That future has arrived. Today a healthy percentage of learning in corporations is technology-assisted. At first we thought it was all about content, but context-free courseware failed for lack of human support. Pioneering online communities turned into ghost towns.
Then we realized that e-learning is a bundle of capabilities, not a silver bullet. When e-learning technology supplements traditional learning, it usually saves time, money and drudgery. Properly implemented, e-learning is a powerful, cost-effective tool. No longer the “next big thing,” e-learning has hit the mainstream.
Before the World Trade Center attack, the world was more predictable. Knowledge was power. Adaptability has now taken its place. Our requirements have changed. Corporations and government agencies are on permanent alert. Networks have taken the slack out of the system. Timing is the critical variable. The performance metrics for troops on a plane headed to a new hot spot and for systems engineers countering a new competitive threat are the same: How soon will they be ready to perform?
Top-down, command-and-control organizations can no longer keep pace. Flexible hyper-organizations are sprouting up in their place. Teams, in-house functions, outsource providers and customers are linked in fluid, ever-changing value networks.
Resilient organizations copy the architecture of the Internet: lots of independent nodes with the ability to route around damage. People farthest from the center sense changes in the environment first, so managers wisely take control by giving control. Bottom-up organizations adjust to change as effortlessly as flocks of turning birds, while old structures are too rigid to change without sustaining damage.
This is shaky ground for the traditional training-and-development world. Biologists and complexity theorists have seen it all before.
Businesses are complex adaptive systems. In a complex system, independent pieces join together to form something entirely different and unexpected.
The best metaphor for a complex adaptive system is a living thing. Take a complex system apart, and you no longer have a complex system. As Verna Allee writes, “Cut a cow in half and you don’t have two cows. You have a mess.”
In their book, “It’s Alive,” management theorists Stan Davis and Christopher Meyer make a compelling case that business entities are living, complex systems. Many nodes—brains—come together to form something new—the corporate body. As my friend David Grebow says, it even has a Corporate IQ and, according to author David Batestone, a Corporate Soul.
Emergence is the key characteristic of complex systems. It is the process by which simple entities self-organize to form something more complex. Emergence is also what happened to that “utopian dream” of e-learning on the way to the future. Simple, old e-learning has combined with bottom-up self-organizing systems, network effects and today’s environment to morph into emergent learning.
Emergent learning implies adaptation to the environment, timeliness, flexibility and space for co-creation. It is the future. We haven’t figured it out yet. Or, from the perspective of complexity science, it hasn’t figured itself out yet.
Why do I suggest abandoning a word like e-learning? A new term refocuses our thinking on the future. We’ve got to cultivate emergent learning. Emergent learning encourages experiment and innovation; e-learning fosters incrementalism and complacency.
Learning has become a core business process. Emergent learning enables us to push beyond the confines of e-learning to explore combinations with informal learning, storytelling, social network analysis, appreciative inquiry, workflow learning, conversation, contextual collaboration, organic KM, simulation, dynamic portals, expert location and blogs.
I foresee exciting times ahead.
Jay Cross is CEO of eLearningForum, founder of Internet Time Group and a fellow of meta-learninglab.com. For more information, e-mail Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org.