Web 2.0 and Change Present Challenges to Many Learning Executives

by Jay Cross on December 13, 2009


Web 2.0 and Change Present Challenges to Many Learning Executives

By Rex Davenport

Chief learning officers (CLO s) are dealing with organizations the same way they did 25 years ago—focusing on full-time employees. But businesses are becoming networks. CLO s are going to need to understand that and do something about it.

Jay Cross is a champion of informal learning (and author of the definitive book on the topic), Web 2.0, and systems thinking.

According to his website, www.jaycross.com: “His calling is to help business people improve their performance on the job and satisfaction in life. He has challenged conventional wisdom about how adults learn since designing the first business degree program offered by the University of Phoenix three decades ago.”

Jay spoke with Learning Executives Briefing about informal learning and the changing role of the CLO.

Learning Executives Briefing: Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Do you think that some of the advancements in technology—such as Web. 2.0 tools being used in learning—are getting more attention than the end result?

Cross: No. One of the things that Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business in the MIT Sloan School of Management, says when he talks about Enterprise 2.0 is that it’s NOT about the technology. However, the technology, specifically Web 2.0, is changing the nature of business and enabling incredibly powerful connections. That is changing the whole show. It’s also changing informal learning. You can get to the right people at the right time. When you learn something at the point you need it, that knowledge is going to stick in your mind.

That said, a lot of people in charge of learning are not doing much with this. A lot of CLOs have a problem on their hands. They are in old-style organizations that are grappling with a crumbling hierarchy. It has become a control issue. Their IT people are fearful or they are afraid that information will leak out. They come up with all kinds of roadblocks and imagined fears. But those organizations that have jumped on board and are working with (Web 2.0 technologies) are not having any problems with it. It’s a make-believe set of obstacles that allow organizations to put things off. When organizations adopt new technologies, all of a sudden, things don’t cost as much. Things move faster and service improves. That is going to separate the winners from the losers.

LXB: In a recent post you discussed the power of self-service learning. Why should organizations fear people learning something on their own?

Cross: That is one aspect of a larger concept. It’s all about push versus pull. When learning is pushed on people—people resent it. We don’t pay as much attention to it and often it has been laid on us so far in advance of when we will need it, we forget it. Pull can be self-service, but it can also be working with others to figure it out. We not only need to learn these days, but we also have to innovate. We are facing new problems, and often there is no course for it. It’s self-service in the sense that the learning department may not be involved, but it’s user-driven. When things occur when they are needed, they stick (with the learner) better. And it’s a lot more fun.

LXB: The question that must follow that is: Was the old formal learning method ever effective?

Cross: No. There are some places where the old style of learning is effective, such as if you are new to a field and you need to get a lay of the land, or you need to understand other people’s viewpoint—that’s where a formal approach can work well. You are not going to experientially learn algebra. The sage on the stage is giving you the crib sheet you need so you can figure out more of it on your own. Often, this is coupled with informal learning that really stuffs it into your head. But if all you are doing is listening to a professor, the learning is not going to stick with you unless you use it in your work.

LXB: Is the nature of the learner changing that much? In an article you wrote recently you said that there are “fewer limits to potential.” Can you explain that?

Cross: The sand in the ointment for all forms of learning is when you have an unmotivated learner or one that is actively disengaged. Those people are not going to pick up something from a workshop or learn it on their own, because they don’t give a damn. But we know there are organizations loaded with clueless people. It’s not that one method of learning works and

LXB: We hear a lot of CLOs talk about the issues they have with changing the culture in their organizations. Is that just code for not understanding that they have bigger issues?

Cross: There’s more to it than that. The role of the chief learning officer is radically different in this new world. At a recent symposium I was presenting some research on what CLOs say they are responsible for. A lot of the questions focused on culture. A lot of the time they think there is nothing they can do, so they just complain about it. They see the issues, but often they don’t do anything about it. We asked CLOs if their organizations encouraged reflection, because we know that if there is no reflection, there is no learning. Less than a third of them said that their organizations encouraged reflection. And that’s just encouraging reflection. You know that in most organizations it isn’t happening at all. That is suicide. If you don’t set aside time for reflection it will always be set aside for today’s immediate task.

LXB: What are the real and useful metrics today? Cross: First, the metrics that people have been using for the past 30 years— using accounting measures—are totally ridiculous. In the past 40 years the value of the stock market has gone from 80 percent tangibles to almost the opposite, 80 percent intangibles. If you listen to any (experts) they say that intangibles are unmeasurable, that they are too flaky. The ROI stuff is totally bogus and organizations shouldn’t waste their time on it. The proof is not to look at the learning, but instead to look at the changes in behavior that come about as a result of the learning.

There are two aspects to that. As far as the learning executive is concerned, you don’t need to come up with a rock-solid case with three-decimalpoint accuracy, you just need to come up with something that the (CFO) will buy into. People who think that metrics absent (results) are going to be convincing are kidding themselves. Decision makers know that anyone can lie with statistics. Lastly, there are the arguments that you can’t measure (the results of learning). That’s giving up. From anecdotal snapshots, if you get consistent responses, then you have measured impact.

LXB: What will the next generation of CLOs be like? What skill sets will they need? Or, will we even have CLOs in the future?

Cross: My prediction as to how organizational structures will change throws the role out the window. It’s only a piece of a bigger puzzle. In the industrial era, things that were important—finances and operations—were the real C-level officers. But when people account for the real financial returns and the innovations that happen within a company, they become the main factors in production. I foresee a time where this separation of powers is crazy. We are going to take knowledge management, organization development, training, and talent management and roll them all up into one department that will be headed up by a chief people officer. Learning will be very important, but it will be just one element in optimizing the return on your human resources. Change like that doesn’t happen overnight. I heard a presentation on this topic recently, and the point of it was that organizations really have to have emotional intelligence. If you don’t understand where people are coming from, you aren’t going to make it as a (learning executive).

In addition to understanding social learning and the Web 2.0 technologies, CLOs are going to have to understand something about marketing. One place CLOs have been missing the boat is in helping customers learn. With complex products, service becomes more important than manufacturing because companies need to be focused on helping customers reap the benefits from what their companies do or make. Right now, CLOs are dealing with organizations the same way they did 25 years ago—focusing on full-time employees on a payroll. Well, there are a lot of part-timers, consultants, and free agents these days and everyone relies on everyone else. Businesses are becoming networks. If you don’t have learning benefits for your partners or people in your supply chain, it doesn’t add up.

CLOs are going to need to understand enough about business to appreciate that and do something about it. Today, less than half of companies provide learning for partners. That’s crazy.

Jay Cross was interviewed by Learning Executives Briefing Editor Rex Davenport; rdavenport@astd.org.

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