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Report From the 2nd Line Learning Architectures Workshop 2012

The purpose of this event, held at London’s historic Royal Institution, was:

1. To share and validate our latest work on Learning Architectures with practitioners from many different business sectors – the learning architects of their organisations.

2. To advance our mutual understanding of the Learning Architectures concept through group work in a series of structured workshops.

The day was a great success, both from LINE’s point of view and also, to judge by the many positive comments that were received, from that of the participating learning architects.

We found a great deal of support for our belief in the importance of thinking architecturally, and also learned more about the importance of learning culture to nurturing this approach.

The presentations

1. Piers Lea

Piers introduced the event on behalf of LINE, summarising the business drivers for this new approach to learning.

Chief among these he sees is the increasing speed of change in business, often driven by technology. A specific example of how quickly technology changes and how it can drive down costs dramatically was given recently by the announcement of a USB device than can produce a complete DNA sequence in a matter of minutes. Although as yet unproven, the device, known as MinION, from Oxford Nanopore, promises to do for just $900 something that in the early 2000s would have cost somewhere in the region of $3 billion (i.e. it’s a million-fold cheaper) potentially revolutionising this vital field of study.

Taking another example, from one of LINE’s clients present at the event, Piers cited the dramatic recovery of Jaguar Land Rover; a company whose imminent demise was being predicted by analysts not long ago, but which has turned its business around to the point where it has achieved $1 billion of profit in each of its last two years. This fast turnaround, which could not have happened in previous decades, is indicative of the accelerating pace of change in an industry that has seen time-to-market for new products slashed from six years to one.

Technology is an accelerator, then; but this acceleration often has other, unexpected effects that present new challenges to business, and especially to the learning function within business. The speed at which information can now be delivered to employees is leading to convergence effects: it is becoming hard sometimes to disentangle learning form communications and knowledge management. The move to just-in-time learning is making things crash together that used to be separate, challenging traditional organisational structures.

These powerful forces form the background to this new, architectural way of thinking about learning, which gives a rationale for how you combine disparate forms and media to provide meaningful and effective learning experiences.

2. Andrew Joly

Andrew, LINE’s design director, emphasised that not all organisations are in the same place when it comes to their application of this new way of thinking about learning. He compared the current situation to the San Francisco marathon, where some runners have finished before others have even crossed the Golden Gate Bridge at the start.

Organisations should not think of themselves as at the back of the pack, however, if they are not using the very latest e-learning tool. Some organisations are trying out new things all the time – while others are much better at delivering traditional L&D. And all points in between. There is no hierarchy; no right and wrong.

Andrew reprised some of the roots of LINE’s thinking about Learning Architectures, including the 70/20/10 model, as described at greater length in our white paper, building the foundations of a learning architecture. However, he also said that organisations and L&D professionals need to be careful about how they seek to deal with the growing recognition of informal learning. It can be a bit like pinning a butterfly to a board. The clear message that comes across from LINE’s work in the field is that different cultures have adopted and adapted the 70/20/10 rules in many different ways.

Organisations need to build a Learning Architecture that suits them, an architecture that is a combination of a strategy and a structure. While there are frustrations in putting together good learning, just as there are problems in designing a good building, the learning architect needs to concentrate on the bigger picture, in order to have the best chance of ending up with a workable solution.

Andrew also surveyed some developments and changes that have come about since last year’s symposium.

One thing that has changed the landscape quite dramatically is the level of interest in, and adoption of, mobile learning. This has sparked in everybody’s minds the difference between different types of learning. People have suddenly realised that these devices are good for providing information as well as learning, and this has made them question, to some extent, what they have been doing in e-learning over the last few years, in an environment dominated by the desktop PC. The future for learning delivery suddenly looks far more diverse, as does the type of learning that might be channelled through these new devices.

It is clearly possible to do some types of immersive learning on tablets and even on smartphones, as before in the desktop environment. However with a handheld device, personal to the user and geo-located, it is possible to do much more performance support and delivery of specific, task-related information directly into workflow. This different, just-in-time type of learning, making use of checklists and walkthroughs, can be used in a whole different way.

This has sparked quite challenging debates. Does the 70/20/10 model hold true in this situation, or are we liable to see a new paradigm where 95% of useful stuff is happening on the job, while only 5% is formal?

LINE’s thinking about learning architectures has also changed over the course of a year. Working with clients in different sectors has caused an extension of our central metaphor: just as an architect might come to specialise in specific, specialist building types – hospital, school, prison, barracks – we can see that certain patterns are specific to the situation in different sectors. Certain types of learning architecture are proving to be particular suited to Defence, for instance – or Professional Services, Automotive or Energy.

We have also thought a lot about granularity. Our original thinking, naturally enough, was at a programme level, or an initiative level, since that is how LINE usually works with clients. Much of what Clive Shepherd says, for similar reasons, is at strategic level, looking at the whole of a company’s learning provision. But we have also found that the same thinking comes into the smallest element of learning design – for example, how can you expand into other experiences and into people’s lives? Even a single learning intervention nowadays is liable to make use of a combination of different elements and media.

3. Clive Shepherd

Over a 30-year career, the author of The New Learning Architect has seen a great deal of change in the field of Learning & Development. Today’s learning architects, in Clive’s view, have the benefit of a very different range of materials than was available in the 1980s – but it is important that they use them to their best advantage.

Clive has also seen a lot of ‘religious’ wars in L&D; with people taking up passionate beliefs and stands, in highly polarised debates: instruction versus discovery learning; just-in-case versus just-in-time; formal versus informal. He sees this tendency as unhelpful: we should replace ‘sneer’ with ‘cheer’; recognising that different perspectives have something to add to the mix.

Clive explained the four learning contexts (formal, non-formal, on-demand and experiential) which will be familiar to those who have read his book, and went on to explain why practitioners should aspire to be learning architects rather than ‘learning builders’. An architect wants the best for their client, and brings professional expertise and experience to the table. This may mean challenging the brief sometimes. “We need to look at the big picture of how people learn. We need to behave ethically. This is not just about winning awards – nice though that is to do – but it is more about doing the right thing for our clients in the long run.” (Thanks to Peter Williams of E-learning Age magazine for the quote.)

Looking back over the last year, Clive reflected that the architectural metaphor had resonated well with people in L&D.

He also had some reflections on 70/20/10, a model which originally came about from talking to people late in their careers: 24-year-old graduates would have a very different take, he suggested: how you learn might depend quite a lot on the stage of your career.

Take the question of whether we really need courses and qualifications any more. It is easy to say you don’t if you’re looking back on a long and full career where much has been learned opportunistically and on the job; but younger people want to know they are getting the very best; a stamp of authenticity that will add lustre to a CV when the bulk of one’s life achievements still lie in the future.

Similarly, the question of ‘top down’ versus ‘bottom up’ should not be approached religiously but situationally. In some organisations – young, entrepreneurial companies like LINE for instance – the desire and capability to learn is so strong you can almost completely rely on people doing it for themselves: the bottom-up force is strong. In other parts of the forest, however, this force is much weaker. The capability to learn on one’s own just isn’t there. Before we think we can open everything up and let people create all their own content, we need to recognise that people need tools but also meta-cognitive skills – they sometimes need to learn how to learn.

And although many people have been amazingly empowered by using Google, Wikipedia, etc. for their own learning, the organisation has to provide recognition and reward for the independent learner, otherwise there is nothing in it for them. At a very basic level, time has to be rostered in: there must be discretionary time to do the learning.

Above all, when asking the question of how much does it come from the employees, and to what extent do we in L&D have to make it happen, the answer should be driven not by your beliefs as a Learning Architecture, but by circumstances in the organisation.

Finally, on the subject of technology, Clive was emphatic about the point that it is impossible to be a Learning Architect if you’re technophobic: you would be like an architect who is not interested in new plumbing methods or building materials. You have to engage with the building blocks!

The Workshops

Two workshop sessions were held as part of the event. Introducing the interactive part of the morning, Andrew Joly reprised the ‘building blocks’ of a learning architecture as represented by the diagram below.
He also showed a variant of this structure that places it within an organisational context, as contributed by Jim Potts.

1. Innovations

Participants were asked to share any new, innovative ways of enabling learning that they had seen or in which they had been involved.

Here are some of the results:

  • L&D department creating an online community for itself, to further its own learning
  • Stanford University (US) putting its content out on the net to 160,000 users: communities can form around that content, repackaging it in more formal ways
  • Generating dialogue before a live event online to move knowledge and understanding into the event faster
  • We moved a lot of training away from the classroom and increased the speed of getting best practice out there to the business
  • A Health & Safety programme based on storytelling and drama: this was workshopped in teams then put out around the organisation globally using video
  • Focusing classroom time around simulations
  • The short-form learning video is one of the innovations that has made a big difference to our business
  • Working across 160 countries we focused on one selective evaluation measure for a particular programme – seat cover removal costs – and saved the business £1.4m
  • Technology has allowed our educational publishing business to make a direct connection with the end-user (students) where previously we have dealt more with intermediaries (e.g. librarians)
  • We gave iPads to our young apprentices as their primary tool for accessing learning and information and feeding back: this has given us the opportunity to introduce a different paradigm for learning within the business

As part of this initial discussion, delegates were also asked to discuss their own challenges in thinking more architecturally about learning within their organisations. This led onto the next round of workshop discussions.

2. Challenges

In their groups, the participants worked through particular challenges that had been identified in the first round, clustered around four challenge areas:

  • The Individual
  • Organisation & Culture
  • Globalisation
  • Technical and Infrastructure Issues

As they worked, they took notes of the discussion on tablecloths, which were presented at the end. Notes from each group discussion are included below.

1. The Individual

Issues: People want classroom training, relevance to job,different learning styles, engagement of line managers, etc.

  • Gen X, baby boomers – generational points – is it more about learning styles? Best practice in design is mixing as many styles as possible
  • Learning Designers (LDs) who’ve been trained in a directive path must shift to allow more freedom
  • LDs are often of a different generation from those coming through – they should engage the audience to help design programmes and focus on learner-centred design
  • Be clear about what you’re doing in the classroom – what will the ‘getting together’ bit be best for? Do the other things in other ways
  • Line management involvement before or after? (before is better)
  • Training vs. Learning: unlike the former, the latter can’t be the sole responsibility of the training department. Tell the line managers how big their influence is, involve in delivery, facilitate them in doing – and promoting
  • ‘That’s my job.’ Training department resistance – it’s a change management issue, changing from trainer to facilitator, need to invest in this process
  • Video record experts and distribute

2. Organisation & Culture

Issues: Politics, strategy investment, competitive advantage, evaluation, enabling managers, empowering, structure of learning, cultural shifts and how you tackle those, etc.

  • It’s about handling conflicts
  • Make time for learning – find different ways of measuring
  • Heritage – the way people have acquired knowledge may be different from how the organisation provides it
  • Top-down vs. bottom-up
  • Real world vs. organisational world – organisations tend to lag behind the former
  • An example of the above: people learn through social networks, but the organisation doesn’t allow them – this is down to trust; the confusion of organisations between providing constraints and setting expectations around personal behaviour (libel is the same by whatever channel). Organisations should focus on behaviour not the carrier medium.

3. Globalisation

Issues: Consistency versus local culture, standard courses that are adaptable for local skills

  • Making sure, at a global level, you understand the diversity
  • Understand where best practice is coming from
  • The role of the global team is to define standards, but also to allow flexibility for the local diversity
  • Different use of structured/unstructured depending on where the learner is – early in a career you need more structure/formality, later require less
  • All need just-in-time learning and access to systems that give them the information they need
  • Technology that supports global management requires good information coming through – technology is not the starting point but none of this works if you can’t take appropriate action based on good information
  • Communication – a large global team role, ensuring trust is there in the technology
  • Selling the benefits – at a global level, incentivise and motivate

4. Technical and infrastructure

Issues: Technical barriers to this happening, not tech savvy, offline availability, global connectivity around mobile, etc.

  • Fundamentally this is about communications and engagement
  • There is a lot of resistance to new technology
  • The young workforce will be more adept, but how do you deal with the older less accepting people in the business?
  • There is a cultural resistance to sharing
  • They may want to share rich knowledge, but how good are the sharing systems on a global basis?
  • No buy-in to key elements yet
  • We need data – we need evidence about which solution works better than others
  • We need to build some much better marketing skills


What we learned from the workshops

Some key points that emerged over all were summed up as follows:

Whatever it is we’re doing it has to be strategic.

  • There has to be line management involvement: the change has to filter up to top management and then come down again
  • L&D have to think differently (though many may be doing so already – it will be interesting to see what the picture looks like in three year’s time
  • It all boils down to two words, efficiency and effectiveness: the point of learning architectures is to help find the fastest way to have people learning difficult things efficiently
  • Pedagogy is an issue: how do we design architectures to lead people from where they are now to where they need to be, again in the shortest possible time
  • It’s interesting that half the issues are to do with how we cope with what is happening anyway within organisations: bottom-up pressures are increasing
  • Trust is key: organisations are going to have to trust people to organise their learning more, and that trust is a two-way street
  • Some themes we have seen before in workshops have come up again: i.e. the importance of marketing, communications, and sharing experience within organisations

How does this impact on how we design learning programmes?

  • We have to use traditional forms of training now for what they’re best at, though this may involve looking at them through a new lens
  • An important question to answer is how we design architectures and strategies that have the necessary flexibility for learners
  • Young people will go straight to search, but in most learning systems it doesn’t work that well

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