Thursday, November 26, 2009

Learning to Learn in the modern Enterprise

The last few days in Hong Kong have been incredible -- I saw some great sights, participated in some interesting activities and backed all of it up with some great food. Talking of food, I very quickly realised that its kinda tough to get by without using chopsticks in Hong Kong. Now I'm sure that some upmarket restaurants offer forks and knives for food. Food for me however, spells 'cheap and streetside'. The only cutlery I got at these places were chopsticks and soup spoons. Thankfully I know how to use chopsticks, so I had no trouble. Its interesting how I learnt to use chopsticks though. At one point I decided that eating with chopsticks was cool, since I'd seen some of my friends do it and it was kind of a distinctive thing to do. So I read up a "how-to" for using chopsticks, which since I had no opportunity to use, I forgot in a few days. So when I actually did get the opportunity to use chopsticks, I fumbled for the first ten minutes and actually messed up my shirt! It took me about an hour to finish my meal, but by the end I had found an inelegant way that worked for me. As time passed and I visited more oriental restaurants, I gradually perfected the art -- often I'd get little tips and hints from my friends and that helped me get better. Now, I can eat a complete meal with chopsticks and pretty quickly too!

People learn iteratively, over time

Now why am I telling you this story? I think my story about learning how to use chopsticks is quite representative of how we learn. Information that we can't apply immediately at our job fades away into irrelevance and soon enough recall of this information is close to zilch! We remember learning that we can apply immediately and the things that we remember the most are the ones that we learn when performing a job i.e. in a performance context. Most importantly, we learn iteratively and over time. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, Outliers - The Story of Success, explains how strong amateurs accumulate about 2,000 hours of practice by adulthood. Future music teachers build up about 4,000 hours. Really good students amass about 8,000 hours and “elite performers” invest about 10,000 hours of practice. If we take even the point of reaching competence from the absolute novice state, that's about 2000-4000 hours of work! That's got to take several iterations of learning. One of the reasons I support social media and bite-sized learning, is because it gives learning professionals the ability to help learners across this iterative learning journey.

You learn iteratively too, irrespective of your 'learning style'

One of the objections that I've heard from trainers about social media very often is, "But that's not my learning style..." or "I don't learn that way..." or "Have you considered that it may not be someone learning style to learn this way?" I have a tendency to snap back at these objections, but as I think this through more pragmatically, there are a few things I'm realising:

We're all social learners

Some of us may take time to realise this. If we look back at our experience, there will have been several occasions when we would have asked a question on a discussion forum or looked up Wikipedia or searched on Google. If we haven't done either of these, we've at least learnt something over a coffee table conversation or over drinks or while working alongside someone. In fact I can bet that most of us learnt how to do our jobs more as a consequence of such informal activities than as a consequence of some heavyweight training. You ARE a social learner, regardless of what you think!

We need to 'learn to learn'

One of the key developments of this age is the amount of information that's out there in the wired world. Its fascinating how much relevant information even a poorly constructed Google search can throw up. The ability to stay connected with friends and colleagues through social and professional networking tools such as Facebook and Linkedin gives us the ability to leverage weak ties in a manner we never even imagined before. Add to that the plethora of other social media; Wikipedia, Twitter, Yahoo! Answers, Digg, blogs, etc and there's a wealth of intelligence to exploit. People who don't leverage this phenomenon are missing out on something really big. If you truly don't learn this way, then you must learn to learn this way. Otherwise my guess is the world will soon pass you by and you'll be of decreasing value to your organisation.

Social media is 'more facilitative than facilitation'

If as learning professionals we choose to stay fixed to just one mode of learning then we're holding our organisations back. I say this for both instructor led training and elearning. In fact I feel its important that every formal learning experience includes a larger mix of informal learning opportunities as compared to formal ones. That's where the real value is and that's how we support the iterative nature of learning. In fact after working for a firm that practices Agile, I'll go to the extent of saying that "A single mode of education sans informal learning, is the waterfall of the learning world." Purely formal learning opportunities attempt to help learners solve tomorrow's problems with yesterday's wisdom. Most importantly they adhere to a design that's decided in advance as against being just-in-time, and designed to purpose. Informal learning on the other hand, is contextual and flexible.

Here's where you can start your informal learning journey

Learning professionals need informal learning too and believe it or not, there's help to be had in all sorts of places. I'll list some of my favorite places to learn. Please feel free to add more in the comments section - I'm sure there are heaps.


elearning Learning is a collaborative effort started by Tony Karrer and is a collection of blog posts and articles all around eLearning. You can subscribe using your email ID to get free article recaps.

Tom Kulhmann's blog for some reason isn't aggregated on eLearning Learning. That said, its a great resource for people to learn simple, yet effective ways to rapidly produce high quality learning. I've learnt heaps from Tom's blog. He's a true guru.

Online Communities

There are various communities online that you can use to connect with other practitioners and to get help, share ideas, have discussions and what not. Here are some that I find really useful.
The Learning and Skills Group is a UK based community on Ning, that's really active and has about 1800 members on it. Its invitation only, but I guess you can talk to Don Taylor to get on the group.
There are a few Indian groups that are really active too, and very useful:
  • KCommunity is a community of Knowledge Management professionals in India and is a very active group that does a lot of social stuff.
  • Instructional Designers Community of India (IDCI) has a lot of members from the learning community, though I must say I have serious criticism for some of its leaership. (YMMV)
  • The Learning Solutions group also has some interesting discussions, though the traffic isn't comparable to other groups. Some really interesting members on the group though.

Twitter Hashtags

Its amazing how much information you can find through Twitter. Its difficult to keep up, but not if you combine search and hashtags. Here are some of the hashtags I tend to follow on Twitter. You name a luminary in the field of social media/ elearning and that person's tweeting, so I'm not going to list individuals here.

In addition (how can I miss this?) #lrnchat is an online chat that happens every Thursday night 8:30-10pm EST over the social messaging service Twitter. I've put these up on iCal as recurring events, every Friday morning (India), so I never miss them!

Other Resources

Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies (a.k.a C4LPT) of Jane Hart fame, offers a range of free resources about learning and about social media.

ScreenR is screencasting for Twitter! You can use the free screencasting application, under the constraint that you say what you want to say, in 5 minutes. You can find heaps of tutorials created by the huge community and you can create your own with almost zero effort!

Lastly, the recently launched Learning Solutions Magazine, and the very recent LearnTrends virtual conference are a great source of absolutely amazing knowledge about organisational learning.
I hope you enjoyed today's blogpost. Please comment liberally to let me know what you think. If you'd rather use email, please write to me and share your thoughts. Do you have a favourite resource that I've conveniently missed? Please add that to the comments section. Social learning is well and truly set to be the next big thing and I'll be really keen to learn from your experiences.


Blaire said...

You may be interested in checking out, a management training program rooted in the principles you're discussing! CoachingOurselves offers informal self-directed learning programs for organizations.

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