Harnessing Collective Intelligence (1)

Harnessing Collective Intelligence:
Frameworks for Learning & Development Professionals

“Learning and development professional.” How quaint.

Learning is not what organizations should focus on these days, at least not learning as we have known it. Once empowering, our traditional concept of learning has grown obsolete. And development? Development is a shared responsibility, not something we do for others.

In the mid-twentieth century, learning sought to bridge the gap between people’s current skills & knowledge and what we thought they would need to get the job done in the future. Here’s the rub: treating learning like this assumes that conditions never change. Yet today’s jobs change blazingly fast. Shorter and shorter product development cycles leave no time to develop training programs even if people wanted it.

Consider the textbook process for designing learning, ADDIE: analyze, design, develop, implement, and evaluate. Analysis is crippled when the vision of the future is murky. Program design presumes we can peer into the heads of self-service learners. Development is a farce when the lessons are co-created with the learner. Implementation implies an event, something that ends, and that’s when we evaluate it. Learning today is ongoing; it advances incrementally. It has to keep current with its subject matter. Development never stops.

Think back to why organizations wanted learning in the first place:

for people to know how do their jobs
to improve service to customers, internal and external
to stay current with new developments
to prepare for the challenges of the future

Workers still need to know how to do their jobs and increasingly, it’s something they have never done before. What better teacher than someone who has been there? Let me have the email address or phone number of someone who can answer it without wasting time to tell me what I already know. Or give me the number of an internal customer service hot-line. Or let me look up where the instructions or FAQ are located. Let me find things out at the moment I need know, not so far in advance that I will have forgotten it by the time I need it.

Knowledge workers demand to know what they’re expected to do, but they resent being told how to do it. This is where co-creation comes in. Instead of force-feeding my brain, make it easy for me to find the answers for myself.

Live instructors are analogous to bank tellers. Thirty years ago, few people could imagine making their own deposits and withdrawals. Now they can’t imagine being required to work with a teller face to face. The only place to get cash was inside a bank building or perhaps at a grocery store. Banks were only open during limited “banking hours,” usually the same time that yo had to be at work. And that you couldn’t go to just any bank, you had to go where you had your account. It wasn’t that long ago that many banks in the United States were not allowed to operate in more than one state. Some states (think Illinois, Texas) did not permit a bank to have more than one location! If you travelled internationally, you carried cash or traveler’s checks. In large quantities. Before long, when we look back on instructor-led training, we’ll scratch our heads and ask ourselves “What was with that?”


Networks, both personal and electronic, provide the means to populate the workplace with the knowledge equivalent of Automatic Teller Machines, online banking, electronic bill-paying, debit cards, and electronic funds transfer, everywhere and any time. Building the connections for a networked knowledge system seems so appealing that you wouldn’t expect resistance, as least among professionals who value the outsize convenience and benefits. You would be wrong.

Everyone I talk with can get behind no-brainers like making it easier to get answers to questions or cutting down on email. This is but the tip of a very, very deep iceberg. In this case, incrementalism is the enemy of innovation. Trusting employees to do the right thing, encouraging people to share information, expecting innovation from everyone, not keeping an eagle-eye on employee behavior, living in real time, and making people responsible for their own development and growth: these are cultural issues. Imagine replacing a tightly structured one-way corporate meeting with a loosely-structured un-meeting, trusting things will self-organize.

The internet and, more important, the values that accompany the internet create a radical transformation of our most basic assumptions. I don’t mean using Google to look things up or Skype to make free phone calls anywhere in the world. No, I’m thinking of a business world that is transparent, authentic, open, collaborative, customer-facing, loosely-coupled, and amorphous. I mean a world where time is relative, distance is dead, observation changes what the observer see, value resides in intangibles, and inflexibility spells extinction. Getting even the tiniest inkling that this is what’s just ahead provokes extreme reactions. As on the issue of abortion, people are pro or con; I’ve yet to meet anyone who is sitting on the fence. That’s why I’ve begun calling the chasm between the old view that harkens back to Descartes and Newton and my vision of a future that’s congruent with Einstein and Bohr “the great divide.”

Hyperbole is me. Sometimes the future appears clear to me, and I don’t shy from sharing what I see, even though the first things to appear are its extremes. So no, I don’t expect everyone to try leaping over to this side of the great divide. I do believe, however, that you can’t reap the benefits of the new way of seeing the world without letting go of what you’ve become accustomed to. Perception is reality but we perceive only what we expect. Therefore, the entrance to the new landscape for intellectual adaptation, continuous improvement, and learning without end is UNLEARNING.