How to Revolutionise Workplace Learning

This week I’m in Berlin, Germany at the OEB Conference. The conference hosts interviewed me a few weeks ago about my thoughts on learning since leaving a formal role in the field years ago. I enjoyed the experience of reflecting on what’s changed and the opportunity to set the industry free. Here’s the article, crafted from my talk with Alasdair McKinnon. My only regret here is not being able to share the time with my long time friend, Jay Cross.

From the OEB16 News

Marcia Conner is a former corporate executive who is now dedicated to “reinventing a vibrant healthy world”. She advises leaders, governments, corporations and schools across the globe on how to reshape their organisational practices. The author of four books, including The New Social Learning: Connect, Collaborate, Work (2nd ed., ATD Press, June 2015), she works to find better ways for people to learn, collaborate and achieve professional success. We caught up with her to find out what the big problems she faces are, and what drives her passion for her work.

By Alasdair McKinnon, 

How do organisations get workplace learning wrong, and how can they fix it?

Marcia: Years ago, workplace educators began to segment what they provided employees into artificial and misleading categories, for example, “formal” and “informal” learning, or “e-learning” “blended learning” or “social learning”. This happened because prior to the general use of computers to reach people across the miles, they thought their product was classroom-based education.

What they neglected to realise was that their value was resource sharing, two-way dialogue, experience building, and networking. It always has been, and most likely always will be. Even in the most parochial classrooms, the value of workplace learning was not in the walls of the room itself. The classroom was simply the venue. Likewise, when workplace educators began to create online programmes, the value they offered wasn’t in the bits and bytes. It was in the access and the exchange. With this perspective, all workplace learning has some formal and informal elements. Today even courses on interpersonal skills entice learners to search for or share insights with friends on mobile devices. They blend “e-” and “social” approaches, too.

Learning is learning, which happens in roughly the same way for all of us, though in different contexts and in various venues across our lives. The sooner workplace educators break from their boxes and their lingo, and in many cases help the organisations that employ them unlearn what they’ve so caustically coached them on erroneously for years, the sooner they’ll be seen as true partners in reaching new heights.

For organisations to benefit from the value of the L&D department, workplace educators need to ensure their offerings consistently provide everyone an opportunity to ready and expand their experiences – and to learn from people, unlike them, who challenge their assumptions and expand their horizons. These are people who focus on exchange and growth between individuals, their know-how, and their needs, rather than demarcation and classifications.

The OEB Team: You could say that what Socrates came up with was “social learning” – so what’s new about the new social learning?

Marcia: Socrates developed his methods in a town square, dialoguing with fellow citizens about the issues of the day. Today, those conversations can occur as easily around a conference table (or a picnic bench in the company courtyard) as between a colleague on site with a customer and a peer flying halfway across the globe. The distance our voices can travel have been replaced with the digital signals of cell towers and wi-fi. Our thumbs can type questions, and videos can convey feelings. What’s new is that we are no longer contained by our spaces or our proximity to those with insights. We can find, collaborate, and learn from people we don’t know as easily as from those we know, through verbal dialogue as easily as via transcriptions and audio files, and we can do this around the clock, across the world, and on the subjects vital to our success. In addition, with modern tools such as voice-to-text and video, today we break from Socrates because we no longer need to rely on our students to write down our words. Our ideas and the logic behind them can spread based on their vibrancy and our willingness to share.

What misunderstandings do organisations have about social media?

Marcia: Many organisational leaders still believe they can curtail their employees’ use of social media. In global society, where people everywhere rely on reaching one another through mobile devices in the moment of need, they expect to be able to connect in real time at work, too. If there are firewalls at the office to limit their access, they’ll use personal devices with plans they pay for themselves. If there are device lockers by the door, they’ll step outside for a connection break. With corporate limitations to access and ease, employees waste lots of time finding workarounds – while building resentment towards their employers for thinking so small. “Bosses” have misunderstood that social media tools provide people an opportunity to be engaged at work and to connect with what matters most to them. Rather than believe they can command and control, contain and curtail, leaders should ensure employees can engage.

You write that a client described your role as “making work not suck”. What is it about common workplace cultures that “sucks” the most, and how can it be changed?

Marcia: In an effort to increase productivity, organisations have long sought to compartmentalise work and develop policies based on the notion that employees function best when free of their emotions, personalities, and unique perspectives. The first industrial revolutions may have given way to technology and a digital age, with more people doing cognitive information work than manual work, yet the mechanistic mindset of how work gets done lives on. In contrast, some of the most successful collaborations in history have expected people to bring their full selves to the job. Their leaders recognised that when people can participate without the added burden of conforming to sterile norms, they find within themselves brilliance, which travels fast and energises those around them, so that together they can excel.

What inspires you to do the work you do?

Marcia: I’m a parent of a twelve-year-old, articulate, tech-savvy son, and I live in a household with my 82-year old mother-in-law who grew up in a remote community. Combining that with the experiences of those I meet as I travel, my life is inspired by nonstop perspective and fundamental truths on life, love, process, and progress. As I dedicate my life to creating a world we’re all proud to live in, understanding what that means to people with dramatically differing situations and experiences keeps my work interesting and alive.

Marcia Conner will be speaking on “In the Age of Acceleration: Making Time for Learning” at the #OEB16 Friday Plenary.     

How to Revolutionise Workplace Learning