The new face of learning

The need to nurture a learning-friendly corporate culture cannot be over emphasized.

The need to nurture a learning-friendly corporate culture cannot be over emphasized when considering today's marketplace. Individuals are not only faced with changing technology but with keeping the skills required to effectively perform their jobs.

Learning is rapidly evolving at the organizational level to tap not only the Internet but also technology and human expertise. For example, a marketing manager planning a product rollout might use the electronic employee directory to identify the product expert to help her address her business objectives. This manager can then use an instant messaging program to contact that expert as she develops her plan. Or a sales representative in the pharmaceutical industry might use his PDA to access latest information updates while in the field. His company can use the technology in his pocket to feed him information critical to his job function and in a context where the information is valuable.

Forward-thinking companies are finding that rethinking the role of existing technology...can open new learning doors.

Forward-thinking companies are finding that rethinking the role of existing technology, such as instant messaging, the employee portal or directory, and mobile devices, can open new learning doors.

Three characteristics of learning will define the future and embody contextualized learning that individuals can easily access:

Organizational Learning: What if the business could take first-year managers and improve their competencies to perform like managers with five years of experience? Certain experiences contribute to developing those competencies more than others do. Companies can pinpoint which experiences have more impact in getting people to the next competency level by creating learning experiences that leverage best practices to catalyze the skill requirements for a given role or area of responsibility. Organizations that are able to increase the rate of adoption of new information and best practices will have more success and greater value in the market.

Empowered learners: In the future, learners will be increasingly empowered to shape when, where and how they learn. Organizations will continue to define learning paths, assess value and reward outcomes in support of overall organizational objectives, but learners will have greater authority to determine what learning will most effectively enable them to make valuable and productive contributions to their organization.

Learners will be intensely aware of what is a waste of their time, and stay clear of those options with increasing conviction of what does and does not provide value to them in their job. This does not suggest that classrooms will go away. What it does suggest is learners will be more demanding of the classroom experience. In exchange for their time, learners will expect classroom activities to focus on providing learning experiences that could not be acquired through other means.

Embedded learning: The nature of work-embedded learning provides content in context--turning the whole learning paradigm on its head. Work-embedded learning considers the individuals job role, experience level and is accessed as the individual performs work. It does not ask, "What am I going to teach you?" but "What work do you do?" and "What do you need?" When a firm looks at a work process and the individual's role, it can come up with ways to deliver learning embedded into the job, and actually increase the consumption of learning in the organization.

Dymanic learning
When creating a dynamic learning culture, it is not enough to simply "train" an employee. For an organization to evolve with the fast-changing business environment and operate in an "on-demand" manner, it needs to address the organizational, empowered and embedded needs of the workforce. It must reinvent the role of learning by strategically evaluating five dimensions of change: organizational alignment; governance and management; design and delivery; technology; and culture.

Organizational alignment
Within the organization, not all job roles are valued equally. This may require a learning shift from skill emphasis to role emphasis.

Instead of identifying a skill set and building a program around management skills for example, role-implemented programs identify critical job roles, such as sales manager, and enable the individual with the skills and capabilities to do his job more effectively.

Indeed, the most successful learning programs are those which align business priorities with individual job roles. For the organization, a focus on growth and innovation requires an on-going alignment of learning initiatives to business priorities. For the employee, when she understands how learning can directly impact her performance, she is more engaged and motivated to participate in learning. Governance and management
Reinventing the role of learning requires innovative thinking at the governance level. Management should consider how learning officers can partner with the CIO, COO, business unit leaders and other key positions throughout the organization to develop comprehensive learning strategies that address pressing business problems. When enabled by executives and management that understand how learning can impact an organization, learning can deliver real business value and return on investment.

Traditionally, management implements learning in formalized fashions--in a classroom, in a mentoring role, through a book. When learning occurs away from work, we know that individuals only absorb a small percentage of the content. Some information may be stored and recalled for later use, but much of the content is lost immediately after the learning event.

When moving from formal to informal learning, management must also reconsider how it evaluates learning. In traditional learning events, success is measured by participation and learner satisfaction. In a contextualized learning environment, management must consider new methods for evaluating ROI, as it will be more difficult to measure these learning experiences as discreet events that generate standardized business value.

When management begins to think about learning as a part of work flow, they will begin to consider new options for governance and management of these business responsibilities, and this will result in greater value realized by the organization.

When management begins to think about learning as a part of work flow, they will begin to consider new options for governance and management of these business responsibilities, and this will result in greater value realized by the organization.

Design and delivery
Today's instructional design places a focus on making more content available. However, implementing the future of learning requires adapted design and delivery that expands instruction to include more focus on learning that anticipates knowledge gaps, is embedded in work and centered on the learner.

Focusing on both proximity and relevancy will also move the design and delivery of learning from an emphasis on topics to an emphasis on tasks. In a task-based program, learning provides performance support rather than a formal event with a test.

Traditional learning looks at specific topics. A company might hold seminars on time management, sales techniques or management approaches. Conversely, a task-based paradigm considers what task the individual performs when she needs learning the most--again, asking the question, "What work are you doing?" and "What do you need help with now?"

Thousands of companies already use technology that can quickly and easily be adapted for learning. Intranets, instant messenger programs, email, cell phones, PDAs, portals, directories and other programs and devices are just a few of the technologies employees already use on a daily basis. These tools can enhance person to person interaction and create a pervasive learning environment that supports a vibrant learning culture.

To make a truly strategic change, companies must reexamine at how they think about learning and foster the organizational culture accordingly.

Learning may be redefined to include anytime access to key subject matter experts, as well as having "just-in-time" information via any workplace device, including hand-held devices. Companies should ask how they can foster an environment that encourages the sharing of knowledge, best practices and critical information.

Moreover, companies should understand the geographic, language and cultural challenges that may exist when implementing a new learning program. Contextualized content also means understanding the environment in which individuals work.

Where does all of this leave our sales manager?

His work-flow and job-aligned learning options might expand to include a) notifications from his PDA with the most up to date information while in the field; b) instant messaging with subject matter experts on the retail industry while preparing a presentation; c) access to best practices on the company Intranet; and d) all of the above and more.

In the future, employees will be equipped for the unexpected as the on-demand enterprise develops a perpetual state of readiness for a changing market environment. The on-demand enterprise will not only have access to talented people, but accelerate the development of that talent within the company, ensuring consistent access to highly motivated and productive people who contribute to the greater good of the organization.

Steve Rae is a vice president of services for IBM Learning Solutions. Tony O'Driscoll is a learning strategist, and a member of IBM's Center for Advanced Learning where he is responsible for driving innovation in learning to achieve IBM's strategic objectives. Learning Solutions is a business organization in IBM working with customers to develop innovative solutions that address the growing need for improving human performance through technology.