Basically, ‘Learning’ Ruins Everything

I’ve long suspected that traditional learning is a bit like a religion: the whole institution was founded and developed on antiquated texts deciphered by a minority of very conservative, bearded middle-aged men with ear hair. One such middle-aged man Ken Robinson outlines the problem in the most popular TED Talk of all time:

The ‘learning system’ which is deeply ingrained in our culture, society and businesses, is propped up by a number of myths which are contrary to science and evidence in the “real-world”. The myth that learning is a thing that can be done to people, or that learning is something simple enough to be broken into 70:20:10 for example. What’s worse, our learners have been indoctrinated by it – our years in the classroom have taught us that learning only happens at school, and everything else is just “life experience”.

Recent research conducted by the Learning Innovation and Technology team of which I’m a part, showed that graduates value face to face training beyond any other mode of learning. Ah! Nod the traditional learning professionals, there you have it! But no, dig a little deeper and we find that it’s not the learning they value, it’s the interaction with their peers, decent food and comfy hotel pillows that they like. Learning has become a substitute for simply spending money on making employees happy. It’s the acceptable face of staff drinks and meals out and shows that the company is willing to spend money on you.

I know many of you will be nodding your heads in agreement and thinking that the best way to change the current system is to evolve it. But my contention is that we should be aiming for the total abolition of the old order, and the creation of a whole new industry called something completely different. Think Bolshevik Revolution – fire, burning villages and death everywhere, rather than the equivalent British revolution which probably involved a duel and honourable surrender. The nearest example of the kind of organisation I envision is the Ogilvy Change group led by the inspirational Rory Sutherland.

My reasons for this call to action lie in my view of the pervasive corruption of all pure things by learning. Take games and gaming as an example. I like nothing more than spending a week-night nestled in the arm of my couch with a Playstation controller in my hand, shooting zombies. I’ve learned a huge amount through my experiences gaming, for example I have a fairly comprehensive understanding of ancient military history thanks to the Total War series.

I also support Ben Bett’s assertion that collaboration and leadership skills can be developed through playing online co-operative games. And yet, it seems to be a step to far for learning professionals to accept learning is a by-product of an experience not the overt aim of it. Any examples of “serious games” I’ve seen have been an embarrassingly unsophisticated attempt to disguise teaching in the traditional sense. Or with “gamification” a vain attempt to package up corporate values in a way that won’t alienate employees. I can see the motivation for both, but its misdirected and destroys the potential for this mode in future.

Instead, creating positive experiences and a happy working environment could be our job! Wouldn’t that be better than inflicting poorly conceived traditional learning with a “modern” spin? I’m now talking specifically about “virtual learning”, also known as “blended learning”, also known as “70:20:10”.

Following shifts in the oil sector, there’s been a mad scramble to move face to face learning into the virtual space. Given the seismic pressure coming from all sides as the company contracts, the temptation for learning professionals to “lift and shift” content and mind set from the classroom to web conferencing tools has been overwhelming. Corporate business makes good people do bad things, and we are walking into a trap. Discontent is already bubbling. People say “don’t blame the technology, it’s the way it’s used”, but in this case it’s both.

Last week I discovered Periscope. This is a remarkable app available on Android and Iphone which will live stream anyone’s camera video from anywhere in the world.

I’ve watched a sandstorm in Dubai, a photo shoot in Norway and a bunch of Australians getting drunk in Melbourne. My interaction was seamless, my “training” on the technology was totally absent. Moving aside the obvious worry that this will go the same way as ‘Chat Roulette’ (porn), the technology is brilliantly intuitive, beautifully designed and fun to use. Contrast that to the 9 hours of web conferencing training I attended, and the multiple “technical drop-ins” I’ve had to facilitate for our digital transformation online events in BP.

Any suggestion of changing technology once it’s been “embedded” in a large business is quickly snuffed out. The IT police regularly wield their Approved Tool Axe effectively stopping any chance of rapid innovation or agility with technology. Like the ‘learning system’ this is a legacy challenge but unfortunately, while people will put up with a bad experience with the right motivation the alternative examples of intuitive and beautiful design are everywhere in the “real-world”.

So in summary, we need to change what we do and that might mean changing our industry. Following Ogilvy Change’s example, we should be scientific observers of behaviour rather than relying on anecdotal feedback and surveys. We need to value positive experiences and see learning as a by-product not an activity in itself. We need to stop wading through crappy web conferencing tools, and start investigating whether we can turn something like Periscope into an acceptable tool for learning. Only when we accept the total futility of learning and development as it’s been used in the past 100 years, can we move into the future of learning.

Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.


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