Using Scenarios to Think About the Future of Corporate Learning

At the 2011 Online Educa, I co-facilitated a workshop with Willem Manders, Laura Overton, Charles Jennings and David Mallon in which we used a scenario methodology to gain insight into the future of corporate learning.

This video provides a short introduction into the work that was done there (a thank you to Fusion Universal for producing the video, a transcript is available here):


If this triggers you, then do read more about the old boy network, the in-crowd, big data and the quantified self on the website and follow the Twitter account to stay up to date.

These are only the first steps, we need people to start bringing the scenarios to life, so help us if you are interested.

Managing Information Overload

Julie Wedgwood introduced her talk session titled “Managing Information Overload” by speaking about how much information comes our way every single day and how that could impact the way we introduce social networking into our (learning) business.

The problem

She used [Shakespeak to ask us a set of questions about whether we sometimes feel overwhelmed by information coming our way and whether we are sometimes distracted. Most people in the room answered these questions positively. She then asked how this made us feel: most people seemed to feel confused, stressed or oppressed. Why is this?

  • There is too much information
  • Too much replication of information (Joyce Seitzlinger pointed out that is actually also a signal for its importance)
  • Difficulty in separating the relevant from the irrelevant
  • Lack of time

The first solution: train people

Julie has done a few informal learning projects, setting up portals, microblogging (Yammer) and discussion forums. Initially this took off like a rocket. But suddenly it stopped working: people were starting to say that they liked it, but that they . She started solving the crisis by using Shirky‘s adagio “It isn’t information overload, it is filter failure”. She started to train people in how they should work with information through aggregators, filters and all kinds of other tools. This actually made the problem worse: people only got more information coming their way. Shiffman wrote in Wired in 2008:

Now that the first burst of enthusiasm for social networking has died, people are realizing that web 2.0 is actually a huge time sink. Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Plaxo may have helped foster community and communication, but they’ve also added immensely to the flow of often-interruptive messages that their users receive, leading to information overload and possibly a nasty internet addiction.

In The Shallows , there are two types of information overload:

  1. Situational overload: searching for a needle in a haystack (of information)
  2. Ambient overload: a haystack-sized pile of needles (information)

The second is the problem her clients had. There really was too much good information.

The second solution: curation and a curation framework

Berners-Lee described three principle functions of the Internet:

  • Allow anyone to access any type of document
  • Allow everyone to disseminate their own documents
  • Allow every to organize the entire collection of documentations

The last element is now actually happening on the web in an organic way. We are curating the content organically through our Tweets, likes, shares, etc. We should curate to link the content to business/learning initiatives, identify what is relevant in a particular context, see what the right signposts are.

They implemented this very explicitly through “listening centers”. Small teams would listen to all the information sources and tried to match things to themes that relate to business goals and then assign “theme” curators.They then created a curation framework. For each piece of information they decided in what theme it would fit, for who it would be relevant, how much time it would take to review and when the data would expire.

An Example of Curated Content
An Example of Curated Content

Julie then gave us some practice exercises: we had to curate three pieces of content. Her advice is to really make things really time sensitive, really add value to the piece of content that you curate and it should actually showcase learning. It is also important to find subject matter experts, work with the communication department and external organizations.

Some tools to help with information overload

Julie recommends a few tools that might help with information overload. Readitlater or Instapaper can help you get more reading done. Another tool that is interesting is Symbaloo which allows you to create a visual and shareable set of favorite links around a topic. Her “mix” for content curation is available here. She uses! a lot. Learnfizz is in beta and similar to!, but will eventually work inside organisations.

My thoughts on this

This was an excellently prepared session: properly designed with a good mix of activities and information. I have to admit though that I don’t believe that her curation framework solves the problem of information overload for the true knowledge worker (i.e. for somebody like me) because it is just an extra information source. It is an interesting extra layer on top of internal social networking tools though: basically a slower and more focused source. Three things worry me:

  • Scalability. What happens if the internal information become so big that it can’t be manually curated effectively anymore? Would it be possible to automate this? Could we use something that is similar to Summify.
  • Quality. How we know that the curator is doing a good job and the most important thing isn’t missed?
  • Specificity (i.e. how personal is it). We all know that everything is miscellaneous and to me a “recommendation” should be to an individual not to a group.

Developing Performance Culture

The three speakers and the chair
The three speakers and the chair

Charles Jennings chaired a session titled “Developing Performance Culture” introduced as:

Over the past 2-3 years, there has been a clear shift from ‘learning’ as the key focus of corporate L&D departments to ‘performance’ as the ultimate goal. Furthermore, it is now widely accepted that most learning occurs in the workplace, not in classrooms. Linked with this is an increasing understanding that the development of a culture to support continuous learning is essential to drive performance. This means fresh thinking and new practices, often utilising technology, are needed for the effective development of a performance culture.

Martin Moehrle

Martin Moehrle, the ex Chief Learning Officer of Deutsche Bank AG titled his talk “The Learning Function as a Performance Improvement Business”. He started by rehashing the traditional way the the learning function proved its value to the business. The old arguments work pretty well in the “industrial” age. In these times of crisis, we have to again discuss the causal chain from learning to performance and we might need some new arguments.

Three things need to change:

  1. The learning function as we it today is a product of the industrial age, however as we move into the knowledge age the performance logic is changing. The modern enterprise is a mix between industrial and knowledge-based contexts. In the industrial context you can manage workforce mastery through prescribed work procedures. In the knowledge-based context you manage via connectivity, commitment and inspiration. The workflow is not predetermined, it is at the discretion of the individual. The ownership of the means of production moves from the organisation to the individual. The traditional way that learning works is much less relevant on this knowledge-based side. The learning function currently has multiple roles like: helping to create a learning culture that is trustful and based on shared perspective, an enterprise change agent, business development and innovation, governace of the enterprise learning space. This is all very much formal learning with high control from the learning function. The informal part of learning where there is a low control is a space that the learning function doesn’t like to go. Moehrle thinks that the learning function does need to take some responsibility there, else it will become irrelevant.
  2. The learning function needs to have both a macro-view on performance along the value chain as well as a micro-view that focuses on the individual and the team. If you do not have the macro-view you will not be able to get the most out of the performance improvement potential.
  3. The performance management process needs to center much more on performance improvement than on assessment of past performance. We need different metrics for the learning function to be able to do this. We cannot focus on the throughput measures and the happy sheets.

Monika Weber-Fahr

Monika Weber-Fahr from the International Finance Corporation (IFC) gave a talk titled: “Where the Rubber Hits the Road: Building Performance Cultures for Delivery”. She is an economist and strategist working for a finance organisation. Her organisation operates in around 90 different countries, mostly in emerging markets. They do private development sector finance with a mission to provide opportunities for people to escape poverty and improve their lives. They not only invest, but also advise and consult. Her talk was quite far removed from the standard scope of the learning function and was therefore sometimes hard to contextualise for me.

She shared three stories from three different companies in these emerging markets. One characteristic is that these markets grow very fast and so are these companies. In these markets there are big disparities in energy access, education and technology (she India as an example: normal Internet access is still not very dispersed, but mobile subscription is now very high). For education these emerging markts are now about 20 years behind where the leading markets are.

Some things are working for emerging markets: cost advantages, well managed quality and profitable in their own right. But certain things are still hard: access to finance, still unclear and non-transparent managed. The IFC’s focus is moving away from a single company to disaggregated global networks of companies.

They have identified a couple of success factors in this space:

  • Balance standardization and customization. One interesting example was the SME toolkit that they developed. This is highly standardised content (developed together with IBM) but at the same time highly localisable.
  • Connect operations and training
  • Build partnerships for reach

Fabrizio Cardinali

Fabrizio Cardinali is the chair of the European Learning Industry Group (ELIG). His talked was about what he now named “The Sputnik Effect” and titled “The Learning Industry Sputnik Challenge: How Can We Get Europe’s Learning Industry (First) to the Moon and Back in the Next Decade?”. He started his talk by showing how scared people in the US were in the late fifties during the cold war, followed by Kennedy talking about putting a man on the moon. Kennedy said: “Do it right and do it first before the decade is over.”.

To Fabrizio this can also be a wake-up call for our industry. We have a couple of big issues facing us and we need to reduce our “missile gap”. According to him we need to understand creativity and genius. He showed us a book written by Frans Johansson, The Medici Effect and Gelb’s book How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. Two of terms from that second book that are very relevant in our current situation are “Sfumato” which is managing ambiguity and change and “Connessione” which is systems thinking.

He talks about a renaisssance 2.0 where there are dichotomies like local diversity versus global normalisation, intersectional creativity versus monosectorial innovation, public leadership versus public debate, new Entrepreneurship trust & risk versus old bank bailouts and open co-opetition versus blind competition. His main point seems to be that you need to be fully adaptable to change to be able to survive global competition.

Preparing for the Future of Learning at Work

The Tegel Room at OEB
The Tegel Room at OEB

Jay Cross organized an Ignite session in which a few people presented 20 slides for 15 seconds each, so five minutes in total (this is very similar to Pecha Kucha, which is now copyrighted).

It was quite hard to capture the gist of these short presentations, but I attempted it anyway.

Sann Rene Glaza from Toyota presented on increasing mobility in Europe: “Language on the move”. First example is the old Yugoslavia: it used to be one country, but now it is many countries. People are really starting to move around and they will take their technology with them. Do you want your customers to be educated in the same way as your employees? Geographical boundaries and inequality between different countries make keeping up with the changing technology dimensions quite hard.

Jack Wills spoke against the HR department. What are they? Obstructive, self serving, opiniated?! HR is a relatively young term from the 60s. This was a very funny talk where he compared the “management speak” surrounding HR to what he would consider to be the reality. It is a solution from the USA that is hunting for the problem. The reality is that they increase bureaucracy and promote litigation fear. Get rid of them! They impede everything! If you talk to them they add real value to the bottom line, but they cost 876 GBP per employee. What do they do for learning and development: they are killing it!

Laura Overton from Towards Maturity, says that L&D must limber up to be prepared for what is coming to us tomorrow. We as learning professionals are too disconnected from our businesses and do not have enough understanding of the business itself. First thing we need to do is “cut the clutter”. We don’t have to wait for the future, we can start now and make a move from being course providers to performance consultants. She suggest we need to download our exercise manual, the 2011 benchmark report, today!

Mehdi Tounsi from Speexx talked about the future of learning in a global workforce. He talked about the need to be competent in transacting with a very diverse group of professionals (from an age perspective, language, cultural background). Language is an important part of this. “Help my boss is in the room” was on his last slide: good one!

Finally Charles Jennings and Sarah Frame presented Nic Laycock’s slides. He has a dream about creating a fully technology enabled learning process that is research based, integrated into the workflow, with vision and immersivity. This has to be a revolution, because evolution will not be fast enough. Like other revolutions it will not be comfortable. It is all about openness. It needs investments of thinking, time and money. They are asking for help at developing “Immersivity” which they are doing for Eskom.

Online Education Opening Plenary

This is fourth year in a row that I am attending the Online Educa in Berlin. Yesterday, my colleague Willem Mander and I facilitated a session in which we used a scenario thinking methodology to think about the future of corporate learning. We’ve created a small website to show the result and will use this website to continue to refine the scenarios that came out of the session. The website is:, so head over there if you are interested to see more about this.

Talal Abu-Ghazaleh

The opening plenary was opened by Talal Abu-Ghazaleh, the President of the Talal Abu-Ghazaleh School of Business in Jordan. He made the same joke as last year (a Churchill quote: “one of the greatest lessons that I’ve ever learned is that idiots are sometimes right” ). He came up with a couple of provoking points: he considers “developed” and “developing” offensive words which we should stop using. He think our talk about a “global crisis” is incorrect, there is a “Western crisis”. The word “spring” in “Arab spring” was sprung upon the Arabic world and is a concept that isn’t used in their literature, he says we should consider it a renaissance instead.

Neelie Kroes

Next up was Neelie Kroes, Vice President of the European Commission and European Digital Agenda Commissioner. I’ve complained before that I am fed up with seeing her face on some big screen delivering a recorded message. To my great surprise she was actually present at the conference.

She discussed how she is on a learning curve herself, because when she became commissioner, she inherited the digital agenda, which was relatively new for her. She has now understood that sharing is the best way to compete: that was counterintuitive to what she learned before. According to her, we should realise how incredibly fast we are changing: the digital economy is only about 20 years old, the iPad only two. People now expect access to information anywhere, anyplace and anytime. At the same time she is disappointed in how the digital revolution is being used in education. We have not changed education enough. Her goal is “Every European Digital”, that includes teaching and learning (also as part of lifelong learning). We should not be constrained by how things were done in the past, rather we should be creative.

Three key ingredients are necessary to do this:

  1. We need to make digital literacy and digital skills central to the public agenda. If not there will be a skills gap. We need to reach out to everyone and especially women (who are currently underrepresented.
  2. We must use the full range of funding and support that is available from the EU.
  3. If we are serious about tackling the problem, let’s engage all stakeholders and let’s be honest about cultural problems around change. Those who control the money might be reluctant to make investments with a long time to pay off. It is not about gadgets, but it is about empowering teachers. It is not a cost, but an investment in human capital. Technology can tailor an individual learning and teaching experience.

Changing learning through technology might not be an overnight process, but it will be revolutionary. We are moving in the right direction, but we do need to speed up.

Peter Nowak

Peter Nowak on stage
Peter Nowak on stage

Peter Nowak, is a technology commentator from Canada. He is the author of Sex, Bombs & Burgers. His talk was titled “Food Technology and the Rise of Entrepreneurial Education”. His focus is on the effect of technology on people and society. According to him the dark side of human nature, gluttony, wrath and lust, and the industries that have sprung up around it have driven much of technological development.

Instinctively we think that food and technology is bad, whereas food and nature is good. This is not true, we are dependent on food technology to feed ourselves. Food technology is one of the biggest drivers of technological change. Half of the G8 nations are on the top eight list of biggest food producers in the world (the Netherlands is number four on that list). He then touched upon the green revolution which enable countries to become food exporters (he did also mention the criticism of that same green revolution: introducing corporate farming for profit and creating dependence on chemical fertilizers).

We are currently in an unprecedented period of poverty reduction. We have reached our millemium goals around poverty. 500 million have escaped abject poverty in the year 2005 to 2010. According to Edward Prescott, Nobel Prize winning economist, “the whole world is going to be rich by the end of this century”. Nowak believes that a massive decrease is poverty, will lead to many new jobs, which will massively increade education demand. Is this educational world ready for this onslaught of demand? One problem is the lack of teachers globally. We will need 8 million new teachers to maintain current teacher-student ratios. Demand will likely outstrip supply. We will need to accept entrepreneurial learning where both teacher and student are responsible for learning.

Nowak then references Mitra’s hole in the wall experiment, after which Mitra said: “I think we have stumbled across a self-organising system with learning as an emergent behaviour.” Learning is in our DNA, we just need to the opportunity and tools to help us. We used to have to learn the tools of the medium to express ourselves, but this is not longer the case. Amateurs can now use technology as quality is no longer necessary for self-expression.

His four points around changing education are:

  • Learning is instinctive
  • Technology is making it easier
  • Old-school attitudes must change
  • Entrepreneurialism is the most immportant skills that can be taught

John Bohannon

John Bohannon is a journalist and visiting researcher at Harvard University in the US. His talk is titled: “Without Google and Wikipedia, I Am Stupid”. He really does want to argue this point. The Flynn effect is a well-known trend: IQ has been increasing steadily around the world. What is the reason for this? Are we really getting smarter?

He then talked about the Google effect and the research around it. We all now use the Internet for our “transactive memory”. When we are now asked a question, we immediately think of where can find the answer: Google, Yahoo, etc. Students are now far better at remembering where the information is stored, rather than the information itself!

Your Google footprint is the one-stop-shop from somebody’s identity. Single publications (e.g. a Guardian article) can have a disproportionate effect on somebody’s reputation. He did not offer any quick solutions to this problem, I think he just wanted to raise awareness around these issues.

Jeff Borden,

Next up was Jeff Borden, Senior Director of Teaching and Learning (chief academic) at Pearson, the platinum (closed source) sponsor of the Online Educa. This was a sponsored talk, titled “Always learning: What Educators Want and What Education Needs”. Pearson/Fronter have learned from mistakes in the past when everybody disliked Larsen’s talk (there even was a slide with Moodle and Sakai) and now send true evangelists to come and present. There was so much evangelism for technology in education that I occasionally felt like was in a 15 minute Tell-Sell commercial.

He had some great examples of using learning analytics to find out why student succeed or fail. An average passing student spends two times more time in the first 10 days of a course, then the average student who will fail. This can be used for successful predictions about which students will make it. The next step is to use this type of data for personalising the experience of the learner. We can use the social graphs of courses to then make intervention in this area to create better outcomes for students. Basically a data mining approach to help fix education. This is an obvious reference to the #bigdata scenario in our #lrnscen scenario exercise.

Borden “Technology is a powerful enabler for changing education.”

Some quick commentary

While semi-liveblogging there is little time for reflection. One thing I noticed is that only two of the five speakers used slides to support their talk. I actually believe this is a lost opportunity there. It isn’t strictly necessary to use them, but it does often help. Overall I thought the talks were rather weak. Most of it wasn’t very groundbreaking and even a bit obvious. Exception to this was John Bohannon. The part of his talk about transactive memory was new to me and is, I think, at the core of why formal learning feels so outdated: it does not take this into account at all. His Google searches for his fellow speakers were both painful and funny. He used it to show how messiness of Wikipedia: on the one hand it is incredibly useful, but at the same leaves very much to want for.