Complex problems demand more of our implicit or tacit knowledge, given that explicit knowledge is now ubiquitous and instantly available. It is not what we know as much as how we apply what we know. There is also the need to unlearn, to move on from half-baked ideas or ill-formed prejudices that drive our worldviews, biases and practices. How do we keep updating what it is that we know rather than simply succumbing to confirmation bias by Googling what we want to be true and receiving search results that reinforce our opinion? For example try googling “The Earth is Flat” for lots of proof that the world is, in fact, flat not round (ish).
Our connected, hypertext-enabled world allows us to access the world’s knowledge from devices we hold in our hands. To put this another way, there is no shortage of learning content. In fact, there is rather the opposite problem, there is too much.
Absorbing the available knowledge
The challenge facing the modern learner/employee is being able to use all of the knowledge that is out there effectively in service to their goals and their organisational responsibilities. It is how knowledge is applied, filtered, adapted and built-upon that is important. And if, as we argue, that learning and work are becoming enmeshed into a single process then the only thing that matters in the acquiring and application of knowledge is context. The two central questions we must constantly and consistently ask are:
- What is the work?
- How do we know?
It is only through a clear-headed view of what it is that we are trying to do and why that we will have a viable filter through which to select and process relevant knowledge and information.
Who knows best?
Who is the person best suited to answering the question ‘what is the work?’? It is the person trying to do the work, the person who is trying to adapt to the arrival of new tools, new thinking and new contexts. It is the team who are collectively and collaboratively responsible for delivering to their purpose, for results in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world. It is you and me.
And yet so much of the learning that is available to employee/learners is prescribed by others; by L&D Depts., by managers or C-suite leaders (rarely for themselves). And also by professional bodies keen to reinforce the market value of their ‘credentials’ whose qualifications act as gatekeepers to professional roles that are dissolving and reshaping at speeds that are destabilising the very idea of what it means to be ‘qualified’.
The forces of context not content are also undermining our wider education systems. Why should 18-year-olds join expensive university degree and graduate programmes when they can use the internet to find lectures, resources and materials to help them learn the things that they want to learn how to do right now and forever?
Meaning is everything
Context is one way of explaining the process through which we prescribe meaning to what we are doing. Meaning is everything in learning otherwise we simply have lots of disconnected information, ideas, knowledge, opinion without a context within which to manifest its use or misuse. Meaning is central to building organisations worth working for, worth investing in, worth being a customer of. It is the constant framing and reframing of the question ‘Why?’.
Digital learning technology can tell us little about ‘why?’. It is up to us, the human being who is in service (in some way through our organisations) to other human beings to provide the why, the context, the meaning. Perhaps we don’t need yet more digital learning tools that are simply catalogues for structuring (curating?) content that make it easy to access. We have the internet, Google, research and curation tools and more for that already.
To serve the modern organisational learner, we must move beyond just providing another information resource, however well-designed and mobile friendly it is. We must see context and meaning first; only then will we be able to make individual and collective sense of the wealth of knowledge available and apply it effectively.
Grahame Broadblet is Global Head of Communications and R&D.