Developing capable people: The Learning Flow

For the past couple of years I have been in the BT Group Learning part of the organisation, so I have been thinking about Learning and how it really works.

In the paragraphs and pictures below, I’ll let you see the influential people who have shaped my thinking about learning. Each of these has changed my mindset. You probably have gathered that I passionately believe that Knowledge Management and Collaboration are intertwined with Learning. This is an attempt to explain why I have come to that conclusion. Regrettably it came out slightly longer than intended, so to help you see where I am going, here is the core argument:

  • There are different kinds of work – not everything is Simple, or simple to learn. A lot of work is Complex.
  • Work in BT is becoming increasingly Complex
  • Learning does not always equal training
  • We can (indeed must) add, embed and extract learning from our work
  • The strategies-for-learning change as work gets more complex
  • So we need capable people (not just competent people)
  • Capable people learn constantly (the learning flow)

Hope you enjoy the ideas I’ve gathered below. I’d love comments that point me to other people and resources that have influenced your thinking about learning.

Cause and effect isn’t always simple, so how can people learn to do their work?

In order to make everyday decisions and actions on your job, we each have some kind of mental model of cause and effect. We do what we do because we have a desired outcome in mind. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework reminds us that cause and effect isn’t always simple, and the strategies for handling these situations are different.

  • In a Simple situation, you simply Sense the situation, Categorise it and Respond according to best practice. We assume most of the calls to our call centres can be tackled like this. When we spend time defining processes in a company, the underlying assumption is that the work is Simple – just categorise it and choose the right path in the process.
  • In a Complicated situation, you Sense the situation, but Analysis is needed before you can choose from a range of good practices which way to respond.
  • Once it gets Complex, it is increasingly hard to sense the situation, and we need to Probe to try to work out what is going on. Then once a bit of Sense has been made, there’s probably no obvious good or best practice to follow, so the way forward is to Respond and then Probe and Sense what happens, adapting accordingly. Lots of problem resolution and bug fixing is like that. Most management decisions that involve people are similarly complex.
  • Chaotic situations are often crises where there isn’t time or ability to work out logically what to do. Rather than being paralysed in indecision, the way forward is to Act first, with full attention to Sensing to work out how to get it into a non-chaotic situation.

Our traditional strategies for learning (CBT and training courses) assume that we can be taught how to respond correctly to situations by consuming the packaged content. That might be true for Simple situations, and packaged learning definitely helps for Complicated technical subjects. Once we get to complex and chaotic, it really isn’t so obvious how people can learn to deal with those situations.

So what is work in organisations like BT like these days?

Work is becoming increasingly complex

Harold Jarche points out that the future of work is complex, implicit and intangible… and it certainly seems that way in BT.

  • Where once BT sold Plain Old Telephone Service (simple) we now have a somewhat more complicated offering.
  • Where once we did some complicated router configuration, the need to defend against malware represent complex or chaotic situations to deal with.
  • Managing people has always been complex, but it seems to me that the pace of organisational change and work change makes that even more so (in all organisations, not just BT). In particular, we are close to the stage where the time and effort to define a job, work out the skills needed, define learning resources, or even just to organise a team to deal with the new reality is longer than the time that definition would be valid for. So we are often managing on the edge of chaos. And so it is going to be up to each individual to pick up skills and knowledge on the go even as they do their work.
  • Many companies have a deeply embedded culture of “doing the numbers” – which is based on the assumption that value is tangible and numerically countable. But there are some critical aspects of value that are actually intangible (notably the sense a customer has that they have been served well). Yes, yes you can attempt to quantify some intangibles with surveys etc, but the net result is that we end up managing those proxies for value and not actually impacting the real intangible value. Intangible value is complex, with many human factors.

Learning does not always equal training

Sahana says

“It is no longer very important (at least in most occasions) to be trained on specifics.

That feels overstated, but is it?

“As long as the work environment hovered between the Simple and Complicated domains, organizations and their L&D departments could take charge of the “learning”—via top-down training programs, elearning courses, and refresher training and help people apply the best practices and the good practices—pillars of what made the Industrial Era so successful. The L&D and HR had to ensure that employees received some 12 days of training per year and hope that this would make employees effective and efficient at their work and deliver business results. However, with the passing of the Industrial Era, this model has gradually failed leading to training departments being questioned on their efficacy and worth. The reality is the context has changed so dramatically that the cure of the past is no longer successful in solving the challenges of the present.”

Adding, embedding and extracting learning

Charles Jennings (Director of the 70:20:10 forum) highlights three modes of learning in the workplace:


Says Jennings “Once we start looking at the practical ways people can be helped with ’embedding’ and ‘extracting’ learning from work we find we’re outside the L&D comfort zone pretty quickly. The skills required tend to be focused around consulting, analysis, and problem-solving. It requires a different way of thinking and planning to influence and weave development opportunities into the workflow. These are very different skills to those most L&D professionals have been encouraged to develop.”

The strategies for learning change as work gets more complex

Sahana brings together those diagrams into one interesting overview. She observes that the kinds of knowledge (circled) are different in these domains, and the kind of learning strategy (pink boxes) is different too.

So we need capable people

Sahana again: “Capable people are those who: know how to learn; are creative; have a high degree of self-efficacy; can apply competencies in novel as well as familiar situations; and can work well with others. In comparison with competencies which consist of knowledge and skills, capability is a holistic attribute.”

Capable people learn constantly – the Learning Flow

I wonder if we’ve given lip-service to this. Self-directed learning isn’t “doing CBTs at your own pace”. It isn’t PDPs filled with a year’s worth of planned topics to ‘learn’.

Jennings says: “The model of ‘learn then work’ is replaced here with ‘work then learn, then work in an improved way’. Learning is not only embedded in the workflow, but new learning is continually extracted from experiences and exchanges with colleagues, customers and the entire value chain.”

Capable people extract learning and know how to learn.

Jane Hart talks about capable people being present in a Learning Flow which is:

  • continuous – ongoing (ie no end date)
  • steady – daily (or probably more likely, weekdaily)
  • micro-learning – short – ie taking no longer than 15-20 minutes to undertake
  • activities – that involve reading (watching or listening to) something and doing something
  • social – that invite and encourage active participation and contribution
  • stream – that are organised and structured in the Flow in weekly themes
  • accessible from web and mobile devices – to ensure that learning can take place anywhere and at anytime

For individual users being present in a Learning Flow means

  • having some help to navigate the turbulent waters of a fast flowing stream of (new) knowledge
  • retaining control over how and when they get involved, and how they fit it into their daily workload – autonomy is a key element of participation.

So how do we create Learning Flows in our organisations? Discuss!

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