social learning for complex work

“Carnegie Mellon’s Robert E. Kelley … says the percentage of the knowledge you need to memorize to do your job is shrinking rapidly:

  • 1986: 75%
  • 1997: 15-20%
  • 2006: 8-10% estimated

Knowing how to get the answers you need is more important than storing those answers in your head, especially with the shorter lifespan of knowledge these days. What you find when you look something up is probably current. What you already know is more and more likely to be out of date.

A vital meta-learning skill: how to find the answer you need, online or off.”

Jay Cross (2006)

Where are we in 2016? How do we find the knowledge we need? Is it in our organizational filing systems and intranets, or rather on the Web or in our professional social networks? It’s a question of complexity.

If you are working with a complicated system, such as an aircraft, then the entire system is knowable, even though it would take much time and practice.  There’s a lot of stuff to know and do, but people can eventually master the system. Complicated systems and the training for them can be controlled and information organized for reference.

Complex systems and learning how to work with them cannot be controlled. If you are working in a complex system, you will never be able to know everything. For instance, the environment and communities are complex systems that cannot be controlled, only influenced. There are no right answers, there are many ways of trying to achieve your goals and there are too many variables to control. This requires cooperation and collaboration between people to understand the complexity.

The essence of social learning in an organization is giving up control. This may sound scary but it’s the only way to manage in a complex environment. As the world becomes more networked, interdependent, politically and environmentally challenged, all organizations are becoming more complex and are dealing with complex environments.

The information-based business, which is most organizations today, needs to improve the overall flow of sense-making and intangible value creation. Social media are a means by which we can share our tacit knowledge through conversations to co-develop emergent work practices. Seeking out expertise, making sense as we work, and sharing with colleagues (PKM) is the new cycle of workplace learning. This is a business process that does not require formal training other than as an initial or supplementary input.

In complexity, social learning is the primary way that knowledge is created in the workplace. Social media are the tools that can help us develop emergent practices. They enable conversations between people separated by distance or time. Enabling conversations, especially through social media, is a key enabler for organizational learning. Most other methods are just too slow and complicated.


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