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Learning architecture in the Business

A recent LINE survey of Learning and Development professionals showed that 52% were familiar with the concept of Learning Architecture. In addition, response to our articles and white papers on the subject, and the reception of our recent workshop event at the Royal Institution, as reported on by Peter Williams in the e.learning age Magazine, all reinforce the impression that this is an idea whose idea has come.


However, perhaps the most significant vote in favour of this new architectural way of thinking about learning comes when we engage with clients about their needs and drivers, and bring the concept of learning architectures to bear on the business challenges.

The twin challenges facing today’s businesses

As I write, businesses across the world are facing two very difficult sets of challenges. One, which we all hope will be more short-term in nature, arises from the problems of the global economy. The other, more long-term set of challenges stems from the world we work in becoming faster and more complex. Everything is more complex. Everything is expected faster.

We are seeing this deep underlying shift, at LINE, across a wide range of the sectors we work in.

1. Automotive/Manufacturing. Asian economies now copy Western innovations in a fraction of the time it used to take them. In the view of Volvo Trucks, this time has been cut from two years to six months.

2. Finance. Banks are required to understand the complex world they operate in – at speed – and to manage fundamental change in the knowledge and skills of their global workforces at a scale equal to the challenge. How is it possible to get their people to understand ever more complex regulation and technology, against the background of a world where multi-billion global trading takes place in nano-seconds?

3. Professional services. The ‘Big Four’ consulting firms have acknowledged that today’s auditors, for example, could be trained all, day every day and still not know everything they need to know. Those auditors, and many other categories of workers, increasingly need access to learning at the point of need.

4. Defence. The world’s defence organisations are now having to fight completely different types of battles – facing all manner of new threats from EIDs to ‘cyberwars’ – at the same time as dealing with massive budget cuts. So how do you retrain from ‘command and control’ to ‘specialist problem solvers’ at high speed?

5. Government.All departments across most western governments are subject to cuts. That means remaining workers needing to do cover more roles in an environment of exponentially increasing policy and legislation.

6. Any business now needs to use technology well to be competitive. Technology is both driving and enabling the ability for globalisation.

Manufacturing, banking, accounting, defence, government, as well as all SMEs and most consumers, are now saying that the old models for learning are no longer adequate to meet this changed business environment.

At the same time, the troubled economic outlook is making them ever more mindful of the need to maximise the value of their spend on people development. It is seen as a critical area, but one where they have to do more with less.

So what do they need from learning?

I would say two main things:

  1. Efficiency – reduced time competence, learning compression
  2. Effectiveness – people who have learned and can go on to learn the next thing to the right level of quality

(NB: we often see ‘over-training’ which is almost as bad, commercially speaking, as lack of training)

To achieve this goal, everyone needs to acknowledge that the nature of learning has changed – and will change more in the years to come.

The complexity of our world means you cannot retain your knowledge in the way you used to. You just need to know how to learn fast and be provided with the right route to get it quickly and easily. This means acknowledging that ‘training’ is not a one-off event. It is a sustained activity that flexes according to your personal and organisational need. In this way, organisations need to help their own people be ‘fit’ for our new, and highly competitive, world.

This is where Learning Architectures come in. The well designed architecture will achieve the optimum (i.e. the most effective) result for the least (i.e. the most efficient) cost.

Very probably, it is not possible for an organisation to respond to these macro-scale challenges using only the traditional training toolkit: the economics of that model no longer stack up for most organisations. However, introducing the new technologies in an unplanned, unfocused way – without some sort of strategic vision for how this expanded set of tools and capabilities can be deployed to benefit the business – is no better recipe for success, as Towards Maturity’s benchmarking research has shown.

Learning strategy needs to be aligned with business goals. It is therefore absolutely essential that organisations think architecturally if they are to make the most effective, efficient use of learning innovations.

What does the Business need from a learning architecture?

Outputs of the above-mentioned workshop have enabled us to probe a little into this are and establish some meta-requirements for what the Business needs from a learning architecture.

The diagram shows some the key issues that emerged.

Scalability

A learning architecture needs the breadth of vision to encompass the very large scale of many challenges in people development today. One of the big problems with traditional face-to-face training has been that it doesn’t scale well. Technology-supported learning has more inherent ability to scale up, but many years of operating at ‘pilot’ scale have limited ambitions in some quarters. A learning architecture often needs a big vision.

Metrics & reporting

In line with scalability comes the requirement for an appropriate feedback loop, and definition of appropriate critical success factors against which results can be measured. Training has traditionally suffered from a lack of effective assessment. With magnified programme scale, however, comes a greater pressure to demonstrate results and ROI, as well as the sort of continuous monitoring that can allow a programme to be refined and, if necessary, refocused.

Local vs Global

As a slight counter to the above point about scale, architectures also need the flexibility to cope with local variations and creativity. Large, dispersed organisations often embrace a rich diversity of different regional or business units. Architectures must be subtle enough to respond to and cater for these differences.

Capturing and Defining Success

The learning ‘back channel’ established by effective measurement is not just about proving ROI. Examples of good practice should be picked up where they emerge, to be shared around the rest of the organisation. An architecture should provide for this.

Processes

It is clear from the above that an architecture is not just about content, technology and people: in order to carry on creating effective learner journeys, and to be sustainable across time, an architecture will need to define some processes. These will not only be about L&D workflow, but should also serve to integrate learning into the organisation’s existing business processes.

Speed (to publish and react)

Given the drivers mentioned earlier, this is almost a given. Time-to-competence is a key focus for architectures. In the wider perspective, an architecture may also have to look at how content is going to be generated, designed and delivered in response to changing needs.

Aligning to the strategy

Again, a bit of a given in the light of our opening remarks, it is good to see that this point came strongly out of the workshops. Alignment with business strategy is cited as a key characteristic of mature organisations in Towards Maturity’s benchmarking research; these being the organisations that derive the greatest business benefits from their use of learning innovation. For a learning architecture, alignment to business strategy is therefore critical.

If you would like to find out more, there are numerous resources including a downloadable white paper. We will be continuing our work on the Learning Architectures concept into 2012, and as a way of developing it further we would like to invite learning architects within organisations to share their stories with us, so that we can help the community learn from good practice – and maybe avoid a few pitfalls! In all this I would hope that, as an industry, we can stop talking ‘fad’ technologies and rather have a mature debate about what works…and what doesn’t…in a more profound view of how people can learn quickly in an increasingly demanding world.

This post first appeared on the LINE blog on 14th February 2012.