The corporate learning shuffle

Collective business collaboration is very different to our individual digital interaction choices: how do we leverage past generations of training technologies to align with new opportunities to define and formalize the best ways to work together, and which CxO group should be responsible for this, or should this be a cross enterprise initiative?
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

The corporate 'learning' business has always been an interesting place, and once the internet came along eLearning quickly became a very big deal indeed during the last dot com boom. The 'Knowledge Management' movement, which Ikujiro Nonaka had lit the kinding under way back in 1991, found digital channels to bring to life 'strategies and practices used in an organization to identify, create, represent, distribute, and enable adoption of insights and experiences' …and for a while this was seen as a path to riches by investors and practitioners.

So what happened? to quote my post 'Fads vs Business Value: Knowledge Management & Enterprise 2.0' from September 2009:

Back then the shiny new idea was that we could share knowledge as never before thanks to the web, and a whole enterprise industry sprung up around ‘elearning’ with (LMS) ‘learning management systems’ being touted as the cost effective educational source for businesses to enlighten and track employee’s rapidly increasing intellectual sophistication. If the learning management system was the medium, knowledge management consultants and elearning course content providers would provide the brain training.

As it turned out however, after the smoke had cleared from around the mirrors amid all the hoopla around the future of work, greater knowledge sharing and the promise of transforming companies on an epic scale to become more intelligent enterprises, there were few compelling, defining reasons to pull the purchasing trigger. After the dot com soufflé deflated the unlikely savior turned out to be sexual harassment compliance.

The (learning management) systems were financially attractive to cost effectively provide and track confirmation that every employee had taken sexual harassment training while on boarding. If an employee made unwelcome advances in an elevator the recipient couldn’t sue their employer because the legal responsibility was clearly on the individual, as had been clearly defined and complied with in their AB 1825 anti harassment training.

The California statute AB 1825 became law in 2004, with LMS's having already become a budgeting cornerstone in preparation for that date as the best solution for tracking that everyone had formally completed their SHT - and the relevant learning courses and tests (the 'content') to prove understanding quickly became a commodity market. The KM academics and pundits continued with their fulsome expositions on the power of enterprise universities and KM, with some writing airport books for reading at 10,000 feet, which was also mostly the level of thinking involved. After all the 'this changes everything' dot com hoopla most companies renamed their training rooms 'universities', installed a few computers and pretty much called it done. This is a shame because there are plenty of brilliant people in the Knowledge management space, and some fine thinking: various factions have taken different defining positions with lexicons of new associated language, nomenclature and jargon, but newer generations of academics and buzzwords have made it difficult for KM's voice to be heard. Fast forward eight years and we have an alarmingly similar situation that's developed around all things digitally 'social' in the tightly linked online and mobile spaces, albeit without any consistent home run ROI cases for the bean counters yet, at least compared to the Sexual Harassment no brainer use case of 2004. Where in the dot com boom the world was looking at ways to help control and guide the rocket of limitless eGrowth in a very buoyant and optimistic economy, here we are a few years later in an era more analogous to the 1930's, when radio was transforming the world as an amazing new communication medium. (Fraternal Ham radio was as popular as passively listening to broadcasts in that era).

The barriers to digital publishing are gone - anyone can and does regularly publish their socially networked thoughts across the digital mediums with the inevitable logjam results. Information filtering is now a crisis and so is duplication and corruption of ideas. Always-on broadband and xG mobile connectivity coupled with the 'chiclet' appworld economy, to use John Battelle's description, are rapidly encouraging a consumptive model similar to cable television or broadcast radio to dominate…with an added dimension that you can effortlessly publish your thoughts as an armchair quarterback through any number of channels.

The result as we are experiencing is often a consumption and interaction black hole that ironically can make email look efficient. As an example I recently installed and opened the latest version of 'Hootsuite' the free 'social media dashboard to manage and measure your social networks'. I hooked up Twitter and Linkedin and was confronted by a sea of data. Configuring all these streams so that voices you decide need to be audible to you is time consuming and of course changes over time. Given the way I currently work - usually pretty deeply in one or two projects at a time - I primarily interact with people related in contexts to them. I still scan public Twitter (viaTweetdeck), Facebook and Google+ once a day but consider them to be collapsing under their own weight, not a helpful advertisement for improving enterprise collaboration …which frustratingly tends to get lumped in with all things social in the endless movable opinions and positions feast that is the online pundit world. I haven't used Hootsuite since that install - no time or use case…

Where knowledge management aimed to formally raise the level of knowledge in organizations, in our current era of instant experts the challenge of naive, wrong or partially wrong ad hoc information dissemination is a huge problem. Wikipedia, which grew out of the egalitarian web 2.0 technologies era has become a dense bureaucracy run by strict information gatekeepers as it has matured - and meanwhile the world rushed in, to use the title of my favorite California gold rush book. In the business world enterprise buyers buy the steak and not the sizzle, and need tangible, actionable, practical ways to solve real business problems. No amount of sizzle around buzzword driven castles in the sky will influence informed buying decisions, including the old sales saw 'the world is changing - why aren't you?' currently being tried on prospects by social software seat sales people everywhere. You can be sold the finest quality tools, but they are merely enablers to action sanctioned activities, not as the core of new ways of attempting to work together. 'What's In It For Me' applies to all participants across the board when you are attempting to get people to work together more cohesively and collectively, sharing information and ideas. That reality goes back to the dawn of the document and mail powered Victorian business world, when training sessions used blackboards, quills and ink wells.

The 9 million people who were motivated to watch  emerald supernova's 'shuffle' dance tuition video at the top of this post have a clear Return On Investment on their time: by consuming and digesting this knowledge they receive practical skills and the pleasure of learning to do this dance to their electronica genre choices (and probably ultimately impress whoever it is they're trying to impress), while EmeraldSupernova gets kudos, reputation and some Google ad money.

It's these sorts of personal value transactions that have got people so excited about the promise of 'social media/networking/business/marketing/etc' but in truth they are the exception. As I've written about extensively here previously there is a world of difference between how we choose to interact and consume as individuals (deciding to devote a lot of time to learning to Shuffle in time for next month's big party for example) and the terms of how we are expected to collaborate with our colleagues in our various work ecospheres.

In some ways we're coming full circle, with some of the HR technology sector beginning to help provide the underpinnings to bring some shape to the way employees and freelancers are expected to work together. The now mature web 1.0 era thinking around learning management systems is extensively used these days to verify training needs are met for compliance and governance in a wide variety of industries - now what's needed is a bridge to be formed between old and new in their client companies.

Collaboration initiatives ultimately have to be budgeted for in order to have a chance of succeeding, and as is the case with so much holistic cross enterprise problem solving there isn't any cross company budget. This is ironically why the 'collaboration silo' problem has arisen - a patchwork quilt of different departmental solutions doesn't scale or hang together as an efficient way of working at a macro scale. Departmental P&L budget buckets equals parochial thinking around problem solving.

Fragmentation across different enterprise 'collaboration silos' therefore continues to grow as a problem - in theory Human Resources departments are well positioned to be responsible for solving this, but their challenge is getting out from under their responsibilities running global payroll, governance, hiring and firing and working with legal on governance. Same issues, different department ...too busy with the day job to take this on ....just like in the Knowledge Management glory days…

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