This is the case today with the use of technology for learning. New technologies are, regrettably, mainly used as a supplement to or proxy for the classroom. There is huge gravity around “the way we’ve always done it.” For example, while the car had many advantages, most folks kept their horses for basic transportation until the automobile was able to prove its superiority–not just incrementally, but substantially in many dimensions–with consistency and reliability.
So far, technology-based learning is being deployed largely as an electronic extension of the traditional teacher-centric model of “learn, then do.” But a higher value–real-time performance-support systems–has been seen by a few, and today’s convergence of knowledge systems and information systems suggests that a sustainable model of dynamic performance support is within reach.
The rewards are potentially enormous. For the first time in history, we have the ability to separate expertise from the expert and target it to the need of the moment, personalized and scalable. A new form of apprenticeship emerges as the technologies “find their voice.” It is now possible for a knowledge worker to access a blend of expertise from inside and outside the enterprise and get it in context, on demand. Intelligent software can multiply the intellectual strength of knowledge workers many times. Rich taxonomies can provide a channel that links knowledge and information with business goals and performance. Real-time change management is upon us. The value proposition has moved up the food chain.
In such a system, every remnant of the “traditional” academic model is turned on its head. The subject-matter expert is now the user. The “subject matter” is defined as “what I need right now to help our company win.” Because the subject matter transforms with the changing needs of the enterprise, the business unit and the knowledge worker, and because the subject matter is defined in terms of both content and context, the real subject-matter expert must be the knowledge worker who requires the information.
In the sustainable world of learning, the learner is the driver. The English astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington said it best in “Space, Time and Gravitation”: “We have found a strange footprint on the shores of the unknown. We have devised profound theories, one after another, to account for its origins. At last, we have succeeded in reconstructing the creature that made the footprint. And lo! It is our own.” Perhaps he would agree that we are presently gazing upon another strange footprint, and when our learners are found to also be the best aggregators of their own content, the agile fabricators of their own solutions, we should not be surprised—it is a sign of evolutionary growth.
What does that say about the way we have been creating content and learning platforms? Aren’t we still building linear, course-like content and serving it up in teacher-centric online venues? We’re not necessarily acting on what we know. When we do, we’ll have real sustainability in our field. We’ll also begin to deliver real returns on our investments to our CEO and will abandon the metrics that measure use of content to justify what we do.
The more we can leverage the intelligence and knowledge of each worker, the better our real cost-return ratios will be, for the real cost of learning programs is the time of the learner. CLOs are starting to ferret out bottom-line measures, and they are looking good. Century 21 measures learning productivity in terms of increased revenue per agent; Fidelity in terms of new 401(k) enrollments; Wyeth in terms of market share; and Microsoft uses the metrics of time to sales readiness.
The sustainable use of learning technology for corporate value is within sight. That’s very good news for those who have the vision and ability to turn the corner. Future columns in this space will probe the various elements of sustainability with an eye toward specific actionable steps of progress.
Jonathon Levy (www.jonathonlevy.com) is senior learning strategist at Monitor Company Group and former vice president for online learning solutions at Harvard Business School Publishing. E-mail Jonathon with your questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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