Friday, July 10, 2009

What the Economy Teaches Us About Learning

I read recently in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) about how some fundamental assumptions of Financial Analysts are being overturned by the new economic history. Specifically, the article quoted Financial Advisor Carl Mahler introducing himself by stating "Hi. My name is Carl, and I'm a recovering asset-allocationist."

Asset allocation is a long-held strategy for diversifying investment portfolios in order to mitigate risk. Over time, models have developed that did a pretty good job of limiting the impact of general economic swings, but in recent years, the models have begun to break down. As I dug deeper into the article, it became clear that some fundamental changes in the basis of economic assumptions are at play.

This afternoon, I came across a story in the Financial Times of how British Airways and others are begging workers to work for no money...or to reduce hours, or take sabbaticals at reduced wages. The author laments: "To understand what is going on, one needs to forget all the economics one ever learnt." Again, some shifts in the underlying assumptions about the employer-employee relationship have caused changes in the landscape. The basic assumptions that one works for pay or does not work for no pay no longer hold true. Many workers are willing to work for less, or offer up free work days in exchange for a perception of better job security.

So, how does all this relate to learning?

I hold that we are in a time of fundamental paradigm shifts. People have thrown the rules out the window because they realize that the old rules no longer apply.

Think about it--in the learning business, we have come full-swing from a time when all learning was informal (think 1930's and earlier) to a period when the only learning that mattered included some sort of certification (1970's to 2006 or so), to a new model where what you can do matters more than your certificate or pedigree. Already, the people producing some of the most relevant learning are pioneers of all ages who are really subject-matter experts with neither a fear of technology nor of learning.

The new model for workers, financial analysts, and learning is one in the same: whatever works. Increasingly, we see tools that are capable of monitoring and measuring quite granular data points. We seem to be on the cusp of a world where ongoing performance metrics could be collected and aggregated, following individuals through their careers. And why not? Wouldn't this breed greater employment equity?

Some years back, I read of students who were crafting their own degree programs by leveraging online courses. They were in it for the learning and didn't care if they got the certificate or not. And in a world where performance can be measured over time, why does the certificate matter as much? It does not make you more qualified...or more certified.

The future of learning will see learning pros helping other experts produce content in more relevant ways; the learning pros will not be the guardians of the content; they will not be the sole masters of the technologies that facilitate learning. But they do play a critically important role. They are consultants who understand the learning process; they recognize that there are things that must happen to maximize the impact of learning and to minimize the cost of learning. These things can be taught...and those are the very skills we will be called upon to share with the world.

Get ready. Nothing will remain the same in this brave new world.