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Learning for the 21st century and beyond—sounds like a sci-fi novel, right? The term “learning" is thrown around a lot lately. Many organizations even have Chief Learning Officers, responsible for the development of the organization's human resources.

Is the Chief Learning Officer really a glorified Training Director, though? It's an important question, because learning today is vastly different from years past when "training" was the go-to term.

"Training" conveys knowledge and skill and "learning" attempts to develop judgment and wisdom. A balance of both is important — trying to develop a keen sense of judgment without foundational knowledge is impossible, but just offering rote knowledge creates a robotic set of order takers.

So, how can your organization enable effective learning in the 21st century workplace?

Make Learning Active

Training is a passive act, learning requires an active role. Historically, organizations decided what trainings were important and set about to “teach" them. But, as the complexity and availability of information has increased, figuring out what to “teach" has become more difficult.

Take new managers for example. They need knowledge—regulations, processes, policy—and they need judgment—“What do I do with that knowledge?" Too often, new manager training tries to convey every regulation, policy and process known to the organization, only to overwhelm and paralyze new managers.

Employees need to know what they need to know when they need to know it. That requires an active role, finding, validating and interpreting a knowledge base. That requires technology and a “super duper" search engine that gives them what they need when they need it.

Provide Credible and Accessible Resources

There are two powerful ways organizations can make technology-based learning resonate. First, help learners understand the context within which they need knowledge. Then, create an opportunity for practice, growth and reflection.

With so much information available, learners need help knowing where they can find credible resources. Going back to the example of the new manager, he or she needs to know that there are laws and policies to guide his or her actions, and have a general understanding of what they are, what they cover and the consequences for a misstep. Then, he or she needs to know where to go to find the answer to his or her questions.

The resource should be easy to search and read, and relevant to the life of a manager at that organization. To be ultimately useful, the resource should offer progressively more in-depth information, should the user want to go deeper, as well as a place for real-time questions.

Facilitate Two-Way Dialogue

These days, work is really all about communicating up, down and across an organization. Effective communication is about conveying knowledge in a way that incites interest and excitement in the listener. Managers want to develop engaged employees, and organizations want customers to buy their products and services.

Sometimes the best way to accomplish this is not innate. For example, engagement with employees happens when managers encourage ownership and buy-in; that means asking good questions and facilitating two-way dialogue. Asking questions is difficult when you have a task to get done, and it's easier to just “tell them what to do." Learning to ask and facilitate takes practice, first practice in a safe space using simulation or role playing, and then reflecting on actual real-time experience. This is where learning happens.

Cultivate An Environment for Self-Directed Learners

It isn't usually hard to find learning content. It is more difficult to create an environment that generates curiosity for self-directed learning, establishes a relevant context and then helps the learner recognize the learning that has occurred, but that holds the biggest payoff for organizations.

Learning in the 21st century has to find the right balance between all three elements of organizational learning: the context, the content and practice. Technology can, and will, play a huge role in all areas, but it will be important to understand what the organization is trying to achieve. Good practice means observation, feedback and reflection.

Photo: Creative Commons