Are books for learning?

BooksNot an entirely silly rhetorical question — in our work world of endless data aggregation and analysis, the reading of books remains a curiously solitary and hard-to-track enterprise.

It’s easy enough to hand someone a book. It’s easy enough to require a signature acknowledging receipt and even demand answers to a compliance question or two to check headline-level comprehension.

But it’s hard to do anything with a book approaching a deep and actionable, let alone shared understanding of the content without classes and clubs — meaning that costly in-person conversations in and around the act of reading are still what makes reading, at least the extended kind, real and useful.

But for the corporate world, the idea of reading as a purely personal pursuit may be changing. Three developments — e-book readers, the advent of technology-mediated social reading and the X API (nee Tin Can) — together make books cost-efficient, communal and reportable in new ways.

e-book readers are now ubiquitous and cheap. Even general-purpose iOS and Android tablets support the e-pub standard. New services like Zola make reading a compelling group exercise (it’s very cool). Established services like Lulu let any company build its own libraries for private, on-demand distribution. The X API means that the reading of a book can be recorded by chapter and task in any competency framework a company may need.

Books Redux.

Home schooling, home college, company college

Peabody Institute Chair Hollis Robbins at Johns Hopkins University just wrote a provocative piece in The Chronicle Of Higher Education on an idea so simple and so intuitively right that it feels like it should already be in wide use. Dr. Robbins looks at the broad skill sets of multi-discipline PhDs and asks why one or some of them banded together couldn’t offer the equivalent of at least the first year of a liberal arts university education on a home schooling basis — and do so with better outcomes (and at lower cost) than the students would likely get at a good private liberal arts college or university; the idea being for the students to earn home college credits and transfer in to “formal” programs after they’ve done the first year or two with the private providers.

As you would expect from a humanities professor, the piece is balanced, subtle and eminently reasonable.

You can read the article here.

It got me thinking. The home college idea begs the question — Why couldn’t companies do the same thing? What a perk it would be for employees to be able to get, on a part-time basis, a top-flight liberal arts education through work. For companies of a certain size, hiring three or four full-time PhDs is a small cost. The professors might easily handle up to 100 company students a year. Smaller companies could band together to share costs.

Though such a program could easily be run by a corporate university, this idea is nothing like traditional corporate universities, which are generally driven by line-of-business needs and are vocational in purpose rather than about explicitly building employees’ personal capabilities.

It’s a radical and I think powerful idea. It’s kind of an anti-MOOC (though there’s nothing stopping any such program from incorporating MOOCs into the curriculum). It could also turn out to be cheaper (and a lot better) than sending an equivalent number of staff to community college.

The benefits to the business of setting up a company college might include:

  • An increase in employee engagement (and thus higher employee retention rates)
  • A reputation boost for the company in its industry and communities
  • A smarter workforce (hat tip to IBM) — let’s be honest, though humanities training does not easily translate into job-specific skill-set libraries, the general truth is clear — over the long run, better people means better business

On that last point, one of the downsides of doing what everybody else is doing is that there’s no strategic competitive advantage to be had in the process: your best outcome is to not fall behind your peers. The upside of doing something different, something like Dr. Robbins’ suggests for example, is that, if it works, you’re in blue water.

Too social?

The main part of the mechanismBrandon Hall Group Analyst David Wentworth just posted an interesting piece on the growing problems with enterprise social network initiatives.

You can read what David is thinking here.

We have always believed in social learning rather than in the idea that HR or learning and development departments would end up “owning” enterprise social networks.

To that end we make a point of including core talent-related social affordances in our out-of-the-box offerings (learning and performance interest groups, forums, news, email, chat, file sharing, etc.) and supplying robust API libraries, including widgets, Google gadgets, macros and plugins for working nicely with clients’ enterprise social network choices, whatever they turn out to be.

We think of it as the good neighbor policy.

Learning and Talent in Europe

David-Wilson-photoGuest post by David Wilson, founder and Managing Director of Elearnity, Europe’s leading independent learning and talent analyst.

A major commentator on the learning & talent technology industry since its inception, David is the author of over 140 papers/articles on learning & talent technology innovation and a strategic advisor to many major organisations in the UK and Europe.

Whether it’s a talent strategy, management process or a solution, what does cross-European or global deployment really mean?

Does it mean responding to the diversity of peoples and cultures in different countries and businesses or the imposition of a single overarching and mandated approach for all? Does it mean single, homogenous processes or the provision of frameworks that allow local organisations to flourish? And what is the fine line that separates them? And makes them efficient and effective?

The sad fact for many strategic Learning and Talent initiatives is that they are focused on homogenised, mono cultures and standardised approaches rather than the realities and needs or different geographies and market maturities. The common response to diversity is not differentiation – but to drive conformity. The problem is that this conformity may not just be inappropriate, it may be illegal – for example if it breaks German Workers Council rules or French regulatory reporting requirements.

Also, do you really need mature bureaucratic processes, when part of the company you are servicing is effectively a “start-up”? Whilst they might be right for a mature business, they could just be the thing that stifles growth for an embryonic new part of your business. This is one of the biggest challenges for the delivery of cross-organisational talent strategies.

How do you enable businesses in a way that is focussed on their operating realities, but get the efficiencies of a standardised approach? How do you impose symmetry and consistency onto an inconsistent and asymmetrical world? Even though HR often tries, is it even possible?

A good example, of this is the instigation of a global, HR shared services operations as part of the Ulrich Model. Many global HR operations use this model as their foundation and the creation of central, single processing model for HR transactions – serviced within a global HR shared services group.

Whilst this may be all well and good for controlling the costs associated with managing HR, and be the dominant received wisdom for how HR operates; blindly following this approach, especially on a cross-European or global basis can drive some very dubious decisions. Top of the tree for this is Performance Management. HR frequently instigates annual appraisal processes that feed bonus payments and compensation and rewards. A standardised approach, with one size fits all. But the nature of those processes is often frequently at odds with the speed of business – you only have to look at sales targets and structures needed to support dynamic and fast moving sales cycles.

So why wouldn’t you look to create differentiated approaches for other groups too? The answer has been partly because the service model and supporting systems are unable to support the necessary diversity of process and approach.

In recent years things have changed significantly. Solutions have become much more configurable and more flexible – without needing high costs of external consultants to set things up for you. But the legacy view of ERP-style HR systems runs deep reinforcing the desire from some (often IT) for mono-answers to Talent and Learning questions, deployed globally. Whilst these stagnant approaches are deeply entrenched in the corporate psyche, we will continue to need to ask:

  • Why do pan-European projects fail to engage local audiences effectively?
  • Why do so few global companies really build effective cross-geography learning and talent deployment strategies that can deal with multiple languages, legal and cultural differences?
  • How can local business driven and the centralised learning and talent needs really be accommodated by philosophies and systems that champion cost efficiency at the cost of effectiveness?
  • Where the answers to these questions remain unsatisfactorily, the proliferation of local or departmental solutions rather than true cross-organisational solutions will continue to be a huge issue?
NetDimensions-logoElearnity-logo
Webinar invitation

David Wilson, Elearnity’s founder and Managing Director, will be discussing Elearnity’s research on the realities and strategies for cross-European Talent and Learning at a webinar with NetDimensions on June 26th at 2pm BST / 9am EDT.

Click here for registration.

Save the date

We have announced three Next Steps conference locations for 2011 — all in September. The first in Chicago; the second in London and the third in Bangkok. Please come.

At Next Steps you can network with your peers from different industries, share your best practices, provide your input into our new products, or just listen to how the latest developments in our enterprise knowledge, learning, assessment, compliance, and talent solutions can free up your people to do what they do best.

This year we will be offering a completely new NetDimensions Product Workshop on the second day led by our technical consultants and featuring two tracks with a total of eight different hands-on sessions. We invite you to enroll in this unique knowledge-packed training program to gain practical NetDimensions product insights that you can immediately apply in your own environments.

Come to the NetDimensions user conferences and let’s take the next steps together.