New Workplace Learning

Inside Learning Technologies Magazine, Conference Edition, January 2012

New Workplace Learning:  How workplace learning is changing and what smart L&D departments are doing about it.

“Today already 47% of business technology users at North American and European companies report using one or more website(s) to do parts of their jobs that are not sanctioned by their IT department. We expect this number to grow to close to 60% in 2011 as frustrated workers work around IT to self-provision technology”. (Forrester, February 2011)

“Between one-third and two-thirds of your employees are meeting their needs by working around [L&D].”  (Jensen and Klein, CLO Magazine, April 2011)

It is quite clear that an increasing number of workers are using online social tools to address their own learning and performance needs, and in the process are by-passing both L&D and IT functions. So rather than ignoring the fact or trying to ban access to tools, it is time to re-think how L&D can support today’s learners in the workplace. But in order to do so it is first necessary to understand more about

  • who is using social media tools in this way,
  • how they are using them, as well as
  • what smart L&D departments are doing to support learning in new ways

Who is using social media tools?

Contrary to what the media would have you believe, it’s NOT just young workers who use social media;  it’s people of all ages.  But they do seem to have some common characteristics, for instance

  • they are tech- and web-savvy
  • they are highly motivated, committed and dedicated to their work
  • they have a desire to do their job as well as they can and improve their own performance wherever possible
  • they are self-reliant, flexible, adaptive and curious

Individuals with these characteristics I call Smart Workers.

How are Smart Workers using social media  tools?

They are using a huge and diverse range of tools for a number of significant activities-  that is much broader than learning in the traditional sense – and which includes their  use  for continuous personal and professional development, for professional networking,  for knowledge sharing, for collaborative working as well as for productivity and performance improvement. But more than this I have identified 8 key features how Smart Workers work and learn today.

1  -The Smart Worker learns continuously as she does her job

First of all, it is clear that the smart worker is acutely aware that in this fast moving world she needs to learn continuously to survive.   Although she acknowledges that formal training has a valuable part to play in that process, she also realises that training alone cannot possibly provide her with everything she needs to know – so she requires ongoing access to a variety of informational and instructional resources.  In fact in her busy working life she doesn’t have time to learn in the traditional way – going to an offsite workshop or working through an online course; rather she wants access to “learning” as she does his/her job – in the flow of work – and neither in a separate place or in a separate, silo-ed learning system. For that reason, when she wants to find out about something or how to do something, she goes to Google!  Exactly because she can have one-click access to a huge range of learning resources

What are smart L&D departments doing?

  • They are making more “learning” resources available in the workflow. For example some have already liberated their (non-regulatory) courses from the LMS, and placing them on their intranet (or learning portal). By doing so, they are now seeing far more use of the materials  –  and they can do some (lite-touch) tracking of usage too to identify those that are of value.

2 – The Smart Worker wants immediate access to solutions to his performance problems

The smart worker wants answers to his problems NOW. He also doesn’t want to study a problem – just in case he might need it – he simply wants to find the solution to his problem, when he needs it. So this is why once again rather than going to the LMS to look for a course to solve a problem, he chooses to find quick and simple answers to his problems on the Social Web – in sites like YouTube, Wikipedia and Slideshare.

What are smart L&D departments doing?

  • If they need to create content, then they are producing this in more usable formats – whether it be text, video or audio – rather than in the course format.
  • They also realise they can’t create everything that everyone in their organisation will need, so they are encouraging workers to use existing resources on the Social Web, and are helping those unfamiliar with it, acquire effective web searching techniques.

3 – The Smart Worker is happy to share what she knows

Millions of people freely and willingly share what they know on the Social Web for others to use.

What are smart L&D departments doing?

  • They are tapping into this growing phenomenon of sharing, and encouraging employees to create and share resources with one another – so that they can support one another’s ongoing learning and performance support needs much more appropriately.

4 – The Smart Worker relies on a trusted network of colleagues

When faced with a problem, it is clear, that most people first try and solve their problems by calling upon the people they know to help them. A few years ago this would simply have meant asking their colleagues in the room for help, but now smart workers have access to a much wider group of friends and colleagues in their public social networking sites  like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+, as well as in the private community they belong to.  These networks and communities provide a valuable opportunity for the smart worker to build a wide network of colleagues with the same interests and organizational issues, with whom they can exchange experiences and ideas.

What are smart L&D departments doing?

  • They are helping individuals to build their own Professional Knowledge Networks, by heloing them find the most appropriate networks and communities  to join in order to connect with people outside their organisation, and at the same time provide some simple guidance on how to use these networks safely and responsibly.
  • They are also helping teams set up their own internal communities of practice to support one another, informally, in the workflow, as they do their daily jobs.

5 – The Smart Worker learns best with and from others

It goes without saying  that there will always be a need for more formal approaches to learning in the workplace.  But as organisations have replaced face-to-face training with self-paced online, content-focused courses (aka e-learning), the social aspect of learning has begun to disappear.  Although some people are very happy to be able to work through online courses on their own others miss social interaction with others to discuss issues raised in the course.

What are smart L&D departments doing?

  • They are recognising the real value of a course comes from the participants sharing their thoughts, experiences and resources with one another, so are building a framework for discussions and sharing within a formal leaning context – but without (en)forcing participation.
  • Rather than bolting learning communities onto the content , they are embedding the content within the community,  and they also encouraging the co-creation of content by participants rather than only supporting commenting on expert-created content.
    • They are also encouraging  groups of individuals with a common interest in learning about a topic to build their own learning community where they can hold discussions and share what they know with one another.

6  –The Smart Worker keeps up-to-date with what is happening in his industry or profession

Part of ensuring against his obsolescence in the workplace, the smart worker keeps up to date both with what is happening in his industry and his profession. No longer is it about going to an annual conference or reading a few industry magazines, he now uses a variety of social tools and services for his continuous professional development as well as to ensure he is up to speed on what is happening in his/particular industry, e.g.

  • By keeping in contact with the network of trusted colleagues
  • By attending regular webinars
  • By regularly reading key industry and analyst blogs – probably in some sort of RSS so that he can be alerted to new blog postings when they have been produced, and/or by reading aggregated feeds (i.e. collections of related feeds) rather than subscribing to individual blogs.

But those smart workers who need to manage the amount of information they consume are also making good use of content curating services that provide a filter to the key stories that are being posted and tweeted about in their networks.

What are smart L&D departments doing?

  • Encouraging individuals to make use of a range of resources to keep themselves up-to-date with what is happening outside the organisation
  • Helping individuals with Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) techniques,  e.g. how to make sense of all the new information, and put filters in place to deal with “information overload.
  • Encouraging individuals to curate content on topics and share this with their own team.

7 – The Smart Worker constantly strives to improve her productivity

A key characteristic of the smart worker is that she wants to do her job as well as possible – which involves not just a continuous learning process, but also constantly reviewing her productivity in order to find better ways to do his/her job.  The smart worker therefore makes significant use of social media tools to help with both personal and team productivity; and is always on the look-out for new  tools to use that can automate existing tasks and activities or even improve business processes.

What are smart L&D departments doing?

  • Helping individuals improve their job performance by carrying out workflow audits and identifying bottlenecks in processes or other problems that might be solved by improved  communication and or collaboration within teams
  • Providing performance consulting services to identify root causes of problems to find the most appropriate solution to the problem, which might well be training, but more likely can be addressed through other less formal approaches.

8 – The Smart Worker thrives on autonomy

The smart worker is a self-reliant individual, who likes to make his/her own choices- about the tools he needs to do his job and the most appropriate ways to learn. Dan Pink in his book, Drive, the surprising truth about what motivates, show us that autonomy is a powerful motivator, and that “compliance leads to control, autonomy leads to engagement”.

What are smart L&D departments doing?

  • Recognising that it is impossible task to try to manage or control everything that workers learn, so they are simply getting out of the way and letting self-reliant workers/learners take responsibility for their own learning, helping them when required or asked to do so.
  • They also encouraging others to become more self-reliant too.

In summary then, new workplace learning is about moving away from the traditional top-down “command and control” approach, towards a more appropriate “encourage and engage” approach that focuses more on supporting performance in the workplace in many different ways than just via training.

This clearly necessitates new ways of measuring success, so we are seeing a move from measuring success in terms of numbers of course completions and workshops attended (i.e. quantitative metrics) to measuring success in terms of how well individuals meet performance objectives, and indeed the quality of service provided by L&D departments to help individuals and teams achieve those  performance objectives.

Although some many will see New Workplace Learning approaches as a threat to their jobs and what they feel comfortable others,  others are seeing it as a huge opportunity to provide a much more value to their in their organisations by helping individuals and teams really do their jobs effectively.