The rise of "learner-constructed" learning: Get on board or get behind

Dr Tim London explains that to maximise learning in your organisation, you have to let your people lead.

I have written previously about the importance of learning and unlearning in organisations in order to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world. In those pieces, I wrote about the need to change both the mindsets and practices of leaders if a learning environment is actually going to form, as opposed to just being something that is claimed on your “About Us” page. 

This piece adds a further emphasis point to ensure that learning not only happens, but is as impactful as possible: maximising the capacity for your people to actually direct the timing, content, and delivery of learning. This is a step beyond “learner-centered” approaches, and requires new tactics for leaders if they are going to create more opportunities for “learner-constructed” learning in their organisations.

Learner-constructed learning is precisely what it says on the tin: people determining for themselves what, how, and when they learn. This is, to be clear, something that has been happening for a long time, but has largely been seen as something “other” in most organisations. Formal training, induction programs, or executive education courses were how most organisations viewed their role in upskilling and training their people. 

Learner-centred vs formal training  
Similarly, higher education institutions took on the same role of defining courses for study that would then “count” as learning back at the organisation through recognition of credits, degrees, or certificates. Formal trainings, both offered in-house and by higher education institutions, are of course useful opportunities for learning and should be leveraged. What has changed dramatically in the last few years is the access to information for any person with internet access and data to burn.

In previous generations, a few people within an organisation would have access to important files on strategy, finances, and planning; similarly, universities were the places that held the research studies and papers produced by academics. Obviously, that has largely changed in the last few years to the point that access to a huge amount of information is available to just about anyone in your organisation. 

That means that when a problem arises, they may not have to talk to their boss to find out more about it because an intranet search and some selective e-mailing around the office may reveal several answers; universities no longer hold sole dominion over research information as a Google Scholar search will lead searchers to a wealth of papers.

To be clear, learner-constructed learning does not negate formal and structured learning offered by institutions, which will always be useful, but expecting them to adapt in the ways, and at the speed, required by diverse workers in a rapidly changing world is deeply problematic. Finding the mix of both avenues is likely to create a key balance of bringing in new thinking while maintaining key focus points and systems. 

The best organisations will be those that use both facets to speak to each other: learners coming up with new insights to improve existing systems and formal processes, and existing learning support mechanisms creating the culture that continuous learning is important, as well as supporting people who might be unfamiliar with it in developing their own learning. 

Think before you implement 
There are several other higher-level issues that must be considered before learner-constructed learning is likely to firmly take root.

First, it’s important to note that people who are highly engaged and committed to their work are very likely already engaged in constructing their own learning. Conversely, if you’ve failed to hire people whose purpose and values fit with your organization’s, it’s unlikely those people will drive their own learning (and they are likely to get very little from your formal offerings, either). This means it is imperative to both bring on board people who buy into the organisation’s purpose as well as explicitly looking for candidates who prove they are committed to being lifelong learners.

Secondly, learning requires more than just access to information, it requires the time to consider it and then the opportunities to use it. This means that if you are obsessed with ensuring that every person has a completely full schedule of tasks, you are going to kill the opportunity for people to continue their own learning. This time will be a powerful indicator of just how serious leaders are of supporting learner constructed opportunities. If there is no time given, it’s obvious that leadership is not really invested in it; if space and support is provided, it will quickly become apparent that this is something that is fundamental to the organization. 

Thirdly, what someone is planning to learn should be part of regular, explicit developmental conversations. These should not be part of a “bonus – no bonus” or other potentially punitive reviews, but should speak to a shared commitment to improvement from both organisation and individual. 
While there should be formal opportunities to have these learning conversations (i.e. what do they want to learn, what are key issues they need to know more about, etc.), it is also important to build these into the culture by frequently raising opportunities to learn and celebrating people who have taken initiative to proactively bring in new insights.

As with everything in organisations, if the structures, culture, and people are all aligned to support it, learner-constructed learning will be a powerful tool for improvement; if it’s simply talked about but not supported in action, it will likely cause disillusionment. 

The strongest and most sustainable organisations will be those whose leaders are able to create environments where their people are constantly learning from and adapting to their environment, not just waiting for annual training or once-off courses. Those organisations that simply keep hoping that organisation-driven training can provide all of the learning required in our current fast-paced world will quickly find themselves withering on the vine, if they are not already.