We know that most learning in the workplace is informal. Most observers put it at around 80%. Recently, John Hagel and John Seeley Brown contended that ”as much as two-thirds of headcount time in major enterprise functions like marketing, manufacturing and supply chain management is spent on exception handling.” Of course, that fact is a result of the successes of process automation over the past few decades. Yet, still, The Barely Repeatable Process (BRP) persists as an organizational challenge for business.
Earlier discussions here focused on the importance of exceptions, to business process and formal learning. I examined the implications of the Kirkpatrick Evaluation model to the use of social media in learning experience design, while addressing the challenges facing learning leaders. Leading the Business-Centered Learning Experience noted that evaluating formal learning is as much about organizational learning and change management as it is about individual learning, largely because much of the learning, and performance, that matters today occurs at the group level. Marc Rosenberg recently echoed the point in an article in Learning Solutions Magazine, The Special Sauce of Social Learning. Marc noted that social learning is largely a change management challenge for organizations.
The most basic point to remember is that exceptions to formal business processes require efforts to design a scalable learning architecture that supports content co-creation needed to adapt to emergent challenges and manage the flow of that adaptation through an enterprise’s ecosystem. Whether judging an adaptation successful requires it to result in new formal learning content, i.e. content co-creation, or a new business process, i.e. organizational innovation, or both, remains an open question.
When an exception happens, we have to step away from our PowerPoint, stop typing an email, or exit a meeting in order to take care of it. Routine work stops. And, our modern reliance on technology to find, aggregate, and alert us to these exceptions has made the task of managing them more burdensome than ever before. Systems that manage exceptions provide the enterprise with vast amounts of data points that have become overwhelming for employees to handle. The applications that we rely on for managing exceptions still rely on process owners to make decisions and respond to the issues. The result is a workforce that isn’t dealing with exceptions well at all. (my emphasis)
The importance of social networking to increasing the effective handling of exceptions is a major focus for those interested in social learning.
Exception Handling as a Learning Opportunity
I’ll use the definition of learning offered in The New Social Learning, by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner. Learning is “the transformative process of taking in information that, when internalized and mixed with what we have experienced, changes what we know and builds on what we can do.”
Exceptions occur under a range of circumstances. For example, customers needing non-standard financing terms, managers needing to find transaction codes for unusual logistics requirements, or a software developer needing to resolve a coding problem involving multiple dependencies, and any of a host of other challenges faced in business that ERP, HR, CRM, and other enterprise systems don’t take into account. At the same time, exceptions create the opportunity for painful touch points of experience for stakeholders in the business ecosystem, especially customers.
The objectives for most formal learning content are derived from the goals of formal business processes, whether the learning content is push or pull in design. On the other hand, the practical innovations, workarounds, necessary to adapt to business exceptions are a significant part of the informal learning in any enterprise. Those same workarounds reveal how stakeholders improvise practices, usually manually through BRPs, to manage exceptions.
Business processes supporting Enterprises are, by definition, as rigid as possible and defined around automated controls over workflow, all the while tracked as transactions. We know what the demand and price is on a product or service, we know how long it takes to make and distribute, we know whether it is bought, we know who bought it, and typically a lot more about them.
Handling exceptions to current processes falls within the domain of informal learning but, more specifically, social learning. Marcia Conner (@marciamarcia) puts it well in a recent Fast Company article:
Training often gives people solutions to problems already solved. Collaboration addresses challenges no one has overcome before. Social learning makes that immediate, enabling people to easily interact with those with whom they share a workplace, a passion, a curiosity, a skill, or a need.
Designing and developing organizational capabilities for smoothing out the way exceptions are handled is a key challenge for those interested in social learning. Consider the following graphic offered by Marcia in defining social learning.
In other words, social media and social learning work most powerfully together when they support a design approach to enabling business strategy. The point is important because the value that social relationships bring to business is bounded by how well employees handle exceptional requests from key stakeholders in the ecosystem, whether they are customers, business partners, or other employees.
Posted by Larry R. Irons
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