New roles for former trainers

by Jay Cross on March 14, 2009


Get Out of the Training Business, my last column for Chief Learning Officer, called for the abolition of  corporate training departments. Help me write the next installment.

Some instructors and instructional designers now see me as a job threat. They needn’t worry. Enlightened eLearning requires more people, not fewer.

Ten years ago, venture capital firms issued lengthy reports explaining why eLearning would take the world by storm. Their underlying economic argument was cost-cutting: less travel, fewer facilities, and no more salary expense for instructors. It was a classic industrial-age proposition: replace humans with machines. That first round of eLearning largely failed for precisely this reason: you can’t remove the humans from learning. You can, however, change their roles.

Companies should embrace network-supported informal learning because it works better, not because it reduces direct costs. People learn more efficiently at the time of need, in the context of work, from people in the know, and through virtual conversation. The organization receives improved performance on the job, continuous improvement, and increased innovation.

When my colleagues and I advocate cutting back on workshops and classes, we don’t suggest firing the instructors. Rather, we recommend redeploying them as connectors, wiki gardeners, internal publicists, news anchors, and performance consultants.

In their forthcoming book, Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities, Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John Smith describe the role of the community technology steward. Technology stewards are people with enough experience of the workings of a community to understand its technology needs, and enough experience with technology to take leadership in addressing those needs.

A steward’s initial task is to assess the vision of the community along such dimensions as conversations, projects, content, access to expertise, relationships, and meetings. The steward then selects the simplest technology to advance the community as both the technology and the organization mature. The steward continuously assesses the needs of the community and how well they are being met. Like all living things, communities eventually die; the steward assures that community artifacts are preserved.

Digitial Habitats also assigns these duties to the steward:

  • bringing new members up to speed with the community’s technology
  • identifying and spreading good technology practices
  • supporting community experimentation
  • assuring continuity across technology disruptions
  • “keeping the lights on” (including back-ups, permissions, vendor payments, and domain registrations)

These tasks won’t happen by themselves. Furthermore, people throughout the organization will need to share the burden of helping everyone learn. Distributing learning throughout the social fabric of an organization will also require storytellers, mentors, bloggers, community elders, schedulers, and editors.

What other roles are required when you shift from instructor-led training to networked learning? Give me your thoughts and pointers.


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