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Learning in the new workplace — how to meet the needs of the modern employee

The learning organization — the scholar approach

The concept of learning organization is not new. It dates back to 1990 — the year when, in no particular order, Germany reunited, the Hubble telescope went up in space and Ice Ice Baby won a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance.

As defined by Peter Sange in his book The Fifth Discipline, these are places “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.” To achieve these ends, Senge suggested the use of five “component technologies”: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, and team learning.

In a similar spirit, Ikujiro Nonaka, author of The Knowledge Creating Company, characterized knowledge-creating companies as places where “inventing new knowledge is not a specialized activity... it is a way of behaving, indeed, a way of being, in which everyone is a knowledge worker.” Nonaka suggested that companies use metaphors and organizational redundancy to focus thinking, encourage dialogue, and make tacit, instinctively understood ideas explicit.

The learning organization — as it is

The learning organization is still a hot subject today. If we are to look back at the dusty academic approach, it seems that personal mastery and team learning are more important than ever in the context of new technologies.

There was another tiny thing that I didn’t mention but also started back in 1990 — the World Wide Web.

It didn’t seem like much at the time but we now find ourselves in 2017, the year that so far will be remembered by the massive screw-up at the Oscars. It is also a time when more than half of the world’s population is using a smartphone, two-thirds of it has a mobile phone and one-fifth of it has shopped online in the past thirty days; it is undoubtedly time to consider a fresh approach to learning.

According to a recent Benchmark Report by Towards Maturity, Unlocking Potential, the new learning organization has six distinctive characteristics:

  • Clarity of purpose — a shared vision of outcomes that matter;
  • Holistic staff experience — a trusted brand that expects and facilitates continuous learning from start to finish;
  • Thriving ecosystem — individuals, managers and the extended enterprise working towards common goals;
  • Agile, digitally enabled infrastructure — supporting and enabling a fluid exchange of ideas and skills;
  • Continual engagement — self-directed, connected, accumulating collective understanding;
  • Intelligent decision making — using performance analytics to inform and adapt.

The modern employee — an overview

Now that we have looked at the old and new learning organization, let’s focus a bit on who is working in it. Regardless of the generation they are part of, today’s successful employees are tech and web-savvy, highly motivated, committed and dedicated to their work. They have a genuine desire to do their job as well as they can and improve their own performance wherever possible. They are self-reliant, flexible, adaptive and curious.

They sound just dreamy, don’t they?

Well, there’s a catch — they know they are all of the above and they want more from their workplace, especially where learning and development is concerned.

Acutely aware that in this fast-moving world one needs to learn continuously to survive, the modern employee acknowledges that formal training has a valuable part to play in that process but at the same time realizes that training alone cannot possibly provide her or him with everything there is to know. That’s why ongoing access to a variety of informational and instructional resources is required.

In fact, in the busy working life, one often doesn’t have time to learn in the traditional way, so access to learning materials in the flow of work is paramount. For that reason, Google is frequently the first go-to whenever a ‘how to?’ arises.

The need for... speed

Today’s employee wants immediate answers.

When faced with a problem, most of us first try to find solutions by calling upon the people we know to help us. A few years ago this would simply have meant getting up from your desk and asking colleagues in the room for help. Today, however, there is easy access to a much wider group of friends and colleagues in public social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+, as well as in the private communities. They all provide a valuable opportunity to build a wide network of colleagues with the same interests and organizational issues, with whom you can exchange experiences and ideas.

Remember that time when the math teacher tried to convince you that there was no way you could ever go through life without knowing how to solve differential equations? That turned out to be a hoax, didn’t it? Nobody wants to study a problem just in case the solution might one day come in handy.

The answer or the way to get to it has to be there only at the time it is actually required. So rather than doing extensive research, going through piles of paper or gazillions of slides, it is a lot faster, easier, and more pleasant to find quick and simple answers to issues on the social web — in sites like YouTube, Wikipedia or Slideshare.

L&D – where do they come in

What does this mean for those in charge of learning in the modern workplace? Well, they need to step up and keep up.

It is quite clear that an increasing number of workers are using online social tools to address their own learning and performance needs, so rather than ignoring the fact or trying to restrict access to various internet-based tools, it is high time to re-think how L&D can support today’s learners in the modern enterprise.

If they need to create training content it is highly advisable that they produce it in the most usable formats — whether it be text, video or audio — rather than in the course format. They also need to realize that they can’t create everything that everyone in their organization will need; encouraging workers to use existing resources on the Social Web as well as helping those unfamiliar with it acquire effective web searching techniques can only be beneficial to all.

The next thing they should do is tap into the growing phenomenon of sharing. By encouraging employees to create and share resources with one another they ought to be helping individuals to build their own Professional Knowledge Networks and provide some simple guidance on how to use these networks safely and responsibly. Internal communities are also important in the new learning organization as employees are encouraged to support one another, informally, in the workflow, as they do their daily jobs.

As for traditional learning, it is more and more apparent that the real value of a course comes from the participants sharing their thoughts, experiences and resources with one another. Building a framework for discussions and sharing within a formal learning context — but without (en)forcing participation — is a viable option today.

Instead of building learning communities around the content, L&D should be encouraging the co-creation of content by participants rather than only supporting comments on expert-created content.

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