Workplace learning as collaboration

Still turning over Jamais Cascio’s talk about tools for building a better world, I’ve been mulling one of the things he mentions as a hopeful sign: collaboration.

I’ve been thinking about workplace learning, including that fusty relic, training.  How do you go about helping people acquire basic knowledge and skill for their jobs–getting them to a point where they’re able to make well-informed choices for themselves?  The default mode is pretty depressing:

  • One-way information dumps where “participation” means “any questions before we wrap up?”
  • Justification (in the theological sense) via multiple-guess question.
  • Acres of displayed text, with souvenir handouts

This “basics” focus is important to me; by definition newcomers to a job don’t know much about it.  You may have been a bank customer, but you probably haven’t use the (fictional) Croesus Cashbox system that manages retail-customer activity.

Wait--when do I click Submit?And you’re not the only one.  Yet instead of taking advantage of the fact that many people are working on the same challenge (which, when you think about it, is a good definition of  an organization), organizations seem to confuse collaboration with commuting.

Just because the employers are moving in the same direction doesn’t mean they’re working together.

What hints does Cascio offer?  Around the four-minute mark in his talk, he gives several examples of ways for people to see and understand the impact of their actions–for instance, a display on your dashboard that shows your current miles per gallon.

A blazing insightEspecially for procedural, explicit learning–the fundamentals of computer systems, the garden-variety operation of a process–I think we can get out of the teach-and-test model while still providing enough landmarks to keep newcomers from losing the trail completely.

Like for instance:

  • A whole-task approach, both for the big picture and for the main components.  “You and your fellow branch employees use Croesus Cashbox for nearly every customer transaction, from opening a new account to approving a loan.”
  • The opportunity for learners to solve problems and figure things out together–along with examples of correct (or of acceptable) solutions for them to compare results with.
  • Collecting ideas, examples, and shortcuts from people on the job and making them available to everyone.

And, perhaps my favorite: a robust, realistic practice mode for situations when practicing on the live system or process isn’t feasible.  At Amtrak, we created a series of training trains.  These imaginary trains were clones of actual ones–the same cities, the same schedules, the same services.  When fares changed, they changed automatically on the training trains.

We had at least one training train for each type of Amtrak train and service–sleeping cars, Metroliners, the works.  You used a separate training logon to access these trains, and then you could do whatever you wanted.  Try making a seventeen-stop reservation for a family of twelve.  Book the five-day excursion fare.  Change the return date.

This meant that you–and your coworkers–could try things together with little risk of serious consequence.  The Huddlestons wouldn’t discover that their return trip had been canceled, and you wouldn’t have mistakenly booked $10,000 in revenue that would never appear.

Workplace learning flourishes when people learn together, the way they work together–not just because they happen to be moving in the same direction.

At the end of this course, you will be at the end of this course.

Sheep photo by saracino.
Trail-blaze photo by bill_canada.
Commuter-train photo by sherrattsam.

3 thoughts on “Workplace learning as collaboration

  1. Kia ora Dave

    You are right in part. Cascio’s right in part. But the reason you wrote this post is because being part right isn’t solving the problem.

    I wonder if part of the problem is that for the past ten to fifteen years or more we’ve being trying all sorts of different things in environments that are ever-changing. And we keep changing everything – and I mean everything.

    I’ve watched methods of work-place learning being used from read-it-yourself booky manuals, through to simulated-situational-digital-training, train-the-trainer, to straight training-one-to-many as well as one-on-one. And I’ve watched all of these being used in the same corporation over a period of only a few years.

    The thing that is the most expensive is the chucking out old methods that were only part useful in the belief that there must be a more effective/efficient way of imparting learning and replacing them with untested methods.

    There is no panacea. It just doesn’t exist. Yet we live in hope that we’ll find one and keep changing how we do things hoping that the next, big, new, expensive, dynamic change is going to be the one for all time. And not having a panacea includes how we learn; there’s no panacea for that either.

    The crunch-crisis is about to strike good style soon, for there seems to be no funds for training (or learning for that matter – never mind how it’s done). We are about to witness what it is like to bumble on without training or funds to put into learning schemes.

    Frankly, when you have seen so many useless attempts at trying out something new as I have, you develop a lot of patience for sitting and watching it all not happening. That doesn’t bother me anymore, but I know it should.

    What does bothers me is when some big expensive convincing developer comes along and hoodwinks an organisation into believing their methods are dynamic and new and sure-to-work, and I see them use old, pathetically designed strategies based on old partly successful methods, and watch them applying these badly. The up-shot is that when it all turns to mush (as it does) someone turns round and says, “told you training doesn’t work!”

    And I shut my eyes.

    Catchya later

  2. Hey, Ken: I’m not that expensive.

    Your point is good; I’ve ofter bewailed the bandwagon effect in the training/learning field. Back when computer-based training first moved to PCs, Claude Lineberry used to say, “CBT isn’t the answer. CBT is a question.”

    Meanwhile, someone somewhere hopes to move all job training to Twitter, which the three remaining factory workers will receive over their holographic phones.

    The practice mode I mention above (or, rather, its absence from nearly every large computer application I’ve worked with) continues to confound me. Designing one into the system from the beginning isn’t a trivial problem, but it’s a worthwhile one.

    My hunch is that it too gets left out, both because of project constraints (no time! no money!) and because those managing the project figure training will just… happen.

  3. Kia ora Dave

    I’m sure you’re not that expensive.

    Every time I have a conversation around this topic I threaten myself to write a post on it. There’s one that’s been brewing a while. But I keep writing my ideas into comments, and I’m trying to not write posts from comments this year. The alternative is to just shut up and listen.

    And CBT should always be a question. I try to make it several questions.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

Comments are closed.