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Learnscapes in social business design

Making learning scalable

Technology trends and news by Larry Irons
September 2, 2009
Short URL: http://vator.tv/n/a5f

 About a month ago I read What Would Andrew Do?, an unbook by Jay Cross and friends. I've mentioned Jay's work in previous posts dealing with elearning 2.0 and collaboration in informal learning. In particular, its important to remember that focusing on informal learning doesn't mean we must disregard the relevance of formal learning because learning is never 100% formal or informal.

However, the term scalable learning probably does require a bit of clarification. After all, isn't elearning supposed to scale to the size of the learning group and remain available when they need it, where they need it, as long as they are connected to the Web? Well, yes--and it does pretty much. Nevertheless, instructional designers too often fail to incorporate emergent learning requirements of the organization, the enterprise, into their learning architecture largely because the approaches used to evaluate learning content (whether elearning, blended, or instructor-led) do not incorporate assumptions about the larger ecosystem's need for the co-creation of knowledge.

The concern for whether the learner is exposed to every thread of content in every course, and assessed for mastery of the information, tends to predominate design thinking about learning, and for compliance training sometimes this is required. However, too often, instructional design fails to focus on whether the learning scales to support the learner's ability on-the-job to recognize a problem as a particular kind of problem, much less provide the ability to find the learning content that provides a solution. I don't intend to delve here into the minutiae of distinction possible between types of learning.

Suffice it to say that when a learning architecture supports all types of learning along the range of formal, non-formal, and informal experience, it must design formal learning in small enough chunks to serve as resources for non-formal and informal learning activities. It also means that the knowledge created using non-formal learning (whether mentored or accomplished in collaboration with peers), or informal learning taken on its own, needs to become a performance resource in developing new formal learning content. Jay contends that the performance challenges facing organizations are most aptly conceptualized as a learnscape, a concept initially articulated by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid.

In the August 2009 issue of Chief Learning Officer magazine, Jay offers the following synopsis.

Learnscapes are the factory floor of knowledge organizations. The “scape” part underscores the need to deal at the level of the learning environment or ecology...The “learn” part highlights the importance of baking the principles of sound learning into that environment rather than leaving it to chance.
John Hagel sees learnscapes as part of a global transformation of industrial society that he, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison call the Big Shift: the move from institutions designed for scalable efficiency to institutions designed for scalable learning. Hagel's thinking is relevant since, as I explain below, Jay uses the Push/Pull distinction to demarcate formal and informal learning. The basic insight is conveyed by Hagel, Brown, and Davison in their thoughts on Measuring the Big Shift:
Companies must move beyond their fixation on getting bigger and more cost-effective to make the institutional innovations necessary to accelerate performance improvement as they add participants to their ecosystems, expanding learning and innovation in collaboration curves and creation spaces. Companies must move, in other words, from scalable efficiency to scalable learning and performance. Only then will they make the most of our new era's fast-moving digital infrastructure.

The participants that Hagel, Brown, and Davison refer to consist of consumers, customers, partners, and employees using social media to talk about, talk to, and engage the products and services, i.e. brands, that an enterprise markets. Don't misunderstand the focus on performance in the discussion of scalable learning. It isn't about the traditional focus on efficiency, pursuing ever leaner processes for the sake of officially recognized best practices. Rather, the focus is on creating the knowledge needed to adapt to emergent challenges and manage the flow of that adaptation through the enterprise's ecosystem. For learning architecture it begins with understanding the importance of keeping the focus on distinctions between push and pull learning.

Push/Pull Learning

Push learningoccurs in formal courses, on-line or face-to-face, where the content is designed with specific audiences (usually employees) and objectives in mind, divided into modules that presumably increment knowledge and check for learning, and assess overall mastery at the end of the course. Pull learning, on the other hand, occurs when consumers, customers, employees, or partners need to solve emergent challenges faced in producing, purchasing, using, and supporting products and services.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog recently offered a model of pull learning as formal learning in which the learner is presented with a reason to use content (learning objectives posed as performance challenges), offered a variety of content resources to apply to the challenge, and assessed as they use each chunk of content. I've designed and developed these sorts of elearning applications before, typically scenario-based, but they fail in one basic way, and the failure is not instructional in nature. Although this architecture is pull learning, in that the learner is choosing what sequence to use in interacting with the content, it is most definitely not scalable learning.

To make it scalable, pull learning must be designed for co-creation and informal learning. As I previously discussed, emergent challenges typically occur as exceptions to current business processes. Current business processes are the basis for most formal learning content, whether push or pull in design. The practical innovations, workarounds, necessary to adapt to those business exceptions are a significant part of the informal learning in an enterprise. The most salient point to remember is that around 80% of all learning in enterprises involves people attempting to adapt to emergent challenges in their ecosystem.

Thinking in terms of learnscapes implies a strategic approach to learning architecture that supports and manages informal learning through social computing, as opposed to using social computing in an ad hoc fashion. Done in this manner, scalable learning is a key component of a strategic approach to social business design. For example, a recent study, Social Networking on Intranets, by the Neilson Norman Group reported much of the adoption of social software within enterprises is done underground, in an ad hoc manner. Jakob Neilson offers a clear example of how solutions developed for emergent business challenges through collaboration translate into requirements for organizational innovation and, implicitly, resources for formal learning.

Integration is not just a technical matter, but also an organizational issue. For example, if a conclusion gels within a discussion forum, it then needs to move from talk to action. It's not enough to build knowledge; you need a feedback loop to bring lessons back to sales, marketing, and other groups responsible for getting things done...feedback loops should be somebody's explicit job assignment or they may not happen.

The type of feedback loop described by Jakob can readily provide a resource for updates to formal learning processes related to any of the functional areas of the enterprise. As Paula Thornton at The FASTForward Blog notes, these feedback loops require achnowledgement that resolving workarounds to current business processes means sustained innovation and gathering data from all the touchpoints to intentionally design better feedback loops. In the current discussion, the feedback loops are between formal and informal learning.

Enterprise 2.0 efforts to enhance adaptation to emergent challenges call for a strategic approach to managing informal learning, with feedback into formal learning, using social computing explicitly in the design of business, or social business design. It is this intersection that Ross Mayfield’s recent observation highlights when he discusses companies monitoring social media conversations about their brand. Referring to companies involved in monitoring conversations about their brand, Ross noted that, “Before they collaborate with the community, they have to collaborate with themselves.” I previously discussed the same set of issues for brand experiences noting that, brand strategies are most effective when based in the design and delivery of business services themselves.

The concept of learnscape is a useful framework for thinking about the strategic challenge to the range of learning activities occurring as companies attempt to create feedback loops between their brand experience and the functional areas of their enterprise, especially in regard to the multidisciplinary collaboration needed to make these efforts successful.

Larry writes the blog Skilful Minds.