On-demand learning

The new learning architect
Over the past year we have been publishing extracts from The New Learning Architect. We close the year with the first part of chapter 9:
We move on to look at the third element in the contextual model, on-demand learning. To refresh our memories, on-demand learning is a form of ‘learning to’. It occurs because we don’t know how to perform a particular task and therefore need immediate help to acquire the necessary knowledge. To use more familiar terminology, on-demand learning can be regarded as ‘just-in-time learning’ or ‘learning at the point of need’.
Some would argue that on-demand learning isn’t learning at all, because the objective is to support performance not to teach. There’s no guarantee, indeed there may be no real concern, that an employee acquires in any permanent way the knowledge needed to carry out the task, just so long as they can do it right now. After all, a task may only ever need to be carried out once or only so occasionally that the effort required to retain the knowledge may not be justifiable. However, there’s a very blurry line between just-in-time performance support and long-term learning. The information itself is likely to be the same; the same people may be approached to provide this information; the same materials may be used in each case. The main difference comes with the strategy:

  • When the goal is performance, the information must be available at the point of need for easy reference.
  • When the goal is learning (a more or less permanent set of new connections in the brain), the intervention must go beyond providing information to include practice, assessment and feedback.

L&d professionals may argue that it is not their role to provide reference information. There may even be a completely independent team responsible for technical documentation. But this argument doesn’t stand up to close analysis:

  • Trainers have always contributed to the provision of reference material through the handouts and job aids that they provide with their classroom courses.
  • Technical documentation may be an option of last resort, but is unlikely to be a user-friendly and easily-accessible resource that does the job on a day-to-day basis.
  • The fact that much of the same content is required for both training and for performance support makes it uneconomic to develop separately.
  • L&d professionals are uniquely well equipped to present information clearly and simply.

Another way to reconcile the concept of performance support with learning is to conceive that knowledge can exist beyond the individual, in their own personal network of digital and human connections. The idea of the ‘outboard brain’ is closely associated with a new theoretical perspective to learning called connectivism, as developed by George Siemens:

“Instead of the individual having to evaluate and process every bit of information, she/he creates a personal network of trusted nodes: people and content, enhanced by technology. The act of knowledge is offloaded onto the network itself.”

Connectivism places new demands on the l&d professional who, as a facilitator of learning networks, should help to provide the infrastructure that enables employees to more easily make connections with sources of expertise. Underpinning this role is a realisation that “the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing. ‘Knowing where’ and ‘knowing who’ are more important today than knowing when and how.”
As Jay Cross reminds us, “Successful organisations connect people. Learning is social. We learn from, by, and with other people. Conversation, storytelling, and observation are great ways to learn, but they aren’t things you do by yourself.”
Knowing Knowledge by George Siemens, 2006
Learning is strictly business by Jay Cross, 2007
Coming next: The plight of the knowledge worker
Return to Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8
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