Workflow learning vs. the “me-focus” culture

The idea of workflow learning is surprisingly controversial. I attended the “Innovations in E-learning” symposium last week, put together by George Mason University, the US Naval Education and Training Command, and the Defence Acquisition University. I was interested in hearing what Jay Cross, Clark Aldrich, Harvey Singh and Ben Watson had to say about workflow learning, collaboration, and simulations, since these are things I have always been passionate about. Jay’s presentation, as usual, was delightfully challenging, non-linear, evocative, and provocative. But the presentation on “embedded learning” by Michael Littlejohn of IBM astonished me. He provided a well-structured overview of the practical deployment issues of embedded learning. My surprise was not so much at what he said, but that it was being said by IBM. If Big Blue is advocating it, then workflow learning has come a long way, baby. I did a piece on this on my own blog, and have already had a lot of back-channel skeptical feedback. In all that I have read about workflow learning, I have yet to hear anyone argue that it is not a great idea conceptually, but there are a whole lot of people who can’t believe workflow learning will ever work in practice. They are blinded by their culture. It reminds me of the mid-to-late 1990s when I was promoting online learning to a resistant training community, who could not believe that anyone would prefer a computer to a classroom, or that any online learning could be as effective as that delivered by a trainer. Many were also desperately afraid of having to re-invent themselves. At the time, my mantra was “it’s warmer on the web,” because I was trying to get through to trainers that online learning was all about connecting people, building communities, mutual mentoring, and sharing experience. To a largely techno-skeptical audience numbed by the self-indulgent atrocities of CD-ROM courses, online learning was never going to fly. The key that unlocked the e-learning Pandora’s box, unleashing a few gems within a cloud of pestilence, was a culture shift. Corporations started taking for granted ubiquitous desktop computing and internet connections, and started looking to leverage them to improve business processes and cut costs. Trainers started to get as myopically starry-eyed about e-learning as they had about PowerPoint. Workers started to appreciate the need to keep themselves current, valuable, and marketable because it became clear that companies were not going to provide more than the basic essentials. Training vendors saw a need to defend against more tech-savvy competitors, as well as an opportunity to broaden markets and raise margins. Quite a lot of learners had a few good e-learning experiences, mind-sets started shifting from resistance to acceptance, if not enthusiasm, and e-learning was airborne. Workflow learning requires similar, though probably more dramatic, organizational and personal culture changes. A major prerequisite for workflow learning is a culture that fosters collaboration and sharing, that rewards (rather than punishes) individual support initiatives, that builds a fundamental responsibility for informal coaching and mentoring into every employee’s job description, and that places as much value on time spent helping others perform as it does on time spent performing. Another prerequisite is a widespread personal attitude toward supporting others that values highly the giving of both time and knowledge – two things most workers jealously protect. It’s not about the technology or the processes (though of course they are important), because without the individual will and the corporate mandate, the technology will gather dust. To change corporate culture, you need to demonstrate to senior decision-makers how much money can be made or saved (preferably this quarter) as a result of the proposed change. If they buy into the financial reward, corporations can move mountains. But how do you formalize, in a way that bean-counters will accept, the ROI from something as apparently fuzzy and informal as workflow learning? IBM advocates thinking small and running a pilot. That may be a starting point, but it’s not a strategy. Do you need to get conceptual buy-in at CEO level and have a bold shake-up, top-down, in order to achieve any sustainable culture shift? Or do you abdicate and wait for a bottom-up worker-driven evolution that effectively bypasses formal learning systems? However you do it, without a culture shift away from the “me-focus” that most organizational review/reward systems instill, and toward a “we-focus,” workflow learning just ain’t going to fly! Godfrey Parkin

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