Wednesday, 31 October 2012

HOW are people learning?


In his address to the Digital Media and Learning Conference in San Francisco in March 2012, John Seely Brown (JSB) said a number of interesting things about the changes required in learning to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.  For the transcript follow this link.  For an animated video summary of the presentation follow this link.

Here are some key points on which I want to comment, which I see as fundamental to the debate about change:

  • 'Just being able to learn as individuals is not enough'
  • 'How do we invest in new types of social practices and new institutional forms and new skills?'
  • 'What are the social practices?'
  • 'How do you participate in the ever moving flow of activities?'

Learning as an 'everyday' participation in ever moving activities

The question 'how do we participate in the ever moving flow of activities' is the right one to be asking.  The emphasis that I want to make in this post is about the 'how'.  And not just how do we participate but also how we learn.

Right now in the workplace, people are participating with each other and learning collaboratively.  This is being done through a process of meaning making that's accomplished through talk: day-to-day, everyday talk about work; done under pressing conditions of time and space to achieve some kind of understanding to enable something to be done; by people who are uniquely skilled to understand the context in that place, at that time.

When we look at work in this way it is irreducible from learning.  People are learning continually and ongoingly through a constant web of interacting elements.  

This web is now being extended by the effect of social media.  I think what we are seeing is the same  process of meaning making in action but amplified on a bigger stage with the opportunities to make new connections over and above what would have been possible in more cellular places of learning, e.g. a meeting, a schoolroom (JSB's reference), a 1:1 conversation across the desk, a phone call.  This process is also generating new institutional forms and skills.

Learning as a social practice

Whilst John Seely Brown's encouragement to, say, do more 'playing' and 'tinkering' might be pointing us in the right direction, these are glosses that miss out on lots of details and therefore we don't have an understanding of exactly how these practices work.

As a social practice learning is constantly variable.  However, this variability also creates complexity, which is a problem for the field and hence why we use abstracted notions as a shorthand to create a sense of structure and certainty when, in reality each learning accomplishment is rather specific to the context and circumstances of the setting.  Harold Garfinkel, the father of ethnomethodolgy, described this as 'just-this-ness' as a way of explaining his attention to the 'work' being done in everyday settings and of their resistance to generalisation.

An example of a social practice in learning that has widespread acceptance and appeal is coaching.  As a practice people who take part in it say that it helps, which is evidence of something, but what?   The question I am exploring is exactly how does it work.  If it helps learning, what are the methods in use that enable this?  In fact, coaching is a composite of multiple practices like questioning, listening, sensing, probing and so on which are themselves glosses.  To be able to explicate them would require detailed analysis in situ and in vivo, i.e. in the place and with the people involved and taking into account the social context.  

My point is that if this is true of coaching, or of other accepted practices like action learning, or neuro linguistic programming, then it is also true for the social practices that are now evolving, which might also include playing and tinkering. i.e. exactly how these things work is important but they remain unstudied

How is this relevant to learning in the 21C?

The premis of JSB, and many other commentators besides, is that the world is changing rapidly, e.g. the half-life of skills being 5 years and so on, and therefore that learning and approaches to it need to change, be that social practices, new institutional forms or new skills.   

My position is that to understand what and how to change we should treat our current social practices as interesting in their own right and to avoid taking them for granted. This means spending time following the action of learning, especially the everyday always-occuring learning in the workplace, to find out what is being done and how.  This will inform and explicate the deeply social nature of our learning practices and enable clearer prescriptions for change.  

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Friday, 19 October 2012

Do we need management courses?

To what extent do we still need courses to teach managers?

I've been thinking about this question for a while now and then the other day I read an interesting blog post by Clive Shepherd 'Bundle resources and you may not need courses' that talked about this topic.

In Clive's work he says he is increasingly being asked to assemble bundles of resources that might include all of the following:

  • Web articles, written in an engaging, journalistic manner, rather like blogs.
  • More formal reference material, in HTML or PDF format.
  • Decision aids, perhaps coded in Flash or JavaScript, but sometimes more simply provided as spreadsheets.
  • Self-analysis questionnaires and perhaps quizzes.
  • Short, simple videos and screencasts.
  • Mini-scenarios that allow the user to check whether they can put what they have learned into practice.
My interest is whether the idea of bundling resources like this represents a prima facie case of a shift from the course (f2f or virtual) to resources?  My hunch is that this might be beginning to happen and, if this is so, then I think it's a really important turn towards what John Seely Brown calls cultivating the entrepreneurial learner.

In Clive's posting he makes the point, accurately in my view, that we still need something like courses, or at least spaces where people can meet, be that f2f or virtually to share ideas, get feedback or meet experts.  Even so, I still find myself challenging the continuing assumption of the need for courses, especially in management development. 

My own research on how managers learn showed that managers don't rely on courses to any great extent.  In fact, in my sample, they made no reference to courses at all when asked about how they had learnt to do the things that they did well..  This finding was supported by a more thorough piece of analysis done over 30 years ago by John Burgoyne and Roger Stuart at Lancaster University in 1976.  This research has been written up in the Manager's Guide to Self Development by Mike Pedler, John Burgoyne and Tom Boydell.

Notwithstanding Clive's observation, my own experience is that f2f courses remain a central part of the formal provision in many organisations.  And if this is still the case, then why is this?  Some of my questions are these:

  • Does it, for example, reflect a tacit distrust in the assumptions of the 70:20:10 model?  In other words, although we do learn most of what we know from experience and our peers, is it that this type learning is too random to be sufficient to be an explicit element of the learning strategy to meet the needs of an organisation?
  • Is it that the taken-for-granted role of managers to control and direct then leads to approaches that 'push' learning through courses rather than relying on learners 'pulling' on a bundle of resources?  
  • Is it a coded way of saying 'we aren't yet brave enough' to cut loose and drop courses altogether, or at least to reduce their dominance? 
If courses do have a part to play, how clear are we about their purpose, what's expected from learners and the degree of control that we are prepared to release to the learner to follow their interests?

Since I have already hinted at the continuing requirement for courses, I need to help you, the reader, to make sense of where I am coming from by saying something about my interests.

How do we master our learning interests?

I consider myself a mature learner with lots of experience of many types of learning.  Notwithstanding this, I still have a continuing and emergent sense of my learning.  And as an aside, this sense of emergence has been heightened dramatically by accessing the types of resources that Clive has mentioned.  This means that my learning never feels fixed or final.  I cannot know how the connections I have made and will continue to make, will influence my practice; and therefore, how am I becoming a master of management learning (or whatever topic you might choose to insert for yourself)?  

Learning as a movement of continuing and emergent change 

Learning as a process of change is itself a movement that is continuous and emerging rather than fixed.  This shifts the focus away from two periods of stasis - as in from point A to point B - towards a continuous process of becoming.  The key learning principle that emerges, if you accept my point, is that the question 'what is there to be learned about?' shifts from one which is dictated by the course designer and sponsor to the learners themselves.

Leadership is a process that emerges from social interaction

Learning and especially leadership learning is a process that emerges from social interactions.  Therefore, it seems rather obvious to me that leadership learning should be concerned with where, how and why leadership work is organised and accomplised in situ and in vivo and not in the classroom.  This constrasts with leadership learning that is about an individualistic endeavour where individual managers are acting as if they are separate from rather than as part of the system that they are influencing.  Leadership is taught with this individualistic perspective in mind and, as a result, is 'other focused'.  This approach in unhelpful, in my view, because it works on the basis that leaders learn to learn about things that can be applied, unproblematically, to fix other people's performance problems.  In reality, it is the dynamics of the social setting that need to be examined and understood, including their part in this process.   


In my way of seeing things, f2f courses might actually be doing more harm than good because they privilege, in taken-for-granted ways, abstracted knowledge over actual practice. They also affirm, again in ways that are taken-for- granted, the trainer's responsibility to define what is learnt and how and not the learners themselves.

It comes down to this: which came first 'the chicken or the egg'? Do we assume that change happens by placing the responsibility for that change in the hands of 'change agents': teachers/trainers in learning-speak, to teach abstracted knowledge to those who must apply it to actual practice, or do we trust learners to decide what it is they need to know based on what's important to them?

My position is that we do need courses to support management development but that they should be about helping managers to, first, develop the skills of observation, analysis and sense making about what it is that they are doing everyday and, second, to meet either f2f or virtually, to share what they are learning, to get feedback and challenge from their colleagues and external experts.  The acquisition of management theory will form part of this but this would be better placed if it were to follow the learning derived from everday social interaction and not the other way round.

And this is where I see great merit and need for the bundling of resources described by Clive.  It would allow and expect learners to pull on resources that are of interest to their work rather than being directed, in an instrumental way, by senior managers or trainers.


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