New era of Workplace Learning

Inside Learning Technologies Magazine, October 2010

This is the second of a two-part article that looks at the emerging trends in learning tools and workplace learning. In this part, Jane Hart, a Social Business Consultant from the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies, and a member of the Internet Time Alliance, looks at the future of workplace learning and the implications for Learning & Development.

In Part 1 of this article I discussed the annual survey of popular learning tools that I have been running since 2007, I reviewed this year’s Top 100 Tools list, and I also identified four key trends in this year’s list, as follows:

  1. Increasing consumerization of IT – i.e. the increasing use of personal tools and devices in the workplace
  2. Merging of learning, working and personal tools
  3. Dominance of social tools
  4. Personal (informal) learning is under the individual’s control

In Part 2 of this article I want to take a look at the implications that these trends have for the future of workplace learning.

“Social learning” is undoubtedly becoming a hot topic in the L&D world. We can see that social media tools are increasingly being used to engage learners both in the classroom and online courses, but what is also becoming very clear is that it is not ONLY in the area of formal learning where they are having an impact. Social media tools are ALSO being used in the workplace by individuals and teams to address their own learning and performance needs.

The term “social learning” therefore has a much wider meaning than simply “social training” – where the focus is on the creation, delivery and management of formal learning. “Social workflow learning” (as we might call it) is about workers sharing information and knowledge with others in networks and communities as well as adopting a new collaborative approach to working – in order to DO their jobs effectively.

In their recently published book, Marcia Conner and Tony Bingham refer to this as The New Social Learning”, and reinforce its significance for organisations:

“At its most basic level, new social learning can result in people becoming more informed, gaining a wider perspective, and being able to make better decisions by engaging with others. It acknowledges that learning happens with and through other people, as a matter of participating in a community, not just by acquiring knowledge. ”

In The Internet Time Alliance we prefer not to use the word “learning” since for many this still conjures up the image of school , so we tend to refer to it as “working smarter”. Jay Cross, in the Working Smarter Fieldbook, explains why we believe working smarter is important.

“Working smarter is the key to sustainability and continuous improvement. Knowledge work and learning to work smarter are becoming indistinguishable. The accelerating rate of change in business forces everyone in every organization to make a choice: learn while you work or become obsolete.”

By helping individuals work smarter, organisations can reap huge rewards, for it is in social (workflow) learning that, some would say, the “real” learning in the organisation takes place. Social (workflow) learning is also set to become a significant feature of workplace learning as more and more individuals recognise that in social media tools they now have the power to deal with many of their own learning and performance problems much more quickly and efficiently than before – and without the intervention of the L&D department. So this begs the question what part can and should L&D play in this?

Firstly, it is important to state that it is not a matter of trying to manage or control social learning. As Marcia Conner has pointed out in a recent interview, social learning isn’t owned by a specific division or group within an organisation.

“The only people who can own social learning are the individuals who themselves are learning each day, from one another, based on their work and in the flow of work.”

So here are 5 ways that L&D can become involved:

1 – Encourage and support individuals’ and teams’ self-sufficiency to address their own learning and performance problems.

This does mean relinquishing control and trusting people to address their own learning needs in order to do their jobs. But autonomy is a powerful motivator, as Dan Pink has pointed out in his latest book, Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us:

“Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement … A sense of autonomy has a powerful effect on individual performance and attitude. According to a cluster of recent behavioural studies, autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understand, better grades, enhanced persistence at school and in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burnout and greater levels of psychological well-being.”

Self-sufficiency (or self-directedness) will become an important factor for organisational competitiveness, as an article in CLO magazine, Agile Learning, Thriving in the New Economy, states:

“As competitive environments increase in speed, complexity and volatility, organizations and individuals are compelled toward a dynamic learning mindset. Dynamic learning is defined as rapid, adaptive, collaborative and self-directed learning at the moment of need.”

The role of L&D will therefore be more to encourage autonomy and self-sufficiency, rather than to control and monitor learning activity.

2 – Help develop autonomous workers

Although it is clear that many people are naturally autonomous, self-directed learners/workers who are already making good use of social media tools, it is true that others will need help to become independent and competent enough to address their own business and performance problems. L&D will have a big part to play in helping some workers acquire a new set of literacies, in order to make responsible, safe and effective use of the new social tools.

3 – Provide performance consulting services, where individuals and teams need help in addressing their own learning and performance problems

Performance consulting is very different from training consulting. Rather than applying the traditional approach of developing training to address the symptoms of a problem, it involves getting to the root of a problem and working with the individuals concerned to devise and implement an appropriate solution. As Harold Jarche has written in his blog posting, Compliance of an industry:

“Only when there is a genuine lack of skills and knowledge, is training required [repeat as necessary]. Training should only be done in cases where the other barriers to performance have been addressed. A trained worker, without the right resources and with unclear expectations, will still not perform up to the desired standard.”

Hence problems which might due to be a lack of communication in a team, inadequate resources or even an issue with the work process itself, could be addressed in very different non-training ways, e.g. by communities of practice, new collaborative approaches to working, etc.

4 – Rethink the use of learning tools and system

Although traditional “command and control” learning systems will still have a place to track and monitor learning in formal courses, particularly compliance and regulatory training, they won’t be appropriate for social (workflow) learning, here learning needs to be integrated into the workflow and not vice versa.

Some organisations may undoubtedly wish to implement their own, behind the firewall, social platforms to power enterprise communities and collaborative practices in a private and secure way, but these should not be the only tools available to workers. Many individuals will still need to have access to the Social Web, e.g. for connecting with others outside the organisation, and some may wish to use their own tools. Despite the concern that some organisations have about consumer tools, a recent GigaOm article, Are “Consumer” Collaboration Tools Good Enough for the Enterprise?, stated that many are becoming more enterprise-friendly, but furthermore …

“businesses cannot ignore the benefits such tools undoubtedly bring to the workplace, and trying to block their use will likely be a futile exercise that will only lead to disgruntled employees”

5 – Help to develop an open, enabling culture for working and learning

All the above is clearly part of a bigger picture, which implies the need for a wider change in terms of management style. Michael Lascette, in a posting, The Social Employee Manifesto writes:

“Old approaches to managing employees, with their roots in the industrial society are not adequate for hyper-connected, socially aware employees. We need a new paradigm for getting things done and for empowering a new breed of employee that does not function well in a hierarchal, top down, highly controlled environment.”

L&D will therefore have an important role to play in influencing this type of organisational change.


It is clear that formal training is not going disappear overnight, but it is also becoming apparent that we are at the beginning of a fundamental shift in the way that both learning and working is happening in organisations. This should not be seen as a threat to the L&D profession, but as an opportunity to evolve the profession to take on the new challenges it offers. The first step on the path will be to become immersed in the new social media tools that are underpinning this change. Social Learning is not something you just talk or read about; it’s something you do!