Wednesday, October 07, 2009

On Command-and-Control Learning

I had an interesting experience last week which is worth writing about.

I was asked to recommend ways to improve the operations of an organization. This was outside my work, and I knew little about the business and its operations before I was asked to sit in a few meetings, observe and give recommendations. The request was made by someone who I could not say no to, despite the fact that I have enough on my plate now. I ended up having a very interesting, insightful experience, which was my main takeaway from the exchange.

The organization in question is a government contractor, and delivers training services in various occupational areas. The organization has grown over many years, and some of those growth was ad hoc. The systems and processes that I noticed seemed to have grown organically, from its roots as a small firm, and somehow did not scale up when the organization got larger. Besides, following a merger a few years back, this firm has suddenly become very large, have achieved market leadership and got to a stage where its systems, processes and strategic plans have come under the scanner.

Of course, my remit of study was limited to how to enhance the quality of training that is being delivered. It seemed that the biggest challenge that the organization is facing is that most training is very localized, and tutor dependent. There is little consistency on how the training is done among various branches. This is something the top management wanted to address.

Besides, there were a number of challenges that the organization was facing. The employee turnover was high at 40% over a two year period. In fact, it is unusually high given the fact that the organization is a market leader in its area, and in the context of an economic slowdown. A few water cooler moments told me that the employee morale and participation is not very high as well. While there is intent to do well at the top level, the vision is not well articulated. The ethos of the organization is built around the day-to-day operational transactions and org-chart gerrymandering, rather than the pride in work that the market leading service organizations generally display. Something needed to be done to get the employees connected to the bigger picture.

One must add to this that while government contracts sound like a steady and predictable business, it is not. The labour administration in the UK has always been inconsistent and temperamental, and policy u-turns are common in many areas. The processes are usually driven by cozy alliances of bureaucrats and private sector consultants, who thrive in predictable environments and usually prefer to go in circles to give an impression of movement. The organization in question has been trying hard to cope with continuous changes in the contractual requirements. Everything was not bad - recent changes in contract norms allowed the organization to expand significantly and almost double the number of enrolments. However, it was not easy to scale up the delivery infrastructure and get a functioning tutoring system going to cope up with sudden expansion of trainee intake.

I had a classic case in my hand where I was to recommend ways to improve training delivery. There were three clear objectives: (a) build a consistent tutoring system so that the organization stops being a federation of dispersed branches and start becoming a functioning whole; (b) find and highlight best practises inside the organization and highlight them to encourage discussion and start a process of sharing among the team members; (c) create a culture of continuous improvement in the organization by which the employees can define their own improvement areas and develop their skills along the preferred routes.

My recommendations were varied and nuanced, but it rested on a central process: an integrated process of employee development facilitated by a web-based platform, which will offer a process to plan self-development for employees, make available a number of online and offline resources and events, including a platform for sharing and debating best practises within the organization. The system came with an open catalogue of courses, covering areas such as IT, Management, Customer Facing skills, and allowed the organization to create their own courses and put it in the catalogue. The employees could go in, and with guidance from their supervisors, could create a personal development plan, and could accumulate learning as Continuous Professional Development, records of which were maintained. I was also suggesting the development of an online Induction Programme, where the organization's goals and objectives are shared with the new employees, and a New Start programme, where a dialogue could be initiated with all the old ones. And, finally, I was keen to include a Knowledge Repository on the same platform, where the employees, particularly tutors, upload their own learning materials, receive feedback from their colleagues, and together could develop a learning journal for various occupational areas.

I thought the idea really fitted well with what the top management was trying to achieve: a culture change and a renewal. The idea really went well when I was asked to make the presentation to some of the key employees, they recognized the need for a learning initiative, though they had varied opinions about the effectiveness of online learning. I obviously explained that the platform I was suggesting has very little to do with online learning, and is actually about creating a culture of learning and self-development, and by extension, of engagement, which helped soothe some ruffled nerves. But, then, I hit the final road-block.

The organization was not comfortable with the employee-led training. While we were talking, the top management possibly did not notice that I was talking about an wide variety of learning options and the fact that employees can, with inputs from their supervisors, define what they wanted to learn. Obviously the platform allowed a number of approaches, and I knew it could be easily monitored to suit any learning process that the top management wanted. But, it was funny to come face-to-face with my old whipping dog, the command-and-control learning that most organizations seem to prefer.

Well, indeed it sounds rational when I was told that the organization should decide what the employees should learn and the platform should be modified to facilitate 'allocated' learning. There should be some sort of analytics to gather that no one is cheating, because one could indeed click away online learning. And, besides, there should be tests to ensure that the learning has really gone in.

All valid points, and I must admit that is exactly what is being done now. But, I am still reflecting on the whole episode in the context of my belief that the days of such 'socialist', command-and-control, learning is over and the organizations must move forward to more 'social', learner-led learning processes. I could see where my client organization came from when they said they would 'prescribe' learning, rather than allowing employees to subscribe to learning events - this came from the paternalistic 'we know best' feeling that dominates most organizations in more predictable businesses. Not unlike the Soviet-style five year plans, most organizations decide what is best for their employees and make them follow the path.

While I am in no position to challenge the theoretical basis of this practise, I do think that the business environment today is so full of uncertainties that a learning process led by learners, who are facing the customers and partners and know exactly what they need, is inherently more efficient than the organization prescribed training. One may say that this may result in anarchy, but this comes from my deep distrust of any command-and-control process, and from my abiding faith in good nature of human beings, once unleashed. For example, when someone said that you could click away online learning, my instant reaction was that the problem does not lie with the concept of learning online - because you can sleep through a class - but the way one sets up the rewards of learning. Put too much emphasis on the end result - the completion and the certificate - and you will have people cheating; but do it with the objective of creating a team of better skilled individuals, one would end up cheating himself [girls don't cheat] by clicking away online learning.

This is indeed not about one organization - which may or may not have a case for directed learning - but for the general approach to learning in any organization. I am sitting on an universally learner-led learning end; I know most of my colleagues in the learning business wants to be at the other, 'we know best' end. And, yes, I know the optimal point lies somewhat in between. But, then, I also believe that it is a shifting optimum, and it is moving closer to my end rather than going towards the other direction.

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