The Learning Zone

"The new work of managers is all about creating the enabling conditions for continuous learning, which is best done by supporting the informal communities in which it most effectively happens.

– Peter Henschel, Director Emeritus Institute for Research in Learning

The Zone

"The learning zone" is the convergence of formal and informal learning within a social context where the interests of the enterprise and individual meet. The role of social networks is essential to successful learning in enterprises. We know that 70 to 90 percent of learning is informal, a combination of personal reflection and social exchange with trusted. Extracurricular IS the curriculum. Why leave the potential benefits of informal learning to chance? Companies are becoming more strategic in their approach to learning as they shift focus to informal, experiential aspects of employee development.

Changing Role of Managers

 To leverage the power of informal learning, managers will also need to shift their focus, perhaps changing their own identities as well. That requires less control, more listening, more facilitation, and an enormous degree of support for policies and practices that may not appear to be efficient. Peter Henschel, whose Institute for Research on Learning pioneered the concept of "Community of Practice," suggests that enterprise should base their learning policies and practices on The Seven Principles of Learning:

The Seven Principles of Learning

Learning is fundamentally social

Learning is integrated into the life of communities
Learning is an act of participation
Knowing depends on engagement in practice
Engagement is inseparable from empowerment
Exclusion from participation results in learning failure
People are natural lifelong learners.

The 7 Principles of Learning are from Peter Henschel's "Report from the Future: Sustaining Innovation and Continuous Improvement." You may download the PowerPoint presentation by contacting imozerova@iftf.org.

Return on Investment (ROI)

Old metrics for measuring employee learning are difficult to apply as enterprises move from the Industrial Age approach to corporate education to the Information Age approach to strategic learning. Click for IFTF's report on the Return on Investment Conundrum.

Social Networks

Innovation and continual adaptation requires the regular infusion of fresh ideas and new energy. Smart enterprises encourage employees to interact with colleagues outside as well as inside the organization. Networks are viewed as a source of inspiration and a connection to a larger talent pool in an era when individual loyalty often is "to the rolodex" to the corporation. IFTF's research into the function of social networks provides a foundation for new thinking about maximizing the benefits of social learning. Click to view IFTF's memo, The Nature of Innovation.

Talent/Learning/NetworksWhat are the interrelationships between talent development, learning opportunities, and social networks? Cycling through different roles and different companies, individuals can't rely on a single educational or training experience but will look for continual development opportunities often outside the current workplace. Corporations in the learning zone are finding ways to have long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with people who are not necessarily on the payroll. More and more companies -- including Hewlett Packard, Motorola, and Proctor and Gamble -- are opening their learning opportunities to the whole ecosystem: customers, suppliers, prospective employees, alliances. A feedback loop for informal learning develops as data bases, ideas and culture are shared so that the ecosystem develops a tightly integrated way of working. The companies that do best are those with a high degree of communication and exploration throughout the ecosystem, so that mistakes and successes are quickly recognized and integrated through a feedback mechanism.

Action Learning

Building talent requires that learning opportunities become embedded in the company's everyday operations. Promoting informal learning means designing office environments conducive to social interactions and finding technology support and communication strategies that facilitate open flow of ideas. The more skill building and understanding that can be done during the work cycle, the more effective and efficient the transfer and growth of knowledge.

The ultimate goal is to integrate learning as close to the actual work as possible. Effective learning models function parallel to work, encouraging rapid response to high-speed changes in business, adapting to immediate needs. These learning techniques are rooted in well-established educational and psychological theories about the benefits of experiential learning. At all levels of the company, formal information increasingly is delivered in an interactive context. See IFTF's memo "Creating Ecologies of Learning."

Cognitive Apprenticeship

The pedagogic model that embraces the critical aspects of action learning is "cognitive apprenticeship," which combines the 19th century notion of apprenticeship with a 21st century understanding of educational theory and brain function. It can be facilitated by on-line learning programs with scaffolding that drops away as a student has experiences and learns on the job. It involves facilitated experiential learning within a social context and a technologically rich environment.

In evaluating their learning programs for 21st century relevance, enterprises should explore five steps in the cognitive apprenticeship approach:

Five Steps in Cognitive Apprenticeship

1. The desired behavior is modeled
2. Coaching gives the learner insight into the "why" as well as the "how"
3. A reflection period allows the learner to compare him or herself with the coach
4. The learner articulates the process in his/her own language (reflection)
5. The learner explores and evolves own approach peer evaluation

Community of Practice

A community of practice is like a super apprenticeship system that continually feeds even the most knowledgeable members the new ideas and feedback critical to continuous lifelong learning.

Much of what individuals know depends on their local environment. What an organization knows, however, is what's embedded in and among its communities of practice. The difficulty of capturing and retrieving what the many individuals making up an enterprise know is reflected in questions in the business literature that begin "if company X only knew what it knows…" That is not surprising, since so much of what people know is "tacit knowledge" embedded in the practices we share with others. So, to find out what an organization really knows, start by identifying intersecting communities of practice and see them as the wellspring of what the organization really knows.

Click here for more on Communities of Practice

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