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Ninjas of the New Learning Organisation


LEO Learning recently held a Discussion Dinner as part of the consultation process around its white paper The New Learning Organisation. In the first of a three-part report from the event by John Helmer, we hear about the importance of stealth in launching innovative programmes.

A hand-picked group of learning innovators from world-leading organisations debated issues raised by this white paper under Chatham House rules. Organisations represented included BP, Credit Suisse, Defence Academy, Defence College of Communication and Information Systems, Home Office, HSBC, Jaguar Land Rover, KPMG, PwC, University of Birmingham, Volkswagen and Xerox.

Part One: Why is it so difficult?

To kick the discussion off, we asked the question: why is it so difficult to create appropriate conditions for the type of learning that goes beyond ‘the course’ and addresses the full 70:20:10 vision of knowledge and learning?

This sparked an interesting discussion about:
• The barriers to innovation within organisations
• The stealth strategies used to overcome them
• Deeper issues around the organisation of learning

Barriers to innovation

Most of those around the table had experience of launching innovative learning programmes at significant scale within large organisations – and achieving considerable success, in many cases. But none, it seemed, was in a mood to play down the difficulty of scaling this up and making lasting structural change to the way learning gets organised.

The chief source of problems? There were three.

Organisational leaders are generally more interested in financial drivers than in the particular learning dynamic being used. Perhaps understandably. However the general ignorance about what L&D does at strategic level – the fact that Learning is such a ‘dark art’ – can cause many problems.

In UK Defence for instance, the goal has been defined to produce an ‘agile, thinking warrior’ by 2020. Fantastic as this concept might be, it has clear implications for those who know their Bloom’s Taxonomy, about the role L&D must play that are hard to convey to those who do not have that background knowledge.
Leaving aside the ‘warrior’ part, which is easy enough to train for, the ‘agile, thinking’ part clearly involves a ‘creative exploitative piece’ and is not a hard skill, but a ‘real attitudinal competence’. This type of language, however, and the concepts that underlie it, simply doesn’t register with the organisation’s leaders.

Many leaders continue to measure learning solely through training days delivered, and to shape their expectations around the education system they went through themselves. It is possible to change the conversation, however.

One guest – who does not have a training background, incidentally – counseled understanding what’s important to the people at the top table and what makes them click. In this case, that meant the number of units sold, how quickly staff got trained, and how much face-to-face training could be converted to blended learning. Doing the maths showed a £9k saving per technician across 4,000 technicians per annum – so a different way of doing things found a clear business case that was, essentially, outcomes-based.

Users/learners don’t always take to new ways of doing things as easily as one might suppose. People might be avid users of social media in their day-to-day lives but then shy away from a social network set up by their organisation to help with learning. There is often a ‘creepy treehouse effect’ with such networks that puts people off.

Contrast this with the success of the Army Rumour Service (or ARRSE), a social network set up by ‘a couple of army guys’ that allows serving members to exchange learning and information. The reason why it is so popular may be that 60-70% of it is just gossip – something that organisations in general don’t like to see.

It is all too easy to assume that younger users are naturally digitally literate. The reality is that while they might be able to skim Google, their ability to understand which knowledge sources have authority, and how you might recognize that, should not be taken for granted. The JISC info kit, which outlines seven aspects of digital literacy, was cited as a useful resource in this regard. Digital literacy is also about protecting online identity, understanding which devices you can use, and other aspects that it is all too easy to make glib assumptions about which might have no relation to the true state of digital literacy within a target population.

Levels of digital literacy vary widely across global organisations and, as in so many things, it is dangerous to base assumptions on one’s own level of knowledge. The learning architect might consider herself exceptionally digitally literate –and live among friends and family members, young and old, who have all, to greater or lesser extent, found new ways of getting through their daily lives – communicating, fixing a DVD, organizing travel, etc. – with the help of technology in the past few years. But the learning architect must cater for populations where there is not such a high level of digital literacy. If he works in Upstream Oil and Gas, for instance, he might have to factor in the digital literacy of an oil well operator in Romania, as well as that of the white collar employees in his organisation.

The culture of learning in organisations is often inimical to the type of innovation we are talking about.

In Defence, for instance, learning is seen as a stepping stone and is imposed on the learner – ‘Thou shalt go and do a course’ – with the result that there is a lack of intrinsic motivation to learn. Although training is the route to career progression, at the same time there is a ‘bums-on-seats’, ‘tick-box’ mentality that tends to militate against any sort of culture of self-directed learning. ‘Our people really become self-directed learners when they’re about to leave and go into the job market’.

In the government sector, the emphasis is on conformity and obeying rules, and the role of learning is to make sure people understand the rules. With that as a starting point, with everything fixed in legislation, how do you get that shift in learning you have to go through?

Although there were differences across the many sectors and different types of organisations represented around our table, in the view of one guest at least it was the very diversity and individuality of organisations that causes problems. ‘What we’re trying to do is find a magic thread that aligns all of this … but each organisation has got something askew that doesn’t align to getting to this particular point’.

A commonality was seen across all sectors, however, in the difficulties of taking innovation mainstream with a lot of stakeholders involved. As was pointed out in the white paper, a strategic learning initiative will tend to impact many different parts of the organisation – Marketing, IT, Knowledge Management, etc.
The result is a lot of interested stakeholders who each want to have their say. This can slow down the process or stop development altogether, because there are very different views about how the learning should be rolled out across the business (the ignorance about what L&D does mentioned above no doubt plays a role in this). This tends to throw L&D back on point solutions, which are easier to get through, and create much less resistance.

But what if you really want to do something innovative and broadly focused, something that makes a difference? The answer that came back from this group – and it was clearly a majority view – was that you do it by stealth.

Going underground
Innovation is disruptive, and if you really want to do something disruptive, according to at least one of our delegates, you have to hide. The very nature of disruption is something that organisations are designed to reject and to suppress. ‘To do innovative work you have to be very small, very quick. You have to be camouflaged as something else and just suddenly reveal.’

This point of view was backed up by a guest who has managed to take the learning agenda to the very top of their organisation, but who nevertheless doesn’t think you can give up hiding altogether:

‘In my organisation the only way to effect changes in learning is to keep it under cover and then go “ta-da!”. When you open it up [to all stakeholders] it’s too hard to get some of the buy-in because everybody wants a piece of what you’re doing. I find it easier to work with two or three people and have one sponsor in a senior position’.

The message is that you always need at least one such highly-placed sponsor, but if you try and get all of them together the result can be a lot of political battles you might not be able to win.

The answer was felt to lie in working with trusted stakeholders with whom you can have ‘honest one-to-one conversations – otherwise it just gets too big’.

Stealth governance?
LINE always knew that the consultation exercise over its White Paper would lead to some reflection on its premises, and unexpected links to other lines of thought (how could we not be open to ‘double loop learning’?).

However, the news that learning innovators across the board feel themselves still to be operating as stealth ninjas within their organisations came as a mild surprise. The White Paper cites the use of learning governance boards, recommended by Charles Jennings as one of the ways of bringing about structural change, but here was a different and more selective approach to working with stakeholders.

A further refinement to the premise of the paper was offered on business alignment. The paper may have been guilty, to a degree, in repeating what has become a bit of mantra in our industry; that L&D should align itself with the needs of the business – without also acknowledging the tension that can often exist between the needs of the business and the needs of individuals.

Alignment with whom?

One delegate in particular felt that there was increasingly a decision between serving the needs of the business and serving the needs of the people working in that business. ‘The business loves elearning because it can manage as it can other conventional functions; but the users are increasingly turning to other techniques and methods – Google, BYOD and so on. So the question starts to arise, whose ends are you serving? Because you can quite easily meet the needs of the business, but be held in contempt by the end users. And that is becoming quite stark’.

From an academic perspective, it has long been believed that organisations are comprised of a formal system and an informal system (called the ‘task’ system and the ‘sentient’ system in the literature) but that trying to work through the informal system was not effective. What we’re seeing now is a complete reversal of that, as the sentient system becomes far more available due to technology.

The trouble is, we too readily try to institutionalise innovation, which risks robbing it of its ‘under-the-radar’ velocity and, ultimately, killing it.

Clearly the job of a learning architect trying to transform training in their organisation is not an easy one, calling for stealth, sensitivity to the different, sometimes conflicting interests at play, and the instinct to occasionally leave well alone.

Another narrative highly prevalent in the industry is around staff engagement, and this too came under question. Organisations engage staff for their own purposes, but, ‘unless there’s something in it for me, why would I want to do that?’. There has to be something in it for the individual. More on this later.

The new learning organisation – or a new organisation of learning?

Cartoon on the company dinner Despite its title, the White Paper makes no explicit link with the work of Pete Senge, who originally formulated the concept of The Learning Organisation. However in discussing the issues above, reference was made to his ideas about mindset, process, team learning, and personal mastery. One delegate at least felt that it is within the context of these wider organisational issues that discussions about innovation and technology need to take place.

The LINE paper made no bones about being an observation from practice, rather than an attempt to update this illustrious predecessor – and the suggestion of one delegate that the paper was really about ‘the new organisation of learning’ was concurred with by the LINE team.

Similarly, Action Learning has a lot to tell us about the importance of asking the right questions as a component of digital literacy and Bloom’s Taxonomy was also referenced (see above) as a tool of continuing utility. It is a point well made that emerging practice in learning might have jettisoned a few of the old theoretical hand-rails, but will still find much in the literature that is of enduring value. This is a process of debate and enquiry, not a Year Zero!

Do people actually want to learn?

Returning to the question of engagement, and motivation to learn, one delegate reflected that 50% of the training his organisation delivers is mandated and people don’t like it, whereas about 25% is learning where people have a need or question they want to find an answer to, which is where real motivation is found.

This drew the assertion from another delegate that nobody, nowadays, wants to learn anything. ‘Learning is so passé, so yesterday. People don’t want to learn, they want to do stuff, they want to perform.’ Technology is increasingly freeing people from the necessity to learn – and they are using it at every opportunity to avoid learning.

‘Most of the technologies they’re using are not for learning purposes, they’re for the avoidance of learning, so we paradoxically have fallen into a business where we’re all about the avoidance of learning in the service of performance.’

Arguably, with the proliferation of options people have now about how they learn something, the percentage that can practically be controlled by the L&D function is reducing continuously.70:20:10 now looks more like 95:3:2 – in the personal experience of one delegate, who recently joined a new company. As a result, he thinks, it is more and more difficult for L&D to structure and control the process of learning transformation.

So is there an answer to this tension of what the business needs with what the individual needs? Where is the balance?

At the risk of falling for yet another industry mantra, the answer might well lie in performance: ‘the business will thank you if you improve performance, and the users will thank you if you help them to do their jobs.’

Where do we see best practice?

Having discussed barriers and blockers in this first part, the discussion then moved onto where we can see best practice in learning transformation. Watch out for the next post in this series to find out!