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How Mature Is Your Learning Culture?

Steve Barden, Lead Consultant, continues his series of articles on what learning maturity means to organisations.

I’m looking at learning maturity under three headings; learning structure, learning technology and finally the skills, knowledge and attitudes of the workforce that together define learning culture.

This time it’s the turn of technology. With examples drawn from our own work with clients, I’ll be addressing the following questions:
• What do we mean by a mature use of learning technologies?
• What are the important shifts in technology use that have happened between the initial, first generation of adoption within organisations and the emerging next generation?
• Where is this progress headed in the future?

In the beginning…

The first generation of e-learning adoption was all about transferring existing training activities to the computer; finding more-or-less direct online equivalents for physical-world processes.

So, instead of training courses delivered by trainers, we had self-paced online courses delivered to the computer desktop, in the CBT (computer-based training) mould. With the growth of the internet this became complemented by a real-time version of the physical-world training situation (i.e synchronous), or virtual classroom.

Online courses were built with the help of authoring tools, a process akin, in those days, to desktop publishing: media assets (graphics, video, sound) would be collected and created, then embedded in a particular course along with custom-built copy.

Training administration procedures were handled by the LMS, a database-driven software program that replaced a lot of metal filing cabinets in training departments.

Meanwhile, in the adult education space, the Open University was pioneering a form of distance learning transposed to the web – a natural enough progression for the organisation that had replaced physical-world lectures with an electronic equivalent delivered through the medium of television.

In all cases, during this initial period of learning technologies adoption, online delivery was assumed to be to a PC – whether at the employee’s workstation, in a learning centre or at home– as the default delivery situation for all technology supported learning.

First generation e-learning

This like-for-like transfer of physical-world training activities online resulted in an evolving suite of systems and software tools to cover every aspect of training development, delivery and management, it seemed. An all-encompassing vision for e-learning began to be expounded by analysts and technology vendors that promised massive efficiency savings.

Like many visions this one was destined to suffer radical modification on contact with reality.

As a model for the widespread deployment of learning, however, it has proved remarkably resilient and is still, largely speaking, the way new adopters of e-learning tend to conceptualise it. It is a simple, approachable model that has been a hand-rail for many organisations as they have taken their first steps in deploying learning technologies; albeit one that mature users will want to leave behind them as they move on.

The model breaks down

In practice, this model of straight offline/online equivalents proves limiting. Engagement with learning technologies in a working situation soon shows up its shortcomings, chief among which is that it replicates an anachronistic, top-down, command-and-control training culture, out of kilter not only with the prevalent culture of the Web but also with the changing face of workplace learning.

The broad shift in thinking about the internet which has gone under the label Web 2.0, together with the advent of blended learning, has revealed bigger opportunities for learning. Put baldly, it is not a matter of connecting people umbilically to machines – with the e-learning system, matrix-like, at the centre of the diagram – but about using technology flexibly and appropriately to connect people to a range of information sources and to each other in a flexible way which facilitates many different learning opportunities and pathways.

The next generation

I would hate to suggest that achieving greater learning maturity is ever a seamless and smooth path to enlightenment. Progress towards next generation use of learning technologies is often uneven, sporadic, fitful – and even, in some instances, a bit chaotic.

Once it arrives, however, next generation learning looks and feels very different.

No more courses for horses

Perhaps the first feature of the traditional training landscape to come under pressure with growing maturity is the course. The notion that any training requirement should automatically and inevitably result in provision of a course breaks down – or where it persists, at least ceases to be a straight-jacket.

There are good reasons for this, and ones that were not necessarily obvious to the first generation of e-learning pioneers.

In picking apart the constituent pieces of traditional training delivery, technology forces recognition that there is a spectrum in training interventions and a blend is always going to be the most appropriate. (see diagram below). Not all elements involve instruction nor, necessarily, technology. Some activities carried out under the banner of training are really more about effective communication: you get a bunch of people in a room, give them details of a new procedure they have to follow, answer their questions and perhaps test retention afterwards. There is very little instructional depth in such an exercise – and very little rationale, in an age of networked communications media, for taking those people away from the workplace in order to carry it out.

From instruction to information: the learning continuum

Towards the other end of the spectrum are a host of activities that certainly do require a space for reflection, role-play and human mediation.

Example – Inter Ikea BV Systems – Discovering the Ikea Concept

Inter Ikea BV Systems developed a blended programme to train 295 retailers across 26 territories where, alongside scenario based videos, small teams were created to research topic areas, create learning materials and then train each other, all in a facilitated environment.

The problem is, activities at both ends of the continuum are often bound up within a single course, a fact that becomes very clear when you try to take the course online. The best answer to this conundrum, especially when designing learning programmes at scale, has proved to be designing sophisticated blends of offline and online delivery methods – selecting each resource to do the job it does best and most efficiently.

As a result, expensive people time is not wasted, if technology is used appropriately and effectively.

A further pressure on the course comes from the realisation that having the ability to deliver learning into the working situation means that it should be delivered in smaller chunks, for use as and when needed. In this regard, the mantra ‘just-in-time, not just-in-case’ is probably familiar enough to need no explanation here!

Where discreet tasks can be handled in this way – a five minutes nugget accessed directly before an important meeting, for instance – there is less need to take people out of the workplace obviously, but also blurs the division between learning time and work time, (not to mention less academic agonising over how best to embed learning in the learner’s memory!) The whole culture of learning delivery changes in the organisation as a result.

Example – Credit Suisse – Learning Nuggets

Credit Suisse delivered a new form of e-learning to all parts of their organisation through a series of media-rich, highly interactive learning nuggets on a range of topics from e-learning etiquette to more complex financial topics.

Management of learning

Administrative functions around learning also change. From the corporate university model of first generation learning we move to a more granular, learner-focused model, with the opportunity for a greater level of personalisation. Instead of the LMS being a place to go, personalised information is increasingly pushed to the user as needed or required, with learning, in some cases, having a constant place on the user desktop.

Example – Home Office – Discovery LMS

The Home Office rolled out a new Learning Management System (LMS) for 30,000 employees. The system was designed to enable users to reach learning quickly and easily. The platform was launched with a full communications programme and within 14 weeks, the LMS had 17,000 registered learners.

Typically, as organisations mature, they take more of their learning content production in-house, or look for ways to rationalise the production of online learning content.

Example – BBC – Records Management

The BBC use Mohive to quickly and easily create content and outsource certain aspects of the project to external vendors to ensure the courses and graphics look appealing and professional.

Another part of the management agenda is the introduction of rapid tools which have grown up to fulfil this need, many offering rather ‘quick-and-dirty’ DIY solutions. But at the premium end of the market, the Learning Content Management System (LCMS) provides a way of managing the complete content workflow, allowing reuse or rechanneling of media assets to deliver onto more than one platform. At its most sophisticated, the LCMS shades over into the field of Knowledge Management.

A good LCMS also helps with repurposing of learning content for the more diverse online delivery environment that emerges with second generation learning. Smartphones, MP3 players, touchscreen tablets and even games platforms such as Nintendo DS become learning delivery options. Cross-platform delivery, with the technical issues it sparks, raises a new set of decisions to factor in to your learning strategy.

Open Source

One of the major strands in Web 2.0 was the emergence of Open Source software as a major enabler of phenomena such as blogging, wikis, social media, social bookmarking, etc. Mature users become good at leveraging the free or low cost tools and resources provided by Open Source, which have made learning technologies accessible
to a far wider audience (witness the huge popularity of Moodle throughout education) and enable canny L&D departments to do far more within their existing budgets.

Mature users do more, also with existing enterprise tools. Virtual classroom technology is no longer used just to replicate the standard training session, but can also scale to encompass anything from one-to-one meetings to a whole-company webinar. Here, as earlier, we see a dissolving of the boundary between learning and communications.

Perhaps the most significant change that comes with second generation learning, however, is the rise of the self-driven learner.

The Third Generation

The description above may represent the state of the art as it is being practiced within many forward-looking teams and initiatives today, but already we are beginning to see the first judderings of a further paradigm shift for learning and communications that will define the shape of what they are doing tomorrow (Web 3.0 anyone?).

The Semantic Web, with its promise of intelligent agents – in this context, automated personal trainers who will do our information gathering for us from the databases underlying the web – may seem very much a thing of conference papers and guru hype at the moment, but it is becoming increasingly real, with Google introducing semantic technologies to its search, and working examplars such as Wolfram Alpha.

Augmented reality (AR), another popular buzzphrase, is even more real, with new smartphone apps appearing every day. AR has the potential to change the learning model substantially by combining stored or computer generated data with real-time images and actions.

If the core of second generation learning was the JIT factor – a radical alteration to the time factor in delivering learning – then the third generation’s distinctive shift may be all about place.

There are many examples of how technology supports learning at a specific place. For example, using a combination of mobile technologies (wireless and GPS) and the device as the learning tool which can provide performance/knowledge support, augmented learning or assessment delivered according to the user’s location. For example a piece of place-dependant learning can be delivered to a hand-held device using RFID and GPS technologies to guide an engineer sent out to repair a piece of equipment. The material guides them through the complete process, from initial identification of the equipment, the giving of step by step instructions according to a maintenance schedule, down to a fine level of specific detail advising exactly which piece of equipment to repair and what to repair it with.

Another example is from the Singapore Army where cadets are set trails to learn about the military heritage and culture by physically attending sites, capturing images and videos and answering place dependent questions.

Is this still learning? Who knows? But it is certainly the shape of things to come.

Clearly cross-platform delivery is an important part of this future, and a couple of technologies are important to watch in this regard.

The impact of HTML5, the next generation of web code, already in the early stages of introduction, will become more pervasive across platforms, making learning more accessible. There will be less issues about getting data to a mobile device, making cross-platform development easier from a development point of view, and so cheaper and easier to deliver.

LCMSs are becoming more sophisticated in their ability to deliver cross-platform and to multiple channels, and can be the heart of a right-time/right-place delivery system that leverages an organization’s information and data resources efficiently to empower and support its workforce.

Third generation learning will be more about helping with tasks in real time, rather than transfer knowledge for later use, and thus will be less dependant on memory. Orientation or concept building, however, will probably still be done in the traditional way, and will be engineered to leave you with a clear view of how you get the knowledge you need to do the job.

We forsee an ever greater adoption of the 70/20/10 model, addressing the need to learn at the point of application. Already much more is taking place in that space; blending learning and knowledge at work – with more informal learning with others going on, and sharing of best practices.

In a sense, organisational learning comes full circle here: informal learning has always been the greater part of the learning taking place, outstripping formal training courses. Third generation use of learning technology will simply give informal learning its proper place and prominence – while also, in the process, scaling up and turbo-charging its effectiveness.

As greater maturity comes to the learning and communications community, those who might once have considered IT very much part of someone else’s remit become avid watchers of the technology landscape as it evolves. But they have to learn to distinguish fact from fiction. One resource well worth keeping an eye on, if you want to keep a level eye on where third generation learning is headed, is the Gartner hype curve.

Interested in finding out how LEO's expert consultants can help in assessing and improving the maturity of your learning culture?

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