Monday, July 11, 2016

Agile Learning - Some Further Reflections

Rachel Burnham writes: At the CIPD ‘Leaders in Learning’ event in Manchester last week, Andy Lancaster invited a group of L&D professionals to consider how we might make our learning design process more agile.  This kind of agility is about being more responsive to the needs of our organisations and the learners we work with, being quicker to develop L&D solutions and perhaps also includes an element of flexibility in what we produce and certainly in the way we produce it.  Here is a link to the Sketchnote I created at the event.

We began by exploring why there is a need for L&D to become more agile in the way we approach learning design.   This is of course related to the pace of change in organisations and in the external environment, which requires organisations to become more agile in order to survive and flourish.   I am sure I don’t need to rehearse again the impact of changes in competition, technology, legislation & regulation, plus the challenges of responding to an uncertain world in the context of global markets, austerity in government policies and Brexit. 

L&D needs to keep pace with this and be able to contribute within our organisations to both to enabling individuals to learn what they need to respond to these changes and also to help individuals and teams become more able to create this organisational agility.   Within L&D, we are often working with fewer resources to meet growing needs.  There are risks if we keep working in traditional ways, with long lead-in times to the design of L&D programmes that we will be too slow to respond to emerging needs within our organisations and/or completely miss out on meeting some needs.  There are risks both to the effectiveness of our organisation and also the credibility and future of L&D in this.

Andy shared with us 10 points to help us to move towards agile learning design.   Here are some further reflections from me on each of these points – I may have paraphrased the wording of some of these 10 points.
1.  Determine business needs as top priority and respond with urgency

This is always important in L&D.  The focus of L&D has to be on improving performance in the organisation and enabling the organisation to better meet its objectives – so I was pleased to see this coming first in this list.

When we discussed how we could overcome challenges about changing our way of working to become more agile, the group I was in identified that focusing on the real ‘pain points in the organisation’ could help to generate sufficient support, particularly from senior managers and other key stakeholders to enable us to try this different approach.   Nick Shackleton-Jones, in a session on learning design at this year’s CIPD L&D Show, talked about identifying ‘what bugs people’ ie what do employees find challenging and gets in the way of them doing their job and then finding ways to address these issues. 

2.  Think big – start small

When trying out a different approach it often helps to try out something on a small scale or using a simpler approach than perhaps you would do normally.   This reduces the risk and can make it possible to get the resources or the ‘go-ahead’ to test out an idea.   I like the idea of running lots of small scale experiments which you learn from rapidly.  This connects to the idea of ‘Working Out Loud’ and testing out ‘half-baked ideas’ publicly –  or at least within your organisation and quickly getting input from other people to refine and add to these ideas. 

Many years ago, I worked for a small organisation that was working out how to do preparatory education on leaving home with young people – a bit like doing health education, but on the subject of housing.   We worked as an action learning project and tried out lots of different approaches to this preparatory education on leaving home and how to get it integrated into youth work and schools.   We were often trying different approaches simultaneously.  As there were only two of us working in the project across the whole of England and Wales –– one of our ‘rules of thumb’ when testing out an idea was to work with people who were already ‘hot to an idea’  ie we would search out volunteers.  Once we had tried out an approach, we would then work with people who were ‘warm’ and who perhaps needed a bit more support, encouragement or even challenging to try something out.

3.  Commit to a speedy development process

This is about our attitudes, but also about making it happen.   It would be worth identifying what causes the particular hold ups in your organisation.  I also think that clearing space in the diary now to be able to start on a new project in this different way would be a good starting point.

4.  Include learners in the heart of the design

I want to ask ‘Aren’t we doing this already?’ and of course we should be, but that doesn’t mean we are.  Often we rely on input from other stakeholders and the voice of learners is overlooked.  If you want to explore this further it is worth looking at Towards Maturity’s work in this area or a recent research report from Good Practice intriguingly called ‘The Secret Learning Life of Managers’.  Both of these pieces of work go far beyond asking learners what they would like and explore how learners learn in practice and what they actually do when they are faced with a challenging task at work.   There is a lot of interest now in developing our understanding of how learners learn effectively and in particular how they use technology to do this – there is the potential to develop this understanding much further through the use of learner analytics. 

But this point, also suggests involving learners in creating their own learning solutions and resources.  And so this also links to point 6 below.

5.  Curation rather than creation

The widespread availability of digital content in many different forms – blogs, video ‘how-to’s, infographics, flowcharts & other diagrams, podcasts (audio files), written guides, sets of FAQs – means that another change in L&D is to curate content rather than needing to create all your own content.   Curation involves searching out relevant materials, selecting the most appropriate, explaining why this has been selected and making this easily available to people who will find it relevant (everything from simply recommending it in an email, through to hosting this selection of resources within a digital platform such as a Learning Management System (LMS) or Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) such as Moodle or Blackboard).

Curating content and only creating content when it is specific to your organisation and not available elsewhere, can contribute to agile design of learning.

If you want to find out more about curation, I would recommend looking at the work of Martin Couzins and he can be found on Twitter @martincouzins.

6.  Create your own low cost content

The wide spread availability of smart phones and access to a range of free or low cost digital tools is making it much easier for L&D professionals to produce all sorts of materials in many different formats.  

This can also be extended to getting learners involved in creating their own content.  This could be through participation in communities of practice, perhaps an online group on the organisation’s Enterprise Social Network (something like Slack or Yammer) or thorough a LinkedIn group or less formal ‘Personal Learning Network’ such as via people connected through Twitter or some other social network.  It could be a colleague creating a useful job aid in the form of a flowchart explaining a process initially produced just for their fellow team members.  It could be a short video clip recorded on a smart phone.  The possibilities are pretty much endless.

Not everything needs to be produced to a Hollywood level of polish and gloss.   Something that is timely and highly relevant to your particular need can have just as much impact. 

7.  Scaffolding social collaborative discussion and learning

This is about using frameworks to provide some support and structure to help people get started in using these approaches for learning at work.  In a way it is an approach to providing a half-way house between a traditional highly-structured approach to a learning programme and a more collaborative approach in which learners have more input and direction of their own learning.   Look out for the work of Julian Stodd if you would like to find out more – he can be found on Twitter @julianstodd.

8.  Don’t be limited by resource availability

One of the potential barriers to agile learning is that we limit ourselves, because we focus on resource limitations, whether that is the availability of rooms, particular trainers or digital resources or finances.  Overcoming the latter was the focus of a session at this year’s CIPD L&D Show ‘Doing More with Less’ with Andrew Jacobs and Stella O’Neill  – here is a link to a Storify of the tweets from this session – look out for session E3.

9.  Learner access any time, anywhere … which includes digital

This is perhaps one of the most challenging areas, as it does require some technical expertise to identify the relevant digital platform for your organisation and situation.   Do take time to think this through.  Take advice.  Think not just about what will work here and now, but what would have some longevity and be sustainable for your organisation.

10.Don’t be a perfectionist – iteratively improve

As an individual this may be one of the most challenging of these tips – I know I always want to have any learning programme I’m associated with to be as good as it possibly can be.  However, that can be at a cost of all the other learning needs that go unmet and the missed opportunities.

As a parent, I have found it valuable to allow myself to not worry about being perfect – I like the concept of the ‘good enough parent’.  I have chosen where to place my priorities as a parent – home cooked food with lots of vegetables and fruit, a bed-time story every night and lots of hugs, but it does mean that the house is dustier than I would ideally like!  In a similar way, we may have to rethink our perfectionism in L&D and decide what can be let go.

These are some of my thoughts on agile learning design.  What does this prompt for you?  What can you being doing differently?

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance. 

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