We're in a new age. Organizations can no longer be dependent on training to meet their learning needs. When things changed slowly, we could train people and trust that they could perform or be coached to do their jobs. That day has passed. The steady acceleration of information creation and advances in technology has reached a critical point, and we have been thrust into a realization that our old models of management cannot cope. The chaotic underpinnings of the world have been unmasked, and continual adaptation is the new status quo.

Execution is no longer enough. The ability to optimally execute is now only the cost of entry. Creating a seamless customer experience will keep you in the game, but it will take more to win. Innovation is now the only true differentiator. It is incumbent on organizations to not only continually improve, but to also continually be developing new features, new products, new services, and new markets. Apple is the poster child of this concept, and the companies that are continuously reinventing themselves are and will continue to be the market leaders. An engaging customer experience will be the norm, and to stand out will take creating a customer experience that's transformative.

How is that accomplished?

Learning is key. Individuals, teams, business units, and the organization must be continuously learning: learning about new processes, new opportunities, new ways to meet real needs. Learning here means research, design, experimentation, problem-solving, collaboration, listening, and more.

I don't mean training! Which is not to say that formalized learning doesn't still have a role (though a different curricula and pedagogy are needed). I'm talking a fundamentally larger perspective. A perspective that looks at all learning. Therefore, the responsibility of the learning function has to shift and broaden, taking responsibility for informal learning, and that means quite a bit. It's not really about learning, it's about performance, and there are a lot of elements that come into play.

When you look at how people learn, very little of it comes from formal courses (less than 20 percent, according to some research). Learning occurs through listening, observing, acting and reflecting, participating, communicating, collaborating, and more. Taking responsibility for learning means enabling these capabilities.

The costs of not doing so can be high. Mistakes in execution can lose customers, deals, or even lives. The statistics on successful search in organizations are woeful. People spend time searching and not finding. Think of the costs of the same mistake being made because the person who has made it doesn't share the lesson learned. How many times do you think that happens in your organization?

Two views

Two ways of looking at the situation are productive. For one, most formal learning only addresses novices, providing the motivation and grounding, as well as the critical skills. However, practitioners can do with less: they need just performance support tools, or information updates, and mentoring on the path to excellence. At the top, experts need individuals to collaborate with.

The other way to look at it is through delivering organizational functions. As mentioned, the first part is execution: individuals need to be brought up to speed quickly, and then allowed to execute. Execution typically involves more situations and background knowledge than can be memorized, so we want external references, both product and process. Designing and developing these resources is an important role that needs serious approaches to presentation and navigation. The second part is innovation. That comes from people who are engaged in the activity but are provided time and motivated to look for new opportunities to both trim existing approaches, and develop new ones, whether product or process. Here we need to support working together.

Several steps are critical. First, organizations need to deepen their understanding and execution of formal learning. Second, organizations need to take responsibility for, populate, and make accessible the performance support resources that enable optimized execution. Finally, communication and collaboration tools need to be in place to support finding the appropriate people who will have answers, or can be part of the process of developing new ones.


Let's face it, most formal learning is based on models that were designed for efficiency, not effectiveness. 'Spray and pray' or knowledge dump and a quiz aren't going to lead to meaningful behavior change. Most of the formal training and e-learning that's out there is a waste of time and money for everyone involved.So job number one is reviewing and refining, even totally starting over, on the formal learning design. This actually entails lighter and more engaging experiences, not bigger and more highly produced ones; it's a case of working smarter, not harder.

Going further, most performance support is broken in common ways as well. It's all too often we hear a statement like "Portals? Sure, we've got hundreds." As if anyone can figure out where to go for what! Even if individuals are at the right portal, the chances that it has been systematically designed to support user's needs are slim. Finally, many processes and associated job aids aren't optimally designed to maximize their efficiency and effectiveness, and consequently their impact is minimized. So the second step is to apply information design and architecture to realign the portals around goals, tasks, and roles, ensuring a coherent perspective from the viewpoint of the performer.

The real benefit, however, is to go beyond execution to innovation, and that requires collaboration and communication. New product ideas come from conversations with customers, new processes come from performers and managers, and the game-changing ideas can come from almost anywhere.

Conversations do happen in organizations, but are often limited by geography and memory. When supported technologically, the conversations can occur with the right person, not the most convenient. The actual learning then can be captured, shared, or mined. Even geographically dispersed organizations can benefit. So the third step, and one of the most cost-effective, is to install a social media infrastructure. Even if the organization isn't geographically distributed, there are benefits to technology enablement.

Making it work

Even when those steps have been taken, there are two overarching components that also need to be addressed. First, those components need to work together. It's all too frequent that the formal training doesn't acknowledge the performance support tools, and neither acknowledges the social learning environment. Ideally, the underpinning technical infrastructure is based upon a sound content model, supporting elegant capture of the tacit knowledge from the social component and refining that into new formalized knowledge. Mobile is a layer above that adds to the equation in important ways. All of the above need to be integrated both conceptually and technically. This does not necessarily mean a monolithic IT infrastructure, but can and arguably should be loosely coupled.

In addition, without a culture that empowers individuals with the organization's goal, supports and rewards their contributions, and develops individuals in their ability to learn on their own and together, the initiative will only be a sop, not a salve. Assuming that individuals are effective self-learners is a mistake, and taking responsibility for making learning explicit and supporting individual development in learning skills is necessary, as is similarly making explicit the cultural values the organization holds for working together.

It may sound daunting, but it's doable. IBM, for instance, with their "work apart," "work embedded," and "work enabled" learning framework, is taking a serious step towards linking their different contexts of learning, including customized portals by role and task. High technology firms like Intel, Sun, and others are finding great value in collaboration tools like wikis (Intelopedia has become 'the' internal reference), blogs (a knowledge management tool at Sun), and discussion forums (Oracle and SAP are greatly benefitting from customer conversations)

There's more: FedEx's use of mobile is exemplary, and the opportunities are growing rapidly. Other firms are mining value from the data created by their social network, realizing cost savings on reducing content development redundancies, the list goes on.

Last word

Organizations need to rethink the focus of their learning perspective. Taking responsibility for the total organizational learning is a strategic step. And, I'll suggest, incrementalism won't cut it. While it's a tried-and-true strategy, small encroachments on new areas are liable to miss more lateral opportunities. Taking the perspective of the full responsibility is more likely to unearth the highest value initiatives to undertake.

It's time to optimize the formal learning, and shift investment to performance support and social environments. Deep pockets or an entrenched position are a decreasing barrier, and the playing field is shifting to favor smarter, more nimble organizations. That requires learning, both formal and informal. So get strategic, and get learning!