Real Learning is in the Real Work

Many discussions about learning lead to the very accurate point that we have been learning socially (and informally) for thousands of years. Images of early people gathering around fires, writing on walls or in the sand with a stick have been used to help people better understand social learning and that like then it is happening today in our lives, classrooms and in our organizations.

However, sitting around the fire, early people shared, discussed, and processed but around the fire wasn’t the only place that this would have happened or for that matter was it arguably the most impactful “place” of learning.

I believe learning is most powerful when done in the doing; the 70 of 70-20-10.  In this doing, in the past, they also communicated; on hunts, while tanning animal skins, preparing meat, and forging for berries … they likely used different mediums too; song and rhythm, other audible sounds (clicks, grunts?), they watched each other, they mimicked each other; the 20 of the 70-20-10. Simply put, they learned socially in the work flow where mind and body were engaged and the context was dripping with emotion.  I imagine the hunts were exciting, dangerous and exhausting. Tanning and forging were equally emotion rich as socialization was omnipresent when new techniques were employed, observed, analyzed, and tweaked by the group creating “ah-ha” moments as well as “ha-ha” moments where peers bonded and ideas were promoted in a very communal, casual, comfortable, yet equally important for survival environment.

This emotion is a key component to deeper learning. Classrooms, course ware and virtual worlds today try to simulate emotional responses but they rarely match the personal connections to content and context that is at the heart of deeper learning because they are just that… “simulated.” The human brain knows that the formally designed “learning” activities, be it simple drag-n-drop flash animations or simulated environments with character interactions are not really do or die events. These products do the best they can to “reward” the user with kudos, scores and a check mark but its only when we are truly immersed in a real situation with real needs, real business impact, real problems, real opportunity, real rewards, and of course real people that we become more emotionally charged. Similar was early man’s real need to find food, water and shelter. These needs must have made them more receptive to observe, mimic, listen to and connect with peers…in their work flows.

Therefore our ability to learn is not and cannot be confined to a place, an approved platform, device  or application, elearning module, or a face-to-face course; the 10 of 70-20-10. Look and learn from our past; I suppose early man didn’t carry fire, paints, sand and a stick with them on the hunts any more than we should expect to wait to login to a “social intranet” or LMS to solve problems with peers, learn the best principles, or collaborate. Deeper learning happens in our emotion rich contexts with interactions with real people, facing real problems.

So it was then, is today, and ever shall be.

If you answered No…

I was asked recently to help build the case for Social Media use in our organization (social business). Of course I have been making the case by living it personally and for some time with the use of collaborative tools for new hires and various projects. But alas this has been quite a skunks-works effort, so rather than flying under the radar I have a unique opportunity to make social media use more strategic.

Like many, I set out on my task to surface research and case studies. I located similar business model reports and articles and I tapped my PLN for assistance. As I began fleshing it all out I realized my undertaking was looking more like a sales pitch – sure to be seen that way too and likely to be met with instant skepticism; as what salesman isn’t’ instantly met with hesitancy… I started to view each slide in the presentation as a nail in a coffin. 

So rather than be armed with a series of answers to unknown questions I have decided to flip the approach and come with questions that require answers. No presentation filled with stats and examples, I am simplifying the effort. When the call comes, I’ll be ready with this:

  • Do you believe that average employees can generate creative solutions to business problems?
  • Do you agree that bad practices are being conducted daily by unknowing staff?
  • Do you believe employees often struggle to get the information they need, when they need it?
  • Do you think that people who are part of a community are happier?
  • Do you think happier workers are more engaged?
  • Do you believe engaged employees are less likely to leave?
  • Do you think training employees is expensive?
  • Do you believe there are other ways to learn besides training?
  • Do you agree that people and not just resources hold the answers to common problems?

If you answered no to any if these questions then let’s discuss. If not, then let’s get to work!

Launching SoMe for Learning? – Think L before M

Are you struggling to get Social Media for learning started in your organization?  You might just be going about it all in the wrong order. In the effort to establish a social media empowered workforce, just remember as in the alphabet “L before M” as in “Learning” before “Media”. As my friend and colleague Jane Bozarth has said numerous times – we’ve been learning well before social media for ooooh about 5,000 years! So how come when presented with technology we seem to have forgotten this?

I know it’s hard. Technology changes almost hourly, information comes at us at light speed, knowledge can no longer be seen as within people but between them. The world is being transformed at the speed of the Internet. However, don’t despair this simple order- L before M is undeniable. Like Gravity or Murphy’s Law, the order of the alphabet is pretty much a given (However if you recall, efforts have been made as recent as the ‘70s to change this to the decibet).

I’ve written before about Working within the System to Change It where I propose that rather than a full on attack of training only solutions for performance improvement (where you will typically find resistance from both a well entrenched Training Department and quite possible from key executives who may be suffering from a form of Learned Helplessness) you focus on the fundamental elements of networked learning sans the technology first to build your case. Remembering to put Learning before Media may be your best approach to getting the tools you ultimately want to maximum performance in your organization.

It’s working for me thus far as my initial efforts have reaped some big rewards: 1. I was able to launch an official small-scale Yammer pilot 2. I now head up an internal social media subcommittee and 3. I have been asked to build and present the business case for social media use in our organization.

So what elements am I referring to? The basic elements within all social media: collaboration, sharing and community. That’s really it.  Note that these are also the fundamentals of learning socially too, no technology required. Just visualize what Jane said about how long we have been learning socially –picture the scene about 5000 years ago of a cave painting in progress; a small group of hominids huddled around a fire, painting, contributing, problem solving and leaving a record for others to review, apply, and/or edit then or in the future… collaboration …sharing…community.
So stop pushing the Media for now. Put Learning first and look closely at your organization’s current efforts to improve performance. Find those opportunities to rework them into a platform for social learning or create new ones. In the past I leveraged a Thiagi frame game to be a large scale collaborative problem solving effort with meaningful, impactful results. Yes it was mostly formal in its structure but definitely not training, because training was not the answer.

Today I am once again promoting a social learning initiative by transforming an upcoming training event.  In the past, one full day of our quarterly management meeting has been tagged as a training event. Within the currently defined parameters (space and time) a non-tech social learning platform for learning is in the works. So rather than a blanket training approach, a self-selecting learning conference will be hosted.

Our 60+ member management team will register for and attend several 45 minute concurrent sessions over a period of 5 hours. Each is to be focused on identified business needs with 15 minutes of reflection time between. The sessions will be hosted by field experts (their peers who happen to be regularly exceeding in key metric areas) sharing their keys to success and innovative approaches. Outstanding performance is typically recognized with a certificate, monetary reward and a round of applause but that leaves the attendees wondering “what did they ACTUALLY do to get that recognition?”

What’s the role of L&D then if we are not going to train? We will serve as consultants and organizers not designers and deliverers. Our IDs will help the presenters establish goals, outline their speaking agenda and help craft exercises. And our trainers will serve as coaches offering tips and demonstrating effective techniques in delivery, flow, and transitions.

This approach reinforces the principles of social learning; sharing knowledge and improving performance. It also serves to truly engage our employees; giving exceptional employees an opportunity to share and be recognized by their peers and leaders.

Finally the approach helps lay the foundation for change:

  • making it easier to introduce social media for learning as a means to expand and extend the social learning that was witnessed first-hand.
  • employees seen not as only appliers of knowledge and skill but providers of it;
  • L&D professionals are not just trainers and designers but performance specialist;
  • Organizational learning not as a result of top down, formal training but learning as a result of community, collaboration and sharing.

Virtual Worlds: “Being There”

Recently I attended a Gronstedt Group’s Virtual Worlds workshop which was held over 2 days (3 hour sessions each day). I “beamed” into Avaya’s Web.alive virtual world where about 18 of us appeared. I must say, since the last time I used Virtual Worlds (VW) in 2009 (Second Life) this however seemed much easier; easy to create an Avatar and intuitive keyboard short-cuts to animate my vehicle.

So why do it?  Frankly for two reasons, the first is that I saw an opportunity to extend our current training initiatives to our remote workforce. Yep, although the hosts would tell you that VW can support 70, 20, and 10, I just don’t see folks donning their avatar while in the work flow to meet at a virtual water cooler to catch up on Q3 results or hockey scores. To me it’s all about making the “10” better (see @bbetts post The Ubiquity of Informal Learning) or if not better, making it more accessible for certain practice exercises that are critical for our business – interfacing with our customers. The second reason was it was led by Anders and Co. I have been exposed to the Gronstedt group before. I have attended a few of Anders’ conference presentations and frankly find that he is extremely experienced, passionate and knowledgeable. If I was ever going to dip my toes in VW, it would be with these guys.

I found the exercises relevant and the hosts more than knowledgeable and helpful however I never completely got immersed as I honestly couldn’t get beyond the creepy looking cartoon I and others appeared as. My avatar had a “face” yet it was hardly expressive, my body gestures were limited to waving, clapping and the very inhuman ability to jump 4-5x my own height. Dianne Rees writes very well about avatars in learning in her post On eLearning, Avatars, and the “Uncanny Valley“. In it she shares that basically when non-human technology (avatars, robots, etc) try but fall just slightly short of being “human” we real people reject the technological simulations as its ever so slight variation makes it hard for us to connect with. According to Dianne’s summary, you might be better off with less human looking avatars (Think R2D2).

Despite this drawback I’m more confident now that this environment can help recreate our sales environments (close to actual context). I can see our SMEs stepping into the roles of our customers and various new employees or ones seeking a refresher of content appearing in fishbowl type activities for short bursts. I was impressed by the ability to use real world technology (notepads, search engines..etc) in the VW and saw instantly the possibility of using the same for our workforce (financing applications, manipulative, charts, etc).

Because our extended training needs are really soft-skill based, I found something very interesting happen; throughout the experience the attendees displayed proximal courtesies. For example, if an avatar stepped in front of mine during a presentation they would say “excuse me” and move out of the way. In another situation an avatar ran up to speak to me and when they noticed that they were literally nose-to-nose with me they took several steps back before engaging me. And once someone appeared to run into me and although my avatar would be un-phased they kindly said “sorry.”  Sounds goofy, right? Maybe, but for me it was a critical piece. The ability to “see” the human-being behind the cartoon-ish exterior equates to the empathy and sympathy our employees must display to truly be successful in their jobs of connecting.There may be something to this and its impact on long-term learning. A colleague of mine, Steve Covello @apescience, brought to my attention the Media Naturalness Theory. According to the Wikipedia article:

The theory builds on human evolution ideas and has been proposed as an alternative to media richness theory. Media naturalness theory argues that since our Stone Age hominid ancestors have communicated primarily face-to-face, evolutionary pressures have led to the development of a brain that is consequently designed for that form of communication. Other forms of communication are too recent and unlikely to have posed evolutionary pressures that could have shaped our brain in their direction. Using communication media that suppress key elements found in face-to-face communication, as many electronic communication media do, thus ends up posing cognitive obstacles to communication.

As this simple graph (below) shows the further you move away from the F2F medium either by reducing elements found in F2F or adding more communicative features beyond that of F2F the result is a reduction in effectiveness of the medium.  Fair as to say, a Virtual World can be created to be very rich in communicative elements and the research would reinforce that one should take a more minimalist approach (i.e. cut the bells and whistles). 

Figure 1. Face-to-face medium naturalness

One could argue then that social media may actually fall a little short as a tool for learning. Not to say it isn’t valuable but they often do lack in the F2F element. However, given their ease and convenience, these tools definitely increases their utility compared to a virtual world or live classroom. As for VW, in light of the Uncanny Valley studies, Avatars will need to be able to be better at expression to be more effective or might that be a detriment? Hmmm, I guess one must now find compromise with Media Naturalness Theory and the Uncanny Valley for this environment to be most effective.

Beyond the avatars themselves it is important that one gets a sense of being there. In The Role of Presence in the Online Environment from the book Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Teaching: How to “Be There” by Rosemary M. Lehman and Simone C.O. Conceicao (again brought to my attention by Steve Covello), the authors discuss the importance and impact of social, emotional, psychological, and environmental factors in an online environment. Ideally, in any learning experience, we want the technology to fade away as the learner becomes immersed.  The author notes “when a course is designed with presence in mind, the experience comes alive and the learning process is driven by the dynamic interplay between thought, emotion, and behavior.” Very true for online learning (VW or otherwise) but also for the still dominant classroom. Good instructors, good design make the content so engaging the tools, the environment, simply become invisible.

A few other notable observations from my time in a VW:
  • English spoken here – verbal communication is critically important. Yes there is text chat available in this environment but with so much to interact with, leaving your Avatar idol while you hammer out a sentence is just not “normal” (see Uncanny Valley)
  • Self-organization – It was interesting how people continued to gravitate towards the same groups between activities, etc. All due to the connections being made. As much as I appeared like a serial killer I still found people of similar minds (learning function, not murder)
  • Keep it Simple – there is much you can do in a virtual world. From you avatar’s ability to run and leap, to building huge whiteboards as large as highway billboards and Google search displays over 20’ high. Some technology worked, others didn’t, some things looked quite real…but honestly it didn’t matter. Focus on the content.

What I saw though as the greatest strength of VW was in our last exercise.  We were asked to collaborate on our VW elevator pitch or how would we “sell the idea” to executives. Definitely an activity that could be accomplished in the real world; usually with pen, paper and a peer. But only here could we have actually entered a virtual elevator, manuver its potentially crowded space and get a feel for what it might be like to really try and convince an executive in the journey between floors!

All-in-all an interesting experience. I feel it has potential but definitely the focus is on extending the “10” of the 70-20-10.  With regard to Presence and concerns over the Uncanny Valley and Media Naturalness – its effectiveness as a training tool all comes down to well thought out instructional/environmental design and careful considerations with communicative elements. 

Learned (Learning) Helplessness

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
– William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

If you’re like me you see the future of learning as being social in a connected world, and the mindset of “empowering” people and not one of “allowing” them should be the norm and the first thought. And yet others, you’re executives, peers and the workers you support, just don’t seem to see it …or maybe it’s that they can’t.

Even in the face of compelling case studies and increased attention to the 70-20-10 model, we are not only presented with dismissive reactions but often overt resistance to enterprise social and informal learning efforts. There is an inability of many to move beyond the current paradigm that learning only happens when there is training.

Current reasons for this inability to see value in enhancing social and informal learning such as fears about security and loss of productivity seem a bit lacking to me, over stated and under supported. These fears may actually be symptoms rather than the disease itself.

What I believe is being left out of the mix is the true power of formal learning and I don’t mean power in terms of it being a comprehensive solution but rather power in its pervasiveness.

Quite possibly, because of this pervasiveness, social and informal just can’t be seen by many as “real” learning.

Formal approaches in the US and elsewhere have been present in our lives since our primary school years. Public education and higher education experiences drove into many a brain that we learn only when others teach. We associated school with learning. A break from school (vacation, summers, and weekends) was perceived as a break from academic work and thus a break from learning. We were led to believe that learning was compartmentalized, it happens only in certain environments with specific elements present. We began to see learning as an externally controlled activity.

Today the ideas of enhancing and extending informal and social learning struggle to gain a foothold in organizations due in part I think to these years of formal reinforcement. “We teach as we were taught” was a common reference to educators who could not break free from old models of instruction …can it be then that executives and many workers alike don’t take seriously social and informal learning because they believe “we can only learn the way we learned”?

Situation after situation for the better part of 20 years forced many into a submissive state; all under the constant control of formal learning. And as we left the world of education and entered the workforce, the training-industrial complex stepped in ready to fill the impending formal void.
One theory that may explain this best is known as “Learned Helplessness

Learned Helplessness is (defined as):

a phenomenon in which individuals gradually, usually as a result of repeated failure or control by others, become less willing to attempt tasks. (D.D. Smith, 2001)

The key phrase here is “…as a result of repeated failure or control by others…” For workers, repeated failure is experienced through the compartmentalization of learning created in the 20th century models. Workers are often directly (by supervisors, IT firewalls) prohibited or discouraged (by the culture) from seeking answers outside the system (T&D), producing their own materials or using personal devices. Furthermore, managers and executives alike maintain control through the constant need for metrics: completion rates, evaluations, and scores serve as the primary measures of learning; a continuation of the formal education models they themselves are accustom to and comfortable with.

Workers, like the students they once were, “learn” to be patient and compliant ultimately to the detriment of their organizations. They learn to be helpless in the face of repeated failure and systems of control.

In studies by Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D. and noted in his book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life he stated…

When faced with situations where they were powerless to change an annoying element, two out of three (both animals and humans) would cease trying to affect the situation. Further, when placed in a new situation with a different annoying element, they would make no attempt from the beginning. One in 10 would make no attempt to change an annoying element, even though they had not been exposed to an uncontrollable situation to cause them to learn helplessness.

Does this help explain that, although surrounded by informal and social opportunities and technologies at the ready, many still only acknowledge and await the formal, making no attempt to change this reality. Mandatory classes, elearning modules, firewalls, LMSs, Intranets … all annoying elements are met with little more than a sigh.

Here’s a bit more on the effects of this control on adults from a 1976 study of nursing home residents at Arden House. The staff in this Arden house example, when only providing limited choice/involvement, is eerily similar to T&D controlling content and the flow of information. And although the results are not premature death as in the Arden house example, it can result in the death of productivity, morale, and innovation. So if the problem is actually a type of learned helplessness how can it be corrected? Here are a few things to consider outlined in Learned Helplessness and School Failure we must:

1. Acknowledge and understand the components of learned helplessness to remediate it. If it’s about control, our employees must be encouraged and maybe incentivized to seek their own answers and not wait to be fed at the training trough. Think of the viral story of the small company whose owner gave a no strings attached 50K to each employee who stayed 5 years. Training is expensive. Trust is much cheaper. Hire motivated employees, create channels for information to flow, and promote personal development.

2. We must help [employees] discover the root beliefs and the distorted perceptions they create that cause their self defeating deficits. The well entrenched perception is that only formal = learning. To help dispel this myth we must reward results gained through collaboration and not through competition . We must acknowledge and promote sharing and community building as the means to greater learning not courses and completion rates. We must show employees & executives that these social and informal activities are occurring constantly (with and without technology); acknowledging and expanding them is productive time and can lead to positive personal and business results.

3. We must give [employees] the tools to change and refute their distorted beliefs and thereby reduce the deficits. The tools are technological and cognitive. We need to sponsor communities for collective intelligence to flourish through the free flow of ideas. We must work to enable enterprise social media and better yet, welcome the use of their own devices and tools. A shift must happen where learning professionals become “social” learning professionals acting in roles as community facilitators not content creators. Cognitive tools need to be sharpened and new skills sets developed. For example Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) and the Seek, Sense, Share model promoted by Harold Jarche are critical mindsets for workers in the 21st Century. Seeing is believing.

If the pervasiveness of formal learning is contributing to a learned helplessness when trying to adopt and expand social and informal learning, then a three pronged approach that aims to cure the disease and not just treat the symptoms may be the best way to help people cleanse their doors of perception.