the Internet, ubiquitous networks and Google put paid to that, just as in the 15th Century Gutenberg’s printing press put paid to the Church’s control over the written word.

A continuing explosion of data linked to improving search and improving filter tools has meant that anyone can now find almost any information they need very quickly. So, although knowledge may still be powerful, access to knowledge and the ability to turn knowledge into action by pattern-recognition, sense-making and clear decisions are now the real power.

Of course, finding information often involves finding not just inanimate bits and bytes, but the right people who are holding the information we need in their heads - the tacit knowledge repositories. So on the back of search engines there has been an increasing focus on the power of human social networks – both physical and virtual – as knowledge resources, too. There is no doubt social networks will continue to be seen as increasingly important and vital enablers and sources of knowledge for workers to help them do their jobs. Learning professionals need to understand this fact and develop their skill to utilise the power of these social networks through creating and exploiting opportunities to bring people together in time-and-space or virtually to share experiences and expertise.

The Lobster Quadrille for L&D


They are waiting on a shingle

Will you come and join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, will you won’t you, will you join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, will you won’t you, will you join the dance?


Over the past 20 years or so it has become increasingly obvious that leaders’ expectations of L&D’s role has developed considerably from thoughts of a training department carrying out ‘knowledge transfer’ (whatever that may mean) or providing individual employees and managers lots of content tied up with tight instructional design bows.

The expectation of many leaders now is that L&D departments will act as strategic weapons for their organisation in the delivery of their business objectives as fast and as comprehensively as necessary, but also as cheaply as possible.

Bearing this in mind, if L&D departments can support their organisational leadership teams in achieving their strategic goals then both will succeed. If they can’t neither will succeed. It’s as simple as that.

L&D needs to dance to the organisation’s tune - Will you, won’t you, will you won’t you, will you join the dance?

To do this L&D leaders must ensure their teams have the right skills and the right attitudes to deliver for their organisation. They also need to understand their limitations and when to let go of control.

To do this, they need to know first WHAT their organisation’s leaders actually expect of them – and then align those expectations. This involves working closely with leaders, understanding their requirement, and then providing innovative, fast and effective solutions. L&D needs to learn to dance in partnership with business leaders.

Croquet with a Flamingo: New L&D Skills


Alice thought she had never seen such a curious croquet-ground in her life; it was all ridges and furrows; the balls were live hedgehogs, the mallets live flamingos, and the soldiers had to double themselves up and stand on their hands and feet to make the arches.

The world of learning now is as far removed from what was ‘standard Training and L&D’ 10 years ago as Alice’s experiences on the croquet lawn in Wonderland were from the way she had previously played the game.

Many of today’s L&D professionals were recruited to design, develop and deliver classroom-based courses. Few have been recruited primarily for their business acumen or their consulting skills. Yet to successfully meet the requirements of an effective 21st Century learning service – supporting the organisation to deliver on its objectives as rapidly, as efficiently and as effectively as possible – the L&D department needs just those skills. If the L&D department doesn’t have the skills to develop a profound understanding of the business, its drivers, and its priorities, then it is almost bound to fail.

Then, if the L&D department doesn’t have the courage and skills to create innovative solutions and challenge leaders to work together to improve worker, team and organisational performance then will fail again.

L&D Skills and Capabilities

I have listed some key skills and capabilities critical for success in a 21st century L&D department  below. The list is not a definitive but these are the main capabilities that I believe are needed.

Any Learning leader or CLO should ensure they hire or develop capability in the following:

Business Acumen: If L&D professionals are to understand their stakeholders’ key drivers, and thus what success will look like, they need to have some basic knowledge of business finance including the ability to read and comprehend balance sheets and profit-and-loss statements.

Critical thinking and analytical skills: Analysing performance problems and identifying root causes requires logic and critical thinking as well as a robust performance consulting methodology. Many organisational issues presented as ‘training problems’ can’t be addressed by training or any form of structured learning. Typically they are due to poor processes, lack of tools, poor motivation (which in turn may be due to inadequate leadership or compensation that doesn’t meet expectations) or a myriad of other causes. Harold Stolovitch and others[2] suggests that around 75-80% of performance problems are not due to lack of knowledge or skills, but to these other factors. L&D professionals need to have the ability to sift them out.

Research skills: L&D professionals need enquiring minds. They need to continually research new approaches and determine what works and what doesn’t. They need to be able to validate and extract meaning from data in the same way any researcher would. Under-performance challenges are rarely similar. There is no ‘cookie-cutter’ that effectively addresses all learning requirements. Effective solutions require research, analysis and an innovative mind-set.

Communication and influencing skills: ‘Our world is others’ said Jerome Bruner, the greatest living educational psychologist. L&D professionals need to have high-level communication and influencing skills. Their role in the new world includes more ‘orchestration’ than delivery and their ability to extract requirements from stakeholders, explain the logic of proposed solutions, and work across a range of teams will require these skills in bucketsful.

Technology-savvy skills: Every L&D professional needs a good understanding of the art of the possible in terms of technology-supported learning and workplace support. The best way gain this is through experience and practice – using learning technologies and continually assessing the usefulness of particular tools. The days when learning technologies could be left to the ‘eLearning’ team are long past. An L&D specialist without a reasonable understanding of learning technologies is like a doctor without a reasonable understanding of the human body. In other words, not much use at all.

Adult learning skills: Every L&D professional needs to have a good understanding of how adults really learn, including influencing factors such as the inherent need for autonomy, mastery and purpose[3], goal orientation, and the impact of experience, practice, conversation and reflection on learning.

Good learning leaders will need to hire, develop and deploy these skills. They need to be constantly on the lookout for learning professionals that exhibit them and to re-align their teams so they have a good mix of skills to cover all bases in the world of workplace learning.

As it becomes clear to an increasing number of HR and Learning leaders that formal training is inadequate to develop the emergent practices necessary to operate and thrive in complex networked environments, so it will also becomes clear that these new L&D skills will acquire premium status.

It should be said that social learning approaches offer one important route to adapt in this new environment. Performance support and business process guidance offer other successful strategies. Each of these require not only new L&D skills, but new L&D operating models, too.

Take The Cheshire Cat’s Advice

clip_image010The real challenge for L&D departments is how to increase their success rate and deliver what is needed as fast, as efficiently and as effectively as possible.

Before they set out to do this every L&D leader needs to know where they are going. They need clear vision of what they want to achieve – the end-point they are aiming at – and the path, tricks and tools needed to reach there.

The Cheshire Cat explained to Alice in response to her question ‘would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to’, said the Cat.

‘I don’t much care where – ‘ said Alice

‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go’ said the Cheshire Cat.

As Alice didn’t know where she wanted to go, the Cheshire Cat advice was that she couldn’t focus or move forward. What she needed was a clear goal and destination. Once you do know where you need to go then what you need to do to get there will become clear.

The lesson here is that every CLO needs to have a clear well thought-out operational strategy (goal) that will support their leaders’ objectives as fast and as effectively as possible. In the 21st century that inevitably means very fast and very flexibly. It also means focusing on the ‘right stuff’. The right stuff is tangible outputs.

The next article in this series will look at approaches to transform organisational learning and to balance formal and informal learning for greatest impact.

[1] Evans P and Wurster T S, 2000, Blown to Bits: how the new economics of information transforms strategy, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, USA.

[2] Thomas Gilbert (1996), Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance; Geary Rummler and Alan Brache (1990) Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space on the Organization Chart; James Pershing (2006), Handbook of Human Performance Technology.

[3] Daniel Pink (2009) Drive: the Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.

1 comment:

  1. Thank-you Charles - great analogy that resonates with me on many levels.