Free the learners!

by Jay Cross on March 11, 2007

chick3This afternoon I cooked an omelet with “cage-free” eggs.

This brought to mind trainers who scoff at my call for Free-Range Learners, as if I were some kind of anarchist.

True, I wish we had schools that weren’t walled off from their communities, and I believe that learning should be part of work, not something you do outside of work.

People ask how to track informal learning in their LMS; my response is don’t. But how will we know if they are learning? I reply that it’s the same way we always do: check afterward to see if they’re performing up to expectation.

chick2But my boss would not allow the workers to do this without being monitored, they tell me. Why? The workers might goof off instead of learning. They might waste time. They might do nothing at all.

The boss’s attitude is no more than ill-founded lack of trust. Ill-founded because…

  • Most workers live up (or down) to the expectations one has for them.
  • People work (and learn) better when they are self-motivated than when they are monitored.
  • Given freedom of action, workers yearn to do the best they can, to excel, and to take pride in their work.

chick1The free-range chickens that laid my cage-free eggs aren’t going to abuse their freedom by hightailing it for the Mexican border. They may be free but they are also fenced in.

Workers are not going to fly to Puerto Vallarta when they’re supposed to be mastering a new skill. They are fenced in, too. When someone’s behavior is out of bounds, you fire them. Furthermore, psychological fences are stronger than physical ones.

Long-established managers are facing a tough time now. The old order is crumbling. Organizations are becoming open, transparent, and egalitarian. The manager’s former job of watching the chickens workers is no longer so important. Making connections has taken center stage. When a manager is connected to her people, micro-managing their behavior or thinking she controls them is ludicrous.


I belatedly found Harold’s suggestion for a free-range learning logo.

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