The Google Plus logo

Learning Architectures III – Architectures and Learning Strategy

This post first appeared on the LINE blog on 10th February 2012.

In this article previously published in E-learning Age, Steve Barden, Head of Consulting at LINE looks at architectures and learning strategy.

Our previous discussions of the Learning Architectures concept will likely have left an important question in many minds. We talked about the capabilities that are needed within Learning & Development – the ‘building blocks’ of a Learning Architecture (see diagram) – but at what level of operation are we speaking here? Is it, at the level of the learning programme? Or are we talking about an organisation’s overall learning strategy?

The simple answer is, both. Thinking architecturally about learning is something so critical and fundamental that it should be done at an organisational level as well as when we plan any specific learning programme to develop knowledge, skills or behaviours.

However, this answer might seem confusing. Surely, there is quite a difference of scale between the two activities. While setting an overall organisational strategy will include looking at many different technologies and modalities (the macro level), designing a learning programme to fulfil a particular tactical objective might include far fewer (the micro level). It could just be a matter, in fact, of using one: a workshop rolled out to key learner populations perhaps, in the traditional model.

In addition, there is something more all-embracing and enduring about a learning strategy. It looks at learning provision holistically; focusing on assets, capabilities, software products, resources; but also taking into account the characteristics of the learner population and its various segments. Programmes, on the other hand often deal with only a (relatively) small subset of that learner population, and typically have more immediate drivers, less resource to play with and tighter time constraints.

So how can the same learning architecture principles apply at both levels? How can one model fit both modes of operation?

Learning architectures: a tactical or strategic concept?

Think about it this way. Let’s return to our image of the different capabilities you need as ‘building blocks’ for a complete architecture: it is the over-arching learning strategy that will define the precise set of building blocks L&D will have at its disposal out of which it can build learning programmes. Clearly this puts pressure on whoever creates the strategy to get it right, because the design of all learning programmes in that organisation subsequently will be limited by the scope and constraints of that strategy. Whoever creates the strategy must think carefully about the type and variety of capabilities that will be called upon for designing learning programmes for their particular organisation – in a 70/20/10 world, with its mix of formal and informal interventions; with its blend of structured and unstructured learning solutions.

Potentially, all learning programmes are different. But they can be classified in type according to how formally the learning objectives and goals are defined, and how structured the actual solution is in terms of its sequence or learning path. In reality, there will be different degrees of formality and structure in each element of a blended solution but for the purposes of illustration let’s use the four extremes.

A representation of this situation, with the four prime types of programme architecture that can result:

  • Formal, structured – where the instructor defines the timing, place, goals and objective as in a traditional, instructional solution and it follows a defined sequence of learning. (Jay Cross defines them as the authority-led approach typified by academic and training departments). In the 70:20:10 model this is strictly the ‘10’ and often applied where mandated learning is required.
  • Formal, unstructured – again a traditional delivery approach but where the learning sequence is more freeform or determined by the learner (you could say those typified by more advanced academic, experiential learning systems). A move into the ‘20’ space with signposting and support but where a variety of paths can be followed.
  • Informal, structured – where the learner is in control of the time, place or goals but follows predefined pathway(s) to achieve them. This may be in the ‘20’ or the ‘70’ and applies more typically where a specific job-related skill is being sought.
  • Informal, unstructured – clearly the space occupied by social learning and will be alien except in the ‘70’ world of learning whilst working.

It follows from the above that every organisation will have a different strategic mix of capabilities, depending on the type of programmes they need to run. Learning Architectures is definitely not a one-size-fits-all methodology. Within large and complex organisations the overall structure of learning provision must be flexible enough to cater for all points along this spectrum. Smaller organisations or those with a more homogenous workforce may have a narrower set of building blocks.

It is also interesting to note how different this world is from traditional training where, broadly speaking, the huge majority of learning needs were met with just one basic capability – face-to-face classroom training.

Learner journeys

Now that we have defined the relationship between strategic-level and programme-level design with regards to our building blocks, or capabilities, it is necessary to say a little about Learner Journeys, which is another important part of the architectural toolkit. Learner Journeys are what bring the different capabilities together, providing the structure; if you like, it’s about organising this range of diverse modalities and technologies into a coherent whole to meet a particular learning objective.

This is fairly straightforward to imagine at the programme level of operation. It can be easily grasped that the learner journey is the time-based dimension of learning design; the experience we want the learner to have, the clear steps towards the destination we want them to arrive at, where they will have required a particular competency, attitude or awareness.

However, Learner Journeys also operates as a concept at the strategic level. Here it involves taking a strategic view of the employee’s life and progress within the organisation, right through from induction to succession planning. Along the way, the employee will encounter many facets of the organisation’s Learning Architecture (using that term in its strategic sense) which could include professional development, performance improvement, technical and skills training – but also training interventions where the employee takes an active part as a resource within learning provision, such as mentoring. You could call this, if you like, a meta-journey – the through-life journey the learner is on during their time within the organisation, of which Learner Journeys at the programme level form constituent parts.

A good, consistently managed and designed Learning Architecture might therefore be said to be ‘fractal’ in character – i.e. at what ever level of granularity you look at it, micro or macro, it has something of a similar shape.

Blended learning by another name?

It is at the strategic level that it becomes most clear that thinking architecturally about learning is not just blended learning by another name.

In a sense, yes, Learning Architectures is a more sophisticated form of blended learning. Both are multi-modal, and address a diverse universe of learning delivery platforms. However, blended learning as an approach tends to be tactical and programme driven. Conceptually, it is about adding technology into an existing mix, rather than starting from a place where all methods and modalities – offline and online, synchronous and asynchronous, formal and informal, structured and unstructured – are all (in theory, at least) equally available. You need more than the concept of a blend, driven by instructional design, to tackle business issues in today’s organisations at the scale they present themselves. You need architecture. And you need architects.

Training the trainer

One further area that needs to be touched on in talking about learning strategy with regards to Learning Architectures – even if there is not space here to do it anything like full justice – is that of the skills and capabilities of the learning and development department, and in particular learning designers, which need to evolve to embrace those of the learning architect.

This is clearly a strategic issue. Leading and managing learning in the 21st Century involves a lot of specialised new understandings. The administration of learning, for instance, involves understanding of the LMS market, and standards such as SCORM. Online learning delivery is increasingly going multi-platform, necessitating understanding of mobile technologies and different device form-factors. The field of learning design is moving really rapidly to keep up with the new possibilities available. And there are some quite specialised skill-sets developing around activities such as facilitating a virtual classroom session.

Clearly, the teams that manage learning now need different skills and knowledge from those of twenty years ago. And new skills and understandings are also needed by those who lead these teams – the learning architects.

What are the skills-sets, and capabilities needed to be an effective learning architect? We can’t give a quick answer here, but it is obviously a critical question, since these skillsets – as provided for in an organisation-wide learning strategy – are what ultimately will produce the programmes. And it is the programmes, created according to robust and replicable learning architectures that will produce sustainable business results.