in Innovation, Learning

Towards a Reflective and Collaborative Learning Culture

Last week I wrote a small teaser on learning for the team that I work in (mostly consisting of IT professionals, rather than learning professionals). I realized that some of the things I wrote could be interesting for this blog’s readers too. So here goes…

Learning culture has high business impact
Bersin & Associates have recently written an interesting report on the business impact of having a good learning culture. They define a learning culture as

The collective set of organizational values, conventions, processes and practices that influence and encourage both individuals and the collective organization to continuously increase knowledge, competence and performance.

Using a solid research methodology they identified key best practices that affect business outcomes. The most influential practices all center around empowering employees and demonstrating the value of learning. According to Bersin, it is management who has the biggest role to play as they have the most influence on these cultural practices. Their research showed

[..] that learning culture (represented by the 40 High-Impact Learning Culture practices) directly accounts for 46 percent of overall improved business performance as measured by the business outcomes examined [..]

Learning agility and innovation are the two business outcomes that benefit the most from a strong learning culture.

Many organizations have productive employees, but 98 percent of organizations with strong learning cultures have highly productive workforces.

That should be enough of a business case to try and strengthen the learning culture in any business.

Fast pace of change: activities and methodology over content
It is a cliché, but we really are working in an environment where the pace of change is ever increasing. Working with learning content that has taken months to produce will only be relevant for skills that do not change much. That content will not help in keeping knowledge workers up to date and will have little or no business impact.

An alternative is to focus on methodology and activities rather than on content. How can we change the things we do, our behavior, to create a culture of learning and more reflective way of collaborating? How can we truly embed learning? Trying to answer that question will require a very conscious design effort.

Leveraging the teaching paradox
There is a terrible paradox in teaching: by the very nature of the process it is the teacher who learns the most. Learning is most effective when creating something for others to experience  (see the explanation of constructionism here or this great article about the death of the digital dropbox). That is the reason why I love to present and also why I write this blog. If we want our employees to learn we have to put them into the role of teachers too.

Turning consumers into producers
You can overcome the teaching paradox by making sure that instead of asking people to consume content (i.e. going to a course from the SkillSoft catalogue or listening to a webcast by a senior learner) you ask them to produce content. Unfortunately for you, I have learned way more by writing this blog post, than you will ever learn by reading it. In fact, if I was allowed to give a single piece of advice to people designing a learning intervention, I would tell them to turn their participants from consumers into producers. They should ask themselves the following question: What am I asking them to make?

So how do we do all this? Here are four ideas that align with the above and that could be done immediately in any global organization with virtual teams.

Microteaching

Microteaching

Planning and creating collaborative one-pagers and microteaching events
Each week of the year a team of two could be made responsible for creating a one-pager about a particular topic. These one-pagers could give very factual information about the work we are doing (e.g. How are our three main learning systems integrated? Which five learning innovations have gotten the most traction in the past year and why?) or they could be more meta: talking about how we do our work (e.g. What is the best way to do a virtual meeting? Which 10 things should we stop doing today?).

Maybe one-pager is not the best word for this. It could also be a diagram, a video or a virtual role play, as long as it can be presented and understood within five minutes. Each month you could schedule an hour with the team in which the four or five one-pagers of that month would be presented by its creators to the rest of the team. The content itself is not important (you can let people choose their own topic and provide a list of suitable topics on a wiki for the less creative), but the methodology is. I would propose the following “rules”:

  • Each one-pager has a question as the title and is made collaboratively by two people. It is not allowed to do any work on it by yourself.
  • The two people are matched semi-randomly with a skewed bias to virtual collaborations and pairs that haven’t worked together before.
  • The presentation of the one-pagers is done virtually using a microteaching methodology with an active start (3 min.), an exercise (6 min.), a discussion (4 min.) and a look at how to continue (2 min.).

Narrating your work
In virtual teams it is hard to know what all the people in the team are doing. It is therefore also harder to learn from each other and find synergies in the work we do. A well-known way of battling this problem is through a concept called narrating your work. Each person in the team writes down what they have been doing in a couple of sentences. They should be asked to do in a regular interval (i.e. daily, three times a week, weekly) this three times a week. Microblogging technology is the ideal candidate to support this kind of process.

This will not only help the team in doing their work better and more efficiently, it should also help in making it a better team through the ambient intimacy that it creates.

Increasing the effectiveness of webcasts
Most teams in global organizations have a webcast with senior leaders every couple of weeks. These are usually not very interactive affairs: they are more about knowledge dissemination than about knowledge creation. Although there is sometimes space for questions at the end, it is often the case that the usual suspects speak up and discussion on topics barely scratch the surface.

One way to change this would be to have mini-jams (see here for IBM’s way of doing jams) before each webcast. It could work like this: 48 hours before the webcast the topics of the webcast are made available, any documents or presentations are shared and a couple of key questions are posed to the team. The team then spends the time until the start of the webcast discussing the questions. Each topic will have a moderator who is there to guide the discussion and tease out participation. It will be expected of each and every team member to participate and give their view. Microblogging tools, once again, would be good to facilitate this.

As a result it should be possible to make the webcasts shorter and spend the time in them addressing the issues that showed to be contentious or in need of clarification during the jam.

The power of video in interaction
The most powerful of our senses is vision. Technology has finally caught up with our innate ability and can now help us in using this sense in virtual teams. To facilitate working together as a virtual team, you should have the ambition to try and use video in all our your virtual meetings. This would mean the following:

  • Everybody in the virtual organisation needs to have a laptop with a built-in webcam. If they don’t have one now, we make sure that this gets changed as soon as possible.
  • The software to create video calls should be ubiquitous in the organization, it should be easy to use and be supported.

These are just examples…
There is a lot more that we can do: I would really like to have your input on how to really re-design the way we work and learn!

  1. Hi Hans, This is a fantastic post with some great ideas.
    It’d be good to spend some time with you thinking about how to get
    buy-in and the changes you suggest. Mark

    • Thanks! I am hoping to go to Learning Technologies in London again next week. So I’ll be sure to find you for a chat when I do.

  2. I really like this post and I agree with most of your
    points. The only question mark that remains (and it pops up now and
    then when people talk about ‘social learning’) is this: Is, in your
    opinion, ‘collaboration’ and increased team effectiveness the
    beneficial side-effect of making the learner a teacher (or consumer
    to producer), as they need to share/discuss with someone? Or, is
    the ‘collaborative’ nature of these approaches the fundamental
    reason that these approaches actually work? It’s a little abstract
    perhaps, and the outcome of the learning intervention may not be
    different. But, with all the focus on collaboration, social etc,
    I’m still not sure if I feel that the social aspect of these
    interventions is just a ‘lubricant’ for people to actually reflect
    and build upon their learning (and thus: learning would be just as
    effective if every learner would just keep a private diary in which
    he writes down everything). Would you say collaboration is needed
    for motivation only or for learning in itself (as it involves
    placing yourself in your audience’s head)?

  3. Hi Hans,

    Again very interesting thought to turn the consumers into producers. If I look around, I still see allmost all effort going into producing learning content with an ‘interactive’ layer applied to it. Too bad for the learners. By the way, when are we going to have a drink in the Hague? 🙂

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