Alice and the need for agile learning

Andy Lancaster, of the Chartered Institute of Professional Development, shares his advice for learning and development professionals when delivering agile learning.

Lewis Carroll was not regarded as a futurologist. A writer, most definitely, a mathematician and photographer yes, but a predictor of possible cultures and worldviews, not at all. However, Carroll’s vivid imagination in writing the Red Queen’s race in ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ back in 1871 seems to have glimpsed a vision of our increasingly fast-paced world.

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else – if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

A century later, this weird, fictional event inspired biologist Leigh Van Valen’s Red Queen evolutionary hypothesis. His proposition was simple; there is a relentless ‘arms race’ between co-evolving organisms which must constantly adapt to an ever-changing environment.

Survival in nature is a serious matter
The WWF estimates at least 10,000 species become extinct each year. However, the implications of the Red Queen hypothesis apply equally to the survival of organisations as they do to organisms.

Despite insolvency trends being lower now than after the 2008 stock market crash, significant numbers of businesses are still failing with around 40 companies declaring bankruptcy every day in 2015. High profile collapses of companies that had established household recognition demonstrate that no organisation can consider itself exempt. An inability to adapt to new methods, customer demands or technologies will inevitably result in further tragic withdrawals from the race.

In the midst of this quest for organisational effectiveness, workforce development is key. Staff must learn new ways of working, embrace new service demands and technologies, and thrive in a multigenerational settings with flexible work patterns and dispersed locations.

However, the learning that will support organisational change is not a traditional face-to-face offering with staff selecting from a menu of topics. Or the provision of hundreds of generic e-courses largely unused with little relevance to the business context. Or compliance training primarily concerned with box-ticking rather than underpinning culture change that improves risk. Organisations that will thrive must shift to an agile learning approach delivered at the heart of the business.

So, what makes learning agile?
Agile learning needs to address business needs with urgency. It needs to be accessed anytime, anywhere, unrestricted by ‘firewalled’ systems. It should include the learner at the heart of the design process, inviting learner‑generated content where possible. It should value peer discussion and support as part of the learning process, and be developed and deployed rapidly using the most appropriate media. Agile learning should also include the best of wider existing resources as part of the responsive solution, and not be governed by trainer or subject expert availability. Finally, agile learning doesn’t seek to be perfect when first deployed, but iteratively improved.

For organisations to move to agile learning requires change on two levels. Firstly, business leaders must embrace a wider view of learning delivery. Frequently, a formal course is the expected response to an organisational need as it is often a senior team’s historical learning method. Sadly, the L&D team can often fall victim to this stereotypical expectation. Leaders must have a greater expectation of the imaginative and often more cost-effective learning solutions that can be offered.

Secondly, learning and development professionals must embrace and confidently promote agile learning methods that will drive business improvement. L&D teams must shift to deliver agile learning that enables an organisation to move beyond the ‘red queen syndrome’ of simply running to standstill?

Effective, agile learning
There are seven keys that L&D professionals should keep in mind when delivering effective, agile learning. Firstly, agile learning is responsive to business needs. Too often, the link between learning design and organisational objectives has been weak. Agile learning requires a proactive analysis of what is needed to support business change and improvement with solutions jointly agreed between business and learning leaders.

For this to happen, L&D practitioners must embrace a consulting role; that requires a new skillset for many in building rapport, developing business acumen and credibility and taking time to listen, question and observe before making recommendations. Non-essential content will be ruthlessly retired – agile learning should resemble a carefully stocked and well-pruned garden, uncluttered to maximise growth and impact.

Secondly, agile learning is informed by data and metrics. Data in our world is exploding in volume, velocity and variety. The exponential increase of metrics equally applies in organisations. Traditionally, L&D teams focus on their own data which typically relates to post-learning activities such as learner engagement or, at best, the illusive return on investment for programmes.

Conversely, agile learning is informed by metrics that precedes learning design. The third key states that L&D professionals must therefore mine organisational data that reveals opportunities for business improvement. And, that hunt isn’t difficult with trends in recruitment and retention, sales, delivery, customer service and complaints and feedback from line managers all providing insight for key learning interventions.

Agile learning is underpinned by neuroscience. It’s obvious that the brain plays a key part in learning, but L&D practitioners often don’t integrate the emerging findings of neuroscience into learning design. Learning interventions frequently constitute inflexible face-to-face sessions, and long ones at that, rather than transforming learning into a more engaging, brain‑friendly and personal experience.

Traditional learning relies on a model where one size fits all. Agile learning provides flexible methods that increase emotional engagement and personalisation for learners to increase impact and outcomes. It also recognises the need for spacing and bite‑sized content to avoid cognitive overload.

Fourthly, agile learning is facilitated through curation as well as creation. In a museum, curators invest time and thinking to select the best artefacts to enable visitors to explore a given topic. In a similar way, in agile learning, L&D professionals become learning curators who source and signpost existing resources for learners. Traditional learning often requires an in-house or externally contracted solution to be created from scratch. The drawback is the time taken for the solution to be made available, which can often take weeks or even months.

However, each day there is an information explosion of articles, audio and video clips, websites, blogs and podcasts being produced. Agile learning sees the curation of a rich patchwork of excellent existing resources as a means to provide relevant learning, quickly and cost-effectively. It also swallows a misplaced professional pride that resources created by others can never be as good as our own.

Next, it is essential to remember that agile learning is social as well as formal. Social learning can be traced back to prehistoric times where knowledge and skills were developed in the context of community. In fact, survival depended on such a learning method! Formal classrooms, which are often the default setting for business learning, came about later more from necessity than thoughtful design and date back to times when learning resources were limited and cultures expected learners to be seen, not heard.

Agile learning promotes social interaction for learning, scaffolding environments to facilitate communities of practice to respond to needs. That may well be through recognising the value of informal face‑to-face interaction, or using social media platforms to provide learning opportunities through professional conversations within the organisation, or with relevant external groups.

Additionally, remember that agile learning is just in time, not delayed. In our fast‑paced world, we expect a quick response. In the past, communication via a posted letter arriving a few days later would have been acceptable. Nowadays, even an email is considered slow compared to texting. Customer service is judged by responsiveness; can you find what you need, when you need it? By these measures, traditional learning is often agonisingly slow, taking months from learning analysis to delivery.

Agile learning focuses on a shift to a highly responsive ‘just in time’ model where learning can be accessed by the learner at the point and time of need. This relies on the availability of curated content, social communities, digital delivery and an acceptance that simple, good enough solutions are really effective.

Finally, agile learning is digital-mobile not just face-to-face. Perhaps the greatest move to agile learning is the need for L&D is to embrace technological change. It’s hard to remember life before Google when phones were just for making calls rather than gaining information. The technological revolution means that learners can bypass traditional learning approaches with direct online access to videos, webinars and courses often presented by experts.

Agile learning unlocks the potential of accessible digital delivery by providing content when learners want it, be that at work, at home or whilst travelling. It creates low-cost, bespoke content using mobile phones and other devices, sets up online forums and signposts great content. It benefits from an organisation that takes a can-do approach to systems access and where possible enables the use of the learners’ own devices.

The new world of agile learning is not familiar to many organisational L&D functions. It requires fresh thinking and new competencies to leverage emerging approaches and technologies.

Acknowledging change
Learning professionals would be forgiven (possibly) for being somewhat alarmed at the radical change taking place and the transition required. That takes us back to Lewis Carroll and another strange exchange in his book ‘Alice in Wonderland’ entitled ‘Advice from a Caterpillar’: “The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

`Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation.
Alice replied, rather shyly, `I – I hardly know, sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’
`What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. `Explain yourself!’
`I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir’ said Alice, `because I’m not myself, you see.’”

Organisations that seek to embrace the changes required for their on-going success and performance will do well to implement agile learning. However, they will need L&D professionals that, unlike Alice, are not bewildered by the changes taking place around them.

Enlightening learning functions will transition to deliver agile learning by being responsive to business needs, informed by data, underpinned by neuroscience, using curation as well as creation, valuing social as well as formal means, providing just in time not delayed and digital‑mobile not just face-to-face solutions.

The famous scientist Charles Darwin is attributed as saying: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most responsive to change.”

How true this may be of organisations who embrace agile learning methods to drive organisational improvement and performance and a stark warning to those who don’t!

The theme for the CIPD’s Learning and Development Show 2016 being held on 11-12 May at London Olympia is ‘Drive growth through agile learning’. It provides the latest thinking to evolve agile learning practice through master classes delivered by thought-leaders, case studies provided by practitioners, interactive workshops and free exhibitions sessions.

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