Social Learning, Complexity and the Enterprise

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The social learning revolution has only just begun. Corporations that understand the value of knowledge sharing, teamwork, informal learning and joint problem solving are investing heavily in collaboration technology and are reaping the early rewards. ~ Jay Cross

Social learning

Note: This is a re-post and update of a previous article, originally published as a White Paper (PDF). This web page should enable easier linking.

Why is social learning important for today’s enterprise?

George Siemens, educational technologist and researcher at Athabasca University, has succinctly explained the importance of social learning in the context of today’s workplace:

There is a growing demand for the ability to connect to others. It is with each other that we can make sense, and this is social. Organizations, in order to function, need to encourage social exchanges and social learning due to faster rates of business and technological changes. Social experience is adaptive by nature and a social learning mindset enables better feedback on environmental changes back to the organization.

The Internet has fundamentally changed how we communicate on a scale as large as the printing press or the advent of written language. Charles Jennings, of Duntroon Associates, explains why we need to move away from a focus on knowledge transfer and acquisition, an approach rooted in Plato’s academy:

We are moving to the world of the sons of Socrates, where dialogue and guidance are key competencies. It is a world where the capability to find information and turn it into knowledge at the point-of-need provides the key competitive advantage, where knowing the right people to ask the right questions of is more likely to lead to success than any amount of internally-held knowledge and skill.

Our relationship with knowledge is changing as our work becomes more intangible and complex. Notice how most value in today’s marketplace is intangible, with Google’s multi- billion dollar valuation an example of value in non-tangible processes that could be deflated with the development of a better search algorithm. Non-physical assets comprise about 80 percent of the value of Standard & Poor’s 500 US companies in leading industries.

From replaceable human resources to dynamic social groups

The manner in which we prepare people for work is based on the Taylorist perspective that there is only one way to do a job and that the person doing the work needs to conform to job requirements [F.W. Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management, 1911]. Individual training, the core of corporate learning and development, is based on the premise that jobs are constant and those who fill them are interchangeable.

However, when you look at the modern organization, it is moving to a model of constant change, whether through mergers and acquisitions or as quick-start web-enabled networks. For the human resources department, the question becomes one of preparing people for jobs that don’t even exist. For example, the role of online community manager, a fast-growing field today, barely existed five years ago. Individual training for job preparation requires a stable work environment, a luxury no one has any more.

A collective, social learning approach, on the other hand, takes the perspective that learning and work happen as groups and how the group is connected (the network) is more important than any individual node within it.

MIT’s Peter Senge has made some important clarifications on terms we often use in looking at work, job classifications and training to support them.

Knowledge: the capacity for effective action. “Know how” is the only aspect of knowledge that really matters in life.

Practitioner: someone who is accountable for producing results.

Learning may be an individual activity but if it remains within the individual it is of no value whatsoever to the organization. Acting on knowledge, as a practitioner (work performance) is all that matters. So why are organizations in the individual learning (training) business anyway? Individuals should be directing their own learning. Organizations should focus on results.

Individual learning in organizations is basically irrelevant because work is almost never done by one person. All organizational value is created by teams and networks. Furthermore, learning may be generated in teams but even this type of knowledge comes and goes. Learning really spreads through social networks. Social networks are the primary conduit for effective organizational performance. Blocking, or circumventing, social networks slows learning, reduces effectiveness and may in the end kill the organization.

#Change11 Traineeship Programs and Cynefin Framework based on Dave Snowden – Part 1

by John Mak

Jenny Mackness summarises in her post on the presentation by Dave Snowden.  I am impressed by Dave’s saying: “There are whole tracts of knowledge that can only be understood through interaction, e.g. through an apprenticeship model of education, which allows for imitation and failure, such as for London taxi drivers. Failure is key to human knowledge acquisition.” That sounds practical, as we have been adopting such an apprenticeship model of education here in Australia – with on-the-job training for the last 2 decades. To a great extent, I reckon it is one of the best ways of learning through practical hands on- deep down to earth learning.  The merits with such learning is that apprentices and trainees could actually follow through with the gaining of skills that they could apply on the jobs, reinforcing the experience, and thus allow for reflection of what works and what doesn’t in their particular fields.  This apprenticeship and traineeship on the job model of learning has also been highly valued as one of the situated learning – a model of learning where “Learning begins with people trying to solve problems.[4] When learning is problem based, people explore real life situations to find answers, or to solve the problems. Hung’s study focuses on how important being social is to learning. In believing that learning is social, Hung adds that learners who gravitate to communities with shared interests tend to benefit from the knowledge of those who are more knowledgeable than they are. He also says that these social experiences provide people with authentic experiences. When students are in these real-life situations they are compelled to learn. Hung concludes that taking a problem-based learning approach to designing curriculum carries students to a higher level of thinking.[4]

To what extent is the above claims valid? There are lots of problems waiting for us to solve, especially when one is at work, or studying in a course, or immersing in networks or communities, or in gaming, even having personal informal study, as part of the life-long or life-wide learning, or in the case of learning a particular skill as a hobby or interest.  For instance, if I want to learn how to play badminton, then I would likely try it myself, and watch others playing in the court, or watch some of the videos on Youtube, in order to understand some of the basic techniques, and thus could practice the skills when playing.  I could also share some of my experiences with others, or ask others for help, so as to improve my knowledge or skills.  As a disclosure, badminton is my favorite sport.  If one is learning how to cook, then he or she would likely watch some of the videos on cooking, checking with cookbooks on the recipes, and trying to cook different dishes at home.  However, would one become a chef just by doing that?  Not likely? I learnt that most chefs have acquired the skills through apprenticeship programs.

I just happened to discuss with the owner of the restaurant today, and he shared with me his experience as a chef before becoming an owner.  Surely, he learnt through immersion into the particular trade (as a chef), and so it is different from that of an amateur.  I like cooking too, but I could only do some very basic dishes, like fried rice, fried noodles, porridge or soup, but would never be able to achieve that level of mastery of the chef, without more expertise training and guidance.  To this end, I am impressed with Dave’s mention about the importance of training as a generalist, rather than a specialist, and that: “In universities we are training recipe book users and assessing whether they can reproduce the recipe. We are not training chefs who can achieve a huge amount without a recipe. Chefs have a mix of practical and theoretical wisdom and willingness to engage conceptually and theoretically with real world problems.” as cited by Jenny on Dave’s presentation.  So, it is important to have an open mindset in order to develop those expertise, likely through learning with more knowledgeable others, and or training on the job or workplace.  Is traineeship the solution then?

How about the effectiveness of traineeship model? The report states that: “The findings suggest that traineeships are an important pathway for female early school leavers. However, traineeships are poorly targeted if the target group is disadvantaged young people.”

There are concerns what traineeship program should be aiming for, whether it is more relating to provide avenues of training for those unemployed or disadvantaged people who would like to pursue a trade or the skills acquisition, both for new entrance and those currently employed on the job, for upgrading and/or recognising their skills.  This up-to-date report on traineeship provides the details with recommendations.

It has been revealed that most “trainees” could learn the skills on the job, and for those who are existing workers with years of experience (veterans in particular), what are necessary would be a reinforcement of their skills to ensure that they are kept up-to-date and so it is more aligned with recognition of their competency, though certain skills acquisition would surely happen with the introduction and application of new and emerging technology at work.  I reckon a simple to complicated scenarios would be sufficient for the “training” of most of these trainees.

For new entrance trainees, especially those early school leavers, or unemployed people, I could see the needs falling into a number of patterns, with a wide spectrum of skills.  For most of the early school leavers, their interests may lie more with the hands-on manual, technical or technological, administrative and clerical work, which may range from cooking and catering, hospitality and hotel work, office administration, warehousing, transport and distribution, freight forwarding, automobiles, mechanics, fitting and machining, performance arts, ICT, child care, nursing, finance and accounting, finance etc.  So, the emphasis here is on the skills for a particular trade or profession, though there are also strong emphasis on knowledge, where the trainees are expected to “acquire” such knowledge (like health and safety, legislation, company rules and regulations, procedures, products and services, and general knowledge on ICT and customer service) in order to perform the job to the standards required. I reckon the scenarios most likely fall into the simple (in majority) scenarios, where systems, processes and procedures would determine the best practice, and training would more likely be based on the supervision by their supervisors, or trainers, though institutional teaching and facilitation would also be incorporated to reinforce the knowledge and skills learnt through the job.  The challenge for  the training of disadvantaged or unemployed people is that most institutions would need to provide those on-the-job experience for them to actually practice the skills.  On some occasions, simulated working or virtual learning environments were introduced to augment the classroom training.   The use of authentic learning in a classroom setting may be a good alternative to solving this problem.

Are these skills and knowledge the same or different from the literacies cited in various reports?  See Keith’s post Here.