Scalable Learning and Learnscapes in Social Business Design

August 10, 2009

 learnscapeAbout a month ago I read What Would Andrew Do?, an unbook by Jay Cross and friends. I’ve mentioned Jay’s work in previous posts dealing with elearning 2.0 and collaboration in informal learning. In particular, its important to remember that focusing on informal learning doesn’t mean we must disregard the relevance of formal learning because learning is never 100% formal or informal.

However, the term scalable learning probably does require a bit of clarification. After all, isn’t elearning supposed to scale to the size of the learning group and remain available when they need it, where they need it, as long as they are connected to the Web? Well, yes–and it does pretty much. Nevertheless, instructional designers too often fail to incorporate emergent learning requirements of the organization, the enterprise, into  their learning architecture largely because the approaches used to evaluate learning content (whether elearning, blended, or instructor-led) do not incorporate assumptions about the larger ecosystem’s need for the co-creation of knowledge.

The concern for whether the learner is exposed to every thread of content in every course, and assessed for mastery of the information, tends to predominate design thinking about learning, and for compliance training sometimes this is required.  However, too often, instructional design fails to focus on whether the learning scales to support the learner’s ability on-the-job to recognize a problem as a particular kind of problem, much less provide the ability to find the learning content that provides a solution.

I don’t intend to delve here into the minutiae of distinction possible between types of learning. Suffice it to say that when a learning architecture supports all types of learning along the range of formal, non-formal, and informal experience, it must design formal learning in small enough chunks to serve as resources for non-formal and informal learning activities. It also means that the knowledge created using non-formal learning (whether mentored or accomplished in collaboration with peers), or informal learning taken on its own, needs to become a performance resource in developing new formal learning content.

Jay contends that the performance challenges facing organizations are most aptly conceptualized as a learnscape, a concept initially articulated by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. In the August 2009 issue of Chief Learning Officer magazine, Jay offers the following synopsis.

Learnscapes are the factory floor of knowledge organizations. The “scape” part underscores the need to deal at the level of the learning environment or ecology…The “learn” part highlights the importance of baking the principles of sound learning into that environment rather than leaving it to chance.

 John Hagel sees learnscapes as part of a global transformation of industrial society that he, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison call the Big Shift: the move from institutions designed for scalable efficiency to institutions designed for scalable learning. Hagel’s thinking is relevant since, as I explain below, Jay uses the Push/Pull distinction to demarcate formal and informal learning. The basic insight is conveyed by Hagel, Brown, and Davison in their thoughts on Measuring the Big Shift:

Companies must move beyond their fixation on getting bigger and more cost-effective to make the institutional innovations necessary to accelerate performance improvement as they add participants to their ecosystems, expanding learning and innovation in collaboration curves and creation spaces. Companies must move, in other words, from scalable efficiency to scalable learning and performance. Only then will they make the most of our new era’s fast-moving digital infrastructure.

The participants that Hagel, Brown, and Davison refer to consist of consumers, customers, partners, and employees using social media to talk about, talk to, and engage the products and services, i.e. brands, that an enterprise markets. Don’t misunderstand the focus on performance in the discussion of scalable learning. It isn’t about the traditional focus on efficiency, pursuing ever leaner processes for the sake of officially recognized best practices. Rather, the focus is on creating the knowledge needed to adapt to emergent challenges and manage the flow of that adaptation through the enterprise’s ecosystem. For learning architecture it begins with understanding the importance of keeping the focus on distinctions between push and pull learning.

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