Focus project for Design Process For Learning
For my focus project, I’m reviewing Clark Quinn’s 2014 book, Revolutionize Learning & Development: Performance and Innovation Strategy for the Information Age.
Quinn is not very impressed with the present state of the corporate and organizational learning & development (L&D) industry.
Overall, L&D is only doing a fraction of what it could and should be doing, and the part that it is doing, it is doing poorly… The typical training event returns little for the resources invested. The notion that you can dump a bunch of knowledge into a person’s head in a short period of time is a delusion that doesn’t match the actual ways in which we learn.
Learning design in companies and organizations tends to measure its own efficiency rather than its effectiveness. The goal of organization learning shouldn’t be to impart information into people’s heads; we should be aiming to change behavior, to make people better able to perform and produce. Quinn wants us to look past specific methods of conveying knowledge and instead, think creatively about ways we can meaningfully change behavior. That means less of a focus on “putting knowledge into people’s heads,” and more on putting (or finding) the answer out there “in the world.” Quinn goes so far as to say:
Sometimes, in fact many times, what we should be doing is trying to avoid putting new knowledge and skills into their heads. It is typically very hard to get people to learn new things, and often it’s easier to get answers out of other people’s heads or to make answers available in the world. Which also implies, very clearly, the need to be very explicit about what performance is needed and what is currently being observed.
To that end, Quinn urges us to measure the effectiveness of our L&D efforts in terms of its impact on organizational performance, in terms of “higher customer satisfaction, increased sales, fewer errors, or faster problem solving.”
This is not simply a matter of helping people do their jobs better. Quinn sees a world in which change is constant and getting faster. On-the-job learning has to be constant and self-directed. He gives a tidily oversimplified capsule history of the information demands on businesses that echoes the Cluetrain Manifesto, which he cites approvingly.
When we moved beyond farms to factories, we needed good cogs in our corporate machines. Our business models were premised on replicable processes and scalability, optimizing for systematic quality and efficient processes. We planned, prepared, and then executed. Now that we have moved to the Information Age, our needs are different. We can no longer plan, prepare, and execute, as by the time we’ve planned and prepared, the context has changed. We are faced with increasing complexity and ambiguity. Adaptability, not replicability, helps an organization succeed. With the speed factors already mentioned, optimal execution is only the cost of entry, and the sustainable differentiator is continual innovation.
And what is continual innovation if not continual learning?
Quinn’s dissatisfaction with the present state of corporate L&D matches the dim view he takes of the present state of our schools. Our learning models are relics of the industrial age. In general, sitting people down in a classroom and asking them to absorb a bunch of information out of context is not a good way to make sure that information is retained, mastered and eventually used. Most corporate L&D takes the form of formal courses. This learning format suits novices, who don’t know what they need to know or why it’s important. However:
Once you are engaged in practice, you know what you need, and you don’t need the motivational support. You need answers and development: performance support, coaching, and mentoring. Finally, as an expert, you really need collaborators, as well as serving as a coach and/or mentor to others.
Most learning design and management tools are really course design and management tools. If the course is the wrong learning format for your users, then it hardly matters how specifically you implement that course.
So how should we do learning design? Quinn asks us to look to informal methods, which are responsible for most of the learning that actually takes place in organizations.
The way learning works is by strengthening associations, and there is only so much association strengthening that can happen in the brain in one day before sleep is needed to replenish the system. A steady dose of practice over a sustained period is the prescription.
A large part of informal learning is self-learning. This is not a skill that everyone has, but it can be taught and learned.
Self-learning skills should not be assumed and can be developed. It may well be that the best investment to make in learning is facilitating self-learning skills!
Quinn asks us to consider what activities, other than sitting in a classroom, lead to our building new skills. He encourages us to build learning experiences, and to make the content available as resources to support learners’ work once the learning experience is over. What might such an activity look like? Project-based learning is always good. There’s nothing like making something.
The outputs of the performances are tangible, whether documents, performances, or objects. Associated with these outcomes are rationales, describing the thinking that led to the product. This structure naturally embeds 21st Century skills and the use of tools. A learner’s actions and artifacts provide the basis for evaluation and mentoring. The products and rationales provide a basis for feedback, whether from fellow participants or from a facilitator (typically, an instructor). Ultimately, the choices of tasks and products become the learner’s responsibility, scaffolding them to a selflearning capability.
Learning designers are not just curriculum developers. We can also be librarians. We can organize and manage information in a way that’s accessible to people on the job. Since Googling facts is hugely easier than memorizing them, learning designers can ensure that those facts are easy to surface via search. The same informational resources can serve learning experiences and real-life work.
So what format should all those information resources take? Quinn advocates the use of stories, narrative, and “working out loud.” Information ontologies and communication strategies are useful, but only if the organization creates a “safe environment” for learning: one where people are free to speak their minds and contribute, where new ideas and diverse viewpoints are welcome, and where there is time for reflection. Leadership needs to vocally and actively support such an environment. Quinn recognizes that this asks a lot of leadership.
Many times, leaders may not trust their workers, either their intelligence or their motivation. I witnessed a situation when management was installing a new organizationwide IT solution, but asked the vendor to turn off the email function, as they didn’t want their employees wasting time socializing. These people had phones!
Learners need not just to be able to look things up, but to share their own knowledge as well. They need to be able to create and share media. The same platform that serves formal learning and training resources can host employee-created media as well. Twitter and Slack are effective tools for the diffusion of informal mentoring. Letting social networks self-organize can work better than hierarchical information ontologies.
Quinn is very excited about the prospects of simulations and games as learning experiences. Mentored live performance is the gold standard for learning, but it can be expensive and doesn’t scale well. However, making simulation games is no small undertaking either, since that means heavy duty programming. The clearest use cases for immersive simulation environments are people who work in complex physical plants or with molecular structures, which are very difficult to represent in two dimensions.
Sometimes performance support doesn’t need to be a huge multimedia production. Maybe the right solution is a simple checklist, a troubleshooting guide, or a better product manual. Quinn asks learning designers to challenge some of their own assumptions. He favors a minimalist approach, “leveraging the knowledge of the individual and the context to provide only the information necessary to get back to work.” He wants us to ask, what is the least I can do to guide the performance? That approach might be counterintuitive to the L&D world, but it’s the one preferred by the people we’re serving.
Quinn also asks us to recognize that learning is not solely cognitive. There’s also a strong emotional component. We need to be properly motivated, and we need to feel the right level of anxiety: enough to have a heightened level of attention, but not so much that we’re paralyzed with terror. People are motivated by aspiration more than by fear. Telling people, “You need to learn this or else” is not too effective. Telling them, “We’re going to help you be great at your job, and we’re going to equip you for success” is better.
A lovely story I heard at a small company was that they rang a bell, not when the mistake was made, but when the lesson was learned. That powerful difference made it okay to fail, but also helped to prevent anyone else from making the same mistake. If it’s not safe to fail, if “anything you say can and will be held against you,” however, people won’t contribute. If the culture is so competitive that anyone who admits a mistake will be ostracized or someone else will use it as leverage to climb the ladder, learning won’t happen. Companies that can’t admit mistakes are doomed to repeat them. The alternative is to share your work and learn out loud. By sharing, everyone gets ahead faster and better.
Marketing people know that you need a “content strategy,” a systematic way to generate and organize the stories, images, videos and so on that you need to present your company’s face to the world. Learning designers need a content strategy too. We need to figure out how to make information resources, to empower employees to generate their own resources, and to have an information architecture that makes all that material accessible, whether it’s to put together a training course or just to quickly answer a specific question. Ultimately, there should be no clear distinction between learning design and generally helping people do their jobs better, in whatever context.