Supporting continuous learning and performance improvement – a vital new area of work

Screen Shot 2013-04-30 at 14.13.15In my previous post I showed that an analysis of how Knowledge Workers like to learn at work suggests that L&D departments should consider working more closely with people managers to support the continuous learning and performance improvement of their people – both in teams and individually.

But of course this isn’t the only reason why they need to do this; continuous organizational learning is a key business imperative – as the University of Guelph points out

“continuous learning is increasingly important to the success of the organization because of changing economic conditions. Given the current business environment, organizations must be able to learn continuously in order to deal with these changes and, in the end, to survive.”

The University of Guelph also outlines the difference between continuous individual and group learning:

“At the individual level, continuous learning is about expanding your ability to learn by regularly upgrading your skills and increasing your knowledge. Continuous learning in the workplace involves viewing your experiences as potential learning and reexamining assumptions, values, methods, policies, and practices.  … At the group level, continuous learning is reflected, for example, by a team transforming itself in response to changing conditions.”

Source: Josh Bersin, 2012

Josh Bersin also talks about the need for a Continuous Learning Model, pointing out

“Today, if your company is not continuously developing new skills and learning from your customers, the market, and your own teams – you will fall behind.”

Of course, this is nothing new. Many organisations have aspired to a “continuous learning culture” for a long time now, although in practice, at best this has meant a series of training events, rather than a continuous flow of learning.

However, we can now approach the concept of “continuous learning” very differently, and this is due to the proliferation and widespread use of social technologies. The Social Web has changed the way that individuals learn from a constant stream of knowledge and information. And, in a similar way now, enterprise social tools are changing how team members can learn from one another inside their organisation. And what’s more, they can do that as they carry out their daily work – not as a separate activity nor on a separate “learning platform” – in order to continuously improve their performance. One might even refer to this as constant learning rather than continuous learning. [I have posted about this in Supporting self-managed team learning in the organisation.]

Although some might believe that supporting individual (professional) continuous learning will only result in workers up-skilling themselves and leaving the company, actually not supporting these activities is more likely to have this effect. But more importantly, for a team or group to “transform itself in changing conditions” it absolutely depends upon individual members feeding new thinking, ideas, resources into the team. [I have talked before about the importance of individual entrepreneurial learning (as John Seely Brown refers to it) or "learning the new" as I often call it.]

It is for this reason, supporting the continuous – or constant learning – of individuals and teams is becoming a vital new area of work for a L&D department. However, to do it effectively requires 5 significant changes to the current activities and thinking of L&D.

  1. From “order takers” to business partners - It means working in closer partnership with team managers – not just doing what they ask for (eg create me a course, run a webinar for me) – but working together as full partners to support team and individual needs in the best and most appropriate ways.
  2. From “packaging” content-based solutions to “scaffolding” frameworks for learning to take place  - It means not trying to organise and manage “learning” by packaging it all up in the traditional training way, but rather enabling the framework/infrastructure/conditions for learning and performance improvement to take place. (I wrote about this in The changing role of L&D: from “packaging” to “scaffolding” plus “social capability building”)
  3. From a focus on  learning to a focus on performance - It’s remembering that it’s not JUST about the learning – rather that learning and collaboration are means to an end, not the end goal – which is improved performance. So the focus will be not on tracking “learning” or “social activity”, but on tracking performance changes. (It’s also worth pointing out that most managers won’t have the time or inclination to trawl through activity data to try to identify  the patterns of high performing individuals. And even if they did, this wouldn’t be immediately transferable to others, since there are many other factors that influence high performance which won’t have been tracked. Rather, identifying influencers in a team or organisation can best be achieved through value network analysis.)
  4. From teaching “old skills” to modelling “new skills” - Although some will, through constant use of  the Social Web, have acquired a new set of personal and social skills, others will need support and help to thrive in this new environment. They will need help to develop their own Personal Knowledge Management approaches, as well as how to work and learn collaboratively in their teams in the Connected Workplace. Team leaders will also need help to manage and support a connected work team, and community managers will need help to build and sustain communities of practice (See Connected Worker Workshops)
  5. From course designers/trainers to performance, collaboration and professional learning specialists – This new area of work will also demand new L&D roles and skills. It is clear from the above that existing course design and training skills will not be appropriate; and it won’t require a hands-on approach to facilitation that is to be found in formal learning communities. Rather it will need specialists in performance, collaboration and professional learning, who can provide upfront advice and support, and then step back onto the sidelines and offer help and guidance where and when required. (See New jobs and roles within L&D)

Harold Jarche and I have been working for some time now with organisational L&D departments to help them with this new area of work. As it is becoming of increasing interest, we are now about to embark on a new Certificate and Diploma programme to be offered through the Learning & Performance Institute, so that learning professionals can become certified in this new area of connected work. Find out more in the LPI webinar that takes place on Wednesday 8 May.

[The main body of this post is an excerpt from from my upcoming book, The Workplace Learning Revolution, where you can read more about the new model of L&D and how to support new ways of learning at work.]

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