Networked Work Needs Networked Learning

In a recent discussion on informal learning I was asked how it could be integrated into formal work environments. What I have learned so far about informal learning is that it is more of a cultural issue than about process or technology improvements. The key factor is control. To foster informal learning, organisations have to give up control. We see this with social networking on the Internet and that organisations that let go of centralised control are able to adapt quicker. The Dean campaign was one example, as is viral marketing.

The fact that small, loose organisations can adapt quicker has been evident for a couple of centuries, when you examine guerrilla groups fighting against large hierarchical military organisations. Guerrillas proved their worth against Napoleon in Spain in the early 19th century as well as against the US in Vietnam in the latter part of the 20th century. Many military experts now talk about network warfare, or netwar.

If network warfare was possible years ago, as witnessed during the Peninsular War, why is netwar something new? I think that the original guerrillas showed what was possible, but it took the ubiquitous information and communication network, the Internet, to make it the default organisational model. As a retired soldier, I always considered the military to be a conservative-minded organisation. If the military is seriously considering network warfare, then it seems that the need to understand networked business & learning is pretty obvious.

One example of networked businesses is the animation field, where creatives live all over the world. With some companies, the creative team is physically separated from the production team by several time zones, so that work can go on 24 hours a day, as the day’s work moves back and forth between teams. Even when they’re spread out, excessive control is not necessary. Christopher Sessums reports on why Pixar is so successful as a creative force, citing the fact there are no studio execs to control the process. Control is the enemy of innovation and flexibility.

Effective work and learning networks are composed of unique individuals working on common challenges, together for a discrete period of time before the network begins to shift its focus again. This is like small groups of guerrillas joining for a raid, conducting it, and then going their separate ways to reform as a different set for a new mission. If armies and businesses organisations are changing to networked models, then the best learning support has to be informal, loose and networked as well. We are shifting from a “one size fits all” attitude on work and learning to an “everyone is unique” perspective. If everyone is unique then there are no generic work processes and no standard curricula.

If everyone is unique, we need to seriously reconsider our models for training and education. Brian Alger has shown the severe limitations of standard curricula and Bill and Julie at NineShift sum up the issue as:

The issue is also about the biggest educational struggle in this early century: the switch from making every student “normal” to understanding that every student is not normal, in other words, unique.

In warfare, work and learning we are witnessing a major change in command and control and we will have to shift with it or suffer the fate of several defeated armies.

2 Responses to “Networked Work Needs Networked Learning”

  1. Dennis Coxe

    Interesting post, but I fear that you are framing the formal vs. informal learning argument as a black and white issue, by using the guerrilla warfare analogy. I believe that the future of informal learning is as a partner with formal learning. I say this because, if I may borrow your analogy, the successful guerrilla insurgency must morph into a formal governing body.

    That learning which is developed informally by individuals to meet a specific need should be documented and spread through the entire organization so that groups are not constantly recreating the wheel. If the learning proves usable across organizational lines than it should be documented and formalized.

    The key is for organizations to not allow formalized training to become dogmatic and barring further innovation by other groups.

  2. Harold

    You’re right, Dennis, it’s not black and white, and I’m not against formal training or education per se. However, I’m not sure if informal learning should morph into formal training either.

    For instance, formal training, with performance objectives and all, is well-suited to addressing a clear lack of skills or knowledge, such as operating a piece of machinery. For areas of knowledge transfer that are less clear, such as how to deal with a specific client at a specific time, I don’t think that formal training would be of much use.

    I agree that you need both, but I’m an advocate of informal learning because we have focused for too long on the formal side.


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