One of the things that I really value about maintaining a blog is that it provides me with a reference point that can used in a number of ways. Perhaps of most value is that it enables me to return to topics that I've reflected on in the past but which, for whatever reason, have been kicked into the long grass, laying dormant until ready to be brought back into play.
I wrote this piece called 'Do we need management courses?' just over three years ago as a reflection on several trends that I was observing at the time. I was interested in the idea that learning practice might be shifting away from courses towards bundles of resources like videos, documents and quizzes that could act as aids to learning in situ in the workplace and not in the classroom. And alongside this was a thought-provoking presentation by John Seely Brown about the cultivation of the entrepreneurial learner. Here is the link again to his presentation.
A movement of independent learners
When I wrote the blog 3 years ago I remember doing so with a certain wistfulness. I could detect a shift and was interested in the challenge to the status quo but could find no immediate outlet for the ideas to be applied in my practice as a leadership developer...until that is about 2 months ago.
I'm currently working on a corporate university assignment for a global organisation the core element of which is a portal that provides a range of resources: courses, videos, PDFs, presentations, handbooks and so on. Contained within a branded corporate university wrapper, the offer is a self-development proposition that promises to solve workplace problems, increase knowledge and provide a career builder. To encourage participation, the period either side of the launch about 4 months ago, target users were exhorted to register through an intensive communications campaign. The take-up has been good - approximately 75% of the target group registered in the first couple of months. However, the challenge is to sustain the intitial interest and turn the natural curiosity of the first few weeks into something that can drive itself; indeed to create a movement of independent learners.
Necessity is the mother of invention
Because of challenging economic conditions, the organisation has had to make some tough choices about its spending and this has affected some traditional classroom-based management training activities. Into this space the corporate university has been able to extend its reach and provide the resources to support development in much the same way as I wrote about 3 years ago.
One of the things I'm trialling is a management development process for a group of about 20 people, the teaching for which is entirely online. I've put together a structure - see image above - a bundle of resources to provide some starting points and a briefing for the participants and mentors. As the participants move through the process and grow in confidence, I am expecting them to follow their interests and create their own bundles of content.
Support and challenge
What I have found particularly interesting so far is the reaction at the end of the participants' briefing. Asked whether it was what they were expecting, and after a short pause, one of the group volunteered the view that 'no' it was not what he had been expecting and that it was a lot more challenging. Challenging because of the expectation that learners: will have to make their own time to learn; make choices, as they progress through the process, as to what they want to learn; make a commitment to share their learning with a senior manager at the end of the programme.
But alongside this challenge, the participants can see that they are being supported in the workplace by access to a mentor - not a heavy process - but an informal advisor and someone to talk to. And I've had feedback that the participants are really valuing the chance to revisit the content as many times as they like, or to refer to it whilst they are working. This is such an encouraging response.
Learning from the learning
I've been candid with the pilot group, and the senior manager who is sponsoring the programme, that what we are doing here is quite experimental. As much as I want the programme to be successful, I am also interested to learn what works and what doesn't. I'm also interested to gauge to what extent this approach to management development is sufficient to meet the needs of the organisation.
My hunch is that it will work and, I hope, provide the hard evidence that this mixed resource, work-based approach is superior to the classroom. Superior because at its heart is a learning process that encourages self-discipline, self-discovery and independence.