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Digital technology and the democratisation of learning

Digital technology and the democratisation of learning
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In the midst of the global challenges that we currently face, it can be difficult to feel optimistic about our ability to act collectively and at the speed and scale necessary. So, what can we do differently? This article will argue that by embracing digital technology and the democratisation of educational opportunities, we can transform organisational learning and create the capacity for real change. 

Why is learning so important? Learning is central to the process of change. Doing things differently involves learning, and from this learning, applying new knowledge, new insights, new understandings, new skills, and new behaviours. A collective failure to effect change in response to global existential challenges is also a collective failure to learn at the speed and scale necessary. As we say at Impact: ‘No learning, no change.’  

What is getting in the way of our ability to learn? Primarily, our problems result from the way that we limit learning to particular times in our lives: to school, college, maybe university for some, and then we are done. The notion of ‘lifelong learning’ isn’t the reality for the majority. This is compounded by the way that we value learning in increasingly economic terms. In this instrumentalising perspective, learning only has value if it enables individuals to gain skills and credentials relevant to the labour market or if it directly impacts performance metrics. 

These self-imposed limitations on learning act as a negative feedback loop: we can’t transform our ability to learn if we believe that learning is something we only do when we are younger and that the only reason ever to learn anything is to get a bigger pay cheque. 

The institutional, structural, and cultural limitations we place on learning, and the socio-economic context within which it takes place, create a drag on liberating the brilliance of people within organisations. 

What is strange about this situation is that it is happening at a time when, thanks to digital technology, access to knowledge has never been easier. Currently, 48% of the world’s population has a smartphone, with the internet in their pocket. Transforming our ability to access knowledge hasn’t transformed our ability to learn and apply that knowledge to solve the crises we face. 

Organisations have an opportunity to step into this knowing/doing gap by reimagining their role as facilitators and supporters of employee learning. 

This can be achieved in two ways.  

  1. First, by reimagining the role of the employer as a provider of education in the widest sense, not just as a provider of training. Training someone to do their job is no longer enough. This approach assumes that a job is easily defined, unchanging and robotic. But there are very few jobs today that are as limited as this, and those that are will soon be replaced by artificial intelligence. Instead, the work that most people do now is increasingly human-centred. This work requires relationship building, collaboration and networking; it calls for digital fluency and the ability to embrace new technologies; and it demands agility and flexibility in the face of constant change, innovation, and upheaval. If the work that an employee is doing is static and 100% trainable, then the organisation is failing them. What we need is for employees to grow by embracing learning opportunities; most people are capable of doing far more than they or others imagine. An educational ethic would unleash this capability for the benefit of the individual, organisation, and society, with employees leading their own learning in ways that cannot be mandated or understood through a simple performance management lens. Organisations should re-introduce learning to their people as a science, an art, a discipline, a practice, and a source of joy and opportunity. There is a human connection between learning and performance, and the route to get there is not through tightening up a training agenda but through loosening up an educational agenda. Grow people, and your organisation will grow.  
  2. The second way to bridge the knowing/doing gap is to make educational opportunities available for everyone, irrespective of hierarchy, salary, or experience. This democratisation of learning will unearth undiscovered, underutilised, and unappreciated talent in all parts of an organisation. Organisations talk about the need to transform their cultures to be more agile, more customer-centric, and more dynamic, but culture change doesn’t happen by chance, and it’s never a case of shifting from one type to another. Organisational cultures should be dynamic; they should evolve and develop as the world that the organisation is working for changes. Culture change is an ongoing, constant process, and the only way to engage with it is to create a core culture of learning with opportunities available to everyone, not just a few.  

Historically, putting an employee through a training programme was expensive both in terms of time and money. But digital technology is changing this cost/benefit equation in radical ways, offering adaptive, personalised learning opportunities at a reducing unit cost. If we simply add learning to all employees’ job functions, then we can use learning technology to support learning in the flow of the work, with no separation between the two.  

As a global society, we must rise to the challenges of our times, and all organisations have their part to play in this. Creating a new culture of learning in organisations, and democratising educational opportunities through digital technology, has the potential to transform the way our organisations work. In this way, we can begin to create the capacity for a successful collective response to the crises we face. We won’t change if we don’t learn, and we won’t learn unless we change our approach to learning. 

Grahame Broadbelt is a communications and R&D expert.