Monday, May 23, 2005

Learning from Google

I suspect that, should humanity survive the next few hundred years, we’ll look back at the early decades of 21st Century and think of that time as the learning revolution, much as we now think of the turning decades of the 19th century as the industrial revolution.

We’ll see the sacred cows of educational dogma being put out to pasture, and the previously ingrained best practices of adult learning sneaking out of town under cover of darkness. And while university professors will probably be with us forever, training departments may be decimated and their inhabitants diasporised into all the far-flung operational units of organisations.

Like most significant revolutions, it takes time. And those most affected by it are unaware of the significance of what is happening. The harnessing of fire, the invention of the wheel, the concept of zero, the discovery of penicillin, all had irreversible impacts on the nature and pace of change in the societies that reluctantly embraced them.

The evolution of learning has been stunted for many centuries, simply because until recently the volume of knowledge did not grow significantly, the pace of change was pedestrian, and the nature of change was linear and predictable. Our approach to learning was adequate for those circumstances. Not any more.

A “Renaissance man” of the 1600s may have been more comfortable with languages and the classical arts than your average high school student today, but had a great deal less knowledge. Even 60 years ago it was possible to put all of the significant knowledge in all fields of endeavour into a few bookshelves. In 1943 the Chairman of IBM estimated the total world demand for computers at five. Today the world generates more new data in a day than our grandparents were exposed to in a lifetime. Five years from now, the information base of the world is expectedto double every eleven hours. You can no longer cram everything there is to know about a particular subject, let alone all the knowledge of the world, into a single head. And if you could, you’d never be able to find what you needed in time to be effective.

Small wonder that, at $71 billion, Google now has the world’s largest market capitalisation, just ahead of Yahoo, while industrial-age giants like Ford and General Motors have been downgraded to junk bond status. We now place a lot more value on those who can instantly find information than we do on those who merely manufacture “stuff”.

You won’t see a training company in the Fortune 100. Neither education nor training has ever been an investors’ industry. In looking for funding for e-learning and online simulations businesses over the past 15 years, I have done the rounds of venture capitalists in Europe and the US. More times than I care to remember I have eaten club sandwiches on the terrace of Sand Hill Road’s Sundeck restaurant, pitching ideas to the luminaries of the Silicon Valley VC community, and the general perception of training is that there is no exciting return to be made. A VC once told me that, to investors, the benefit of corporate training is a mirage – everyone sees it differently, everyone wants to believe in it, but when you try to pin it down it vanishes. Another asserted that, if improving corporate performance is really important, there are usually more productive solutions than training.

Training, as we have known it, is not driven by consumer demand, has uninteresting ROI, provides really fuzzy benefits, and cannot be easily differentiated. But that can change. Education focuses on helping people know more; training focuses on helping people do more; Google focuses on helping people find out more – when they most need it.

Corporate learning has to follow the Google “search & connect” model instead of the General Motors “produce & sell” model. Training purists sneer at “just-in-time” help systems, insisting that people need to know how to do things themselves. They undervalue collaborative learning networks, regarding them as somehow cheating. They fervently believe that adult learners must be led, child-like, through pre-determined learning paths mapped out and controlled by a central authority. They gauge the worth of an employee by his or her ability to survive on a corporate desert island, bereft of books, colleagues, mentors, databases, systems, or communication.

Get real! We no longer need to rub two mental sticks together to make intellectual fire. We no longer need to see ourselves as slaves tasked with caring for children. Pedagogy is a framework for understanding mental processes, not a job description. And andragogy is often abused, its “science” used to justify perpetuation of training processes that are simply no longer relevant or appropriate. I’d suggest the concept of “googlegogy” were it not for the fact that Google itself may not be top dog for long.

Twenty years ago the internet triggered a "Big Bang" in knowledge and personal communication. E-businesses have made rapid progress in exploiting the opportunities as they emerge, building real-time e-commerce systems, personalised services, and ubiquitous access to information. Trainers and instructional designers, however, are still building courses. We need to start thinking about new ways to foster learning that accommodate the real needs of learners and leverage all the data, systems, economies, and connectivity that “digital natives” now take for granted.

The needs of learners should be defined in marketing terms – instead of focusing only on learning content, learning objectives, and the outdated and inadequate concepts of learning “styles”, we should regard learners as customers and craft our learning processes to match the processes by which they want to learn. Instructional designers need to adopt some marketing thinking, so they have a better chance of being able to understand learners according to criteria that learners consider important. And they need to see the end product of their endeavours to be delighted customers instead of polished courses.

Maybe then trainers will have a better chance of surviving, or even guiding, the learning revolution.