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Learning is the lifeblood, not the appendix

13 Jul

No one puts learning in the corner. Those days are gone.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, or familiar with the work of forward-thinking learning organization practitioners, social network evangelists and advocates of Connectivism, this news will not come as a surprise.

But sometimes I find myself making a cardinal learning professional mistake: Assuming my audience’s knowledge where no evidence exists.

So, why isn’t learning just “learning” anymore? Because in today’s modern, hyper-connected world, traditional workplace learning programs have almost entirely lost whatever relevance they may have had as the centerpiece of how people actually learn. Training courses—be they live or asynchronous eLearning courses—should now be the last resort for all but the most stubborn learning needs.

Why?

  1. Few of us have a specific “job” for very long. I don’t think I need spend many words to convince you that hopping from company to company and even career to career is the new norm. Depending on which statistics you believe, we can expect the typical 30-year-old today to spend the next 35 years of her working life in at least 7 different jobs, and in 1.2 complete career shifts.

What does that mean for learning professionals? Learning is individual, portable, and an ongoing process.

  1. Learning is the job—or should be. People don’t rely on authority for answers anymore. There is no “received” wisdom of how things are done. A recent study (Bersin by Deloitte, June 2014) finds that 60% of L & D professionals report that employees have trouble engaging in corporate learning. That’s because this is based in the assumption that learning is something outside of “regular” work. Learning is the work! Every meeting, project, task and conversation should be thought of as part of an ongoing learning process, and catalogued, shared and honored accordingly. People shouldn’t get paid to “do a job” anymore: Rather, they should be paid to stay current, improve, serve and add value. That, my friends, is learning.

What are we (learning pros) doing to put process, skills and culture in place to properly nurture this new reality?

  1. Organizational structures are going to go through radical change. Individuals do not serve at the behest of their companies—at least, not for very long. Because of employee portability, workers are in it mostly for themselves. That is actually a good thing! To put it another way, we need to shift our thinking to make that new reality a good thing.

People are able to connect with experts in their field from within your organization as easily as with your partners and competitors. Equally, information is plentiful and access to new ideas (good and bad) is nearly limitless. We don’t need gatekeepers or managers to tell us to seek, synthesize and share. Those are simply the skills of the new reality.

PLN

A Professional Learning Network(s) (PLN) extends well beyond an organization’s real or virtual structures. Encourage all to develop these networks for both personal and organizational currency.

By empowering folks to digitally practice far and wide, we allow them to bring what they find back into your organization, while freeing them to chart their own professional development and career course. In this new paradigm, L & D professionals are guides, coaches and obstacle breakers. If either manager or employee is having trouble adjusting to this new arrangement, therein lies our opportunity as learning professionals to help our people thrive. Traditional training courses and programs (other than compliance) should be the last resort for the most complex situations. Telling folks to find the answer in a Google search or on YouTube is not an abdication of our professional learning responsibilities, it opens the door to more meaningful passageways of how to learn in the post-industrial era (what I call The Learning Age).

In short, we should all take it upon ourselves to ask:

  • What can I learn from my current task, project or activity?
  • How do I document that learning so others can benefit?
  • How do I share what I’ve learned, along with relevant artifacts, outcomes and tools (that is, how do I curate knowledge)?
  • How am I engaging with, and gaining from, what others are learning?

Promoting the culture that makes this a practice, a habit, is the L & D task of the moment. Bring learning out of the corner. It is now the lifeblood of your organization.

Abundance and Choices: Make the decision and move on

22 Apr

We know the feeling: Standing in the cereal aisle, or before the maddeningly long rack of cold medicines, frozen by the overwhelming number of choices. Can’t there be just three choices? Fiber-filled, healthy, or frosted. Good, better, best. Too much really is too much!

I was asked to talk recently about Personal Knowledge Mastery (PKM) practice, curation and the ability to sort through the overwhelming amount of content that streams at us constantly. One sincere listener mentioned that while he spends time and energy clipping useful articles and organizing content into folders, he knows he’ll never have time to go back and examine all the saved content and sort through it all to find the nuggets of potentially useful ideas.

My response to him was that it doesn’t matter. The room fell silent (as I hoped) and opened the door to explain in further detail. (Side note: If you ever want to get a room of serious-mined people to pay attention to a particular point, set it up with “What you do doesn’t matter,” or “What you know is not important.” Provocative, and engaging!)

In the digital age, the social age, or what I call The Learning Age, what you save in a file somewhere really doesn’t matter. Saving clippings in a file folder or, more recently, on a digital drive somewhere, is a bygone mindset for a world in which content was scarce and locating something on a particular subject was difficult and time-consuming.

We now live in an age of abundance and constant choice. It’s all available at our fingertips, and anyone with even the most basic digital literacy skills can find just about anything. As an example, I had foot surgery last year: Not only could I look up my diagnosis, I watched videos, in fascination and horror, of the actual surgical procedures. Bone saws and drills. NOT recommended!

The critical practice of our age is not finding and saving content, it’s curating, sense-making and sharing. That is, it’s a new practice.

Step 1. Make a decision. Act. Looking for something on topic “X” gets 500 results. There is no way you’ll ever know which few will make the most sense or prove to be the most immediately useful to you. Skim and choose one (or two or three). The decision is the first step of the practice. There is no right or wrong decision, only the act (with apologies to Yoda). Also, note how you made the decision – the reasons, the decision-making criteria – so that it also becomes part of the practice.

Step 2. As you read (or watch, or listen), note how it relates to what you already know, or do, or think. Even if you don’t find the immediate use that you may had originally hoped, relate it to other thoughts and ideas. (If you can’t, toss it.) Content is relational and contextual, and how your mind makes those connections is critical to PKM practice. “This relates to that, reminds me of this, and here’s why.” Putting new information into context: That’s learning. Be creative, metaphorical, and experimental. Tag it with whatever taxonomy terms makes sense at the time (it may change later – don’t be rigid).

Step 3: Share it, and by “it” I mean the content, your notes on the context, and the tags: All of it! Make it visible to you (later) and to others in your organization and your Personal Learning Network (PLN). Rely on social media (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) and curation tools (Scoop.it, Feedly, Storify, Evernote, Delicious, etc.) to share it with whomever will find it. The technology you use is unimportant. The practice is the key. (I happen to like scoop.it because it’s easy to write your notes with each share, and invite others to do the same. Use what you like and what works for you.)

Step 4: Let the network do the work. Once you begin to form your own Personal Learning Network (PLN) through social media and in-person connections, they will share with you, comment on your shares and patterns will emerge. You’ll find those people whose content you trust, and in turn connect with who they trust. You will increasingly find relevant content—because you are getting better at contextualizing and sense-making – making Step 1 less and less necessary. You’ll find that the content you find through your PLN comes preloaded with contextual relevance because it is from/through the network you are building: Your own network of people, ideas and applications.

Step 5: Practice. It’s a practice, so, you know, practice! This is not a just-in-time activity to do at the moment of need. In order to build your sense-making capabilities, this becomes a part of the way you work. It requires pruning, nurturing, adding and subtracting. Your PLN and the ways you make sense of ideas will shift over time. That’s learning! Don’t be rigid: Learn to trust the system you’ve created.

Ben's PKM ProcessIn the end, the important thing is making the initial decision, learning what you can from it and moving forward. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself relating back to a few core ideas time and again, anchoring learning in principles and allowing for deep exploration without completely losing your bearings.

Happy exploring! (Oh, and choose the healthy cereal, except on your birthday. Then, frosted all the way!)

I have an Idea: Now what?

31 Mar

The older I become and experience I gain, the more interesting ideas I find and (sometimes) generate. Some are silly, some (I think) are quite insightful, and other need time to marinate in the juices of other ideas and experience to even make sense.

Some ideas are immediately applicable, while others remain theoretical. Some never make it past mindful amusement, while others change personal and professional practice in meaningful and lasting ways. But even the most ethereal add value by constantly shifting the filter mechanisms through which new ideas and experiences are sorted.

I’m not exceptional in any way in this regard – pretty much everyone has ideas all the time that amuse, fascinate, and distract. I have created my own system that has been working (for me) for keeping and weighing ideas over the last several years, and it folds in nicely with the more general connectivist mindset that resonate with me. At the heart of connectivism is the idea of relativity: Ideas, knowledge, experience and actions are not absolute, but are constantly measured against past and freshly-acquired content/context. That is, we are in a constant state of recalibrating and re-measuring what we know, what we do, and what we think.

I am not a good self-organizer, and never have been. Attention to detail is not my strong suit. But, I’ve learned how to incorporate a systematic process – a PKM practice, I suppose – that works for me. Being naturally disorganized and messy, it would be a stretch to recommend what works for me to

My Scoop.It page is one place to collect and reflect on ideas.

My Scoop.IT page is one place to collect and reflect on ideas.

anyone else.

I believe the key, though, is to have a system – any system that works – and practice it faithfully. What’s more, when we capture those ideas digitally, via Evernonote file, audio “notes-to-self”, curated boards (like Pinterest or Scoop.It), Twitter favs and retweets, and so on, it becomes easy to tag, retrieve and connect. I shuffle ideas into connections via visual mind maps, with arrows, dotted lines and color codes. About once a month I do a formal iteration break, with the archives becoming a record of my idea evolution.

One other great benefit of that process is it is easily shared, too. As we are discovering, the Work Out Loud (and their corollaries Think Out Loud and Learn Out Loud) practice is a centerpiece of both personal and organizational growth.

Whatever your practice is or becomes, it is learned and constantly refined. Don’t assume that others have the skills to do this on their own. I learned from others, and I try to share with others the purpose and benefits of thinking and working in this way.

Sense-making In The Learning Age is an ongoing process, and I welcome hearing from you about how you make it work.

Riding the Digital Stream

23 Mar

Proud to be part of the Learning Solutions Magazine community! See my article, just published there today: Riding the Digital Stream: Integrating Modern Learning Practice into Formal Programs

LS Mag Front

Mind Maps, Mental Geography, and a New Compass

4 Mar

Whether we are aware of it or not, we all carry a sense of place for ourselves and how/where we fit in to our workplace, professional networks of colleagues, and social circles. Most of us move through our careers making decisions big and small based on how we perceive that mental geography.

For most of us, the traditional map is some variation of hierarchy, departmentalization, and areas of influence. I manage this project, those people; I am managed by her and I belong to that department; I provide service for them but have little influence over what they do and how they do it. As with all creations of our mind, the reality of that geography may have never reflected what could or should be, but hierarchy and silos made sense in a world of traditional leadership and departmentalization.

That world is shifting digital sand under our feet. With the advent of digital communication and open networks, our ability to lead, follow, influence, and be influenced has never been more fluid. The anxiety that individuals and organizations feel over the last several years reflects the loss of the map that has served us, and with it our understanding of our place.

Each node can find each other, be it person, data, server; internal or external to an organization.

Each node can find each other, be it person, data, server; internal or external to an organization.

We now live in a networked age. We are all increasingly interconnected with, by, and through each other and with information that ricochets around us at nearly imperceptible speeds. Hierarchy is giving way to wireachy. A new mental map forms, where people, data, and ideas are all vectors that connect or deflect in reaction to each other. The hierarchy that was so effective in amassing the troops and directing activities is giving way to something quite different.

Once we grok this new geography of the digital age, our anxiety (hopefully) gives way to a world of possibility. “Leaders” (C-levels, principals, independent consultants/contractors) begin to realize that they cannot and should not attempt to oversee actions, and “workers” understand that theirs is not to wait to act on orders but rather to discover, filter, learn, synthesize, and share by what becomes a Personal Knowledge Mastery (PKM) practice . We are level on the flat plane of the network age. (Read a terrific background and personal discovery story of PKM by Harold Jarche.)

Our primary activity is to learn. Whatever our job is today will be different tomorrow. Those who cling to “this is how we do it here” will be increasingly isolated and frustrated. Those who become continuous learners and flexible actors will be in position to thrive.

This new Learning Age perhaps requires not a map at all, but a compass. In a flat landscape without rivers to cross and mountains to climb, we need a direction in which to head and the agency and autonomy to find our own ways. Leaders will still set the necessary vectors and create a compass for all in an organization to follow, but individuals are free to explore, fail, succeed, and learn with shifting collaboration and cooperation as the moment warrants.

Learning professionals have an essential role to play. While a small percentage of people are already setting their compass and navigating the network, most don’t have the mental geography or digital skills to learn, influence, and make sense of the new reality. Learning is not only essential, but so too is learning to learn—and relearn—the recursions of modern digital work. We need to step up and show people how navigate.

Knowledge led people to change from reading the stars for fate to instead use them for navigation. Hmmm … nodes in the network resemble stars in the sky. Yes, recursion.

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