Thursday, January 7, 2016

Uberizing Organizational Learning – Thinking Beyond Courses

Designing courses is passé! In a world where the shelf-life of knowledge and skills are rapidly shrinking, where best practices of yore yield increasingly little or no return on investment, where exceptions are the norm, and constant change and flux the new normal, designing set courses using SME-defined content is like trying to build a dam to rein in the surging waves of a tumultuous ocean. We have to think agile, instant, accessible, contextual, micro-sized, real time… We need to uberize organizational learning.

Uberization” has taken off as the new term that according to me has come to stand for – disruption, innovation, lean operating model, harnessing of the affordances of the sharing economy, and a hyper-connected world driven by imagination and creativity where everything is a mobile-click away – including learning. I agree that’s a string of nouns and adjectives and sounds like I have thrown together a set of buzz words. But it’s not. If we do a bit of Googling, we’ll see the term cropping up in every conceivable context with posts talking about Let’s Uberize the Entire Economy to The Uberization of Money.

I am taking uberization more as a concept that encapsulates the characteristics listed above and, IMHO, L&D has a lot to learn from this. The concept of uberization is shaped “by combining smart-phone connectivity with voluminous real-time data on supply and demand”. Let’s pause a bit and think what this would mean to the L&D world in any organization. I’m not getting into the economics of how Uber operates; however, it is worthwhile to remember in the L&D context that Uber owns no “assets”. Agility and pull lie at the heart of uberization. Users – with a single tap on the app – can get a ride. Uber taps into existing resources providing people – both the suppliers and the buyers – with a platform to connect. The economy of “surge pricing” defines the cost. Whether that is good or bad is beyond the purview of this post. So, what do I mean when I talk about uberizing workplace learning? And what role does L&D play in the process?

Before I delve into some of the characteristics of uberization that we can extrapolate to workplace learning, here’s a few guidelines to keep in mind wrt expectations from L&D. I increasingly see a trend where we’ll have to: 
  1. Do more with less – less time, less resources, less funding 
  2. Deliver customized, just-in-time, easily accessible learning interventions and support on a continuous basis 
  3. Talk business outcomes and business performance, not learning 
  4. Assess and prepare the organization for skills needed in a VUCA world influenced by the forces of social, mobile, analytics, and cloud 
  5. Take a consultant’s approach as opposed to that of an order taker 
  6. Be the torchbearers for the new skills in the workplace (digital skills for the networked era
  7. Partner with leadership to build an agile and continuously learning organization 
  8. Tap into available resources and enable network to do the work 
  9. Build and manage communities to harness the organizational hive mind 
  10. Develop a learner’s mind – curious, exploratory, informed by a growth mindset

None of these will happen if we continue to sit in our isolated ivory towers designing courses, managing training calendars and count the number of days of training we have delivered to each employee. Business can and will ask, “So what?” We have to get out there, get our hands dirty, talk to business, read the company’s Annual Report, and figure out what is happening on the business front. I wonder how many L&D folks go through Annual Reports and Balance Sheets; however, this is where the crux of business can be understood. And whatever impacts business should and must impact how we function. Against this backdrop, technology is providing us with an opportunity to re-imagine and redefine workplace learning and our role as business partners, thought leaders, and change agents.  

Here are a few things we can start doing immediately using Uber as inspiration, if we are not on the path already.

  1. Take a mobile-first approach – Just as a ride is a tap away on the Uber mobile app, make learning just as accessible and instant. Users are increasingly expecting all interactions to happen via their mobile devices. Learning is no exception. Just as the Uber app allows a user to track the route, a learning app should allow the users/learners to see their learning roadmap personalized to their role and growth path. L&D’s focus needs to shift from designing one-size fits all courses to consulting with individual learners, their managers and HR, and carving out learning roadmaps for them. By making what matters to employees available on mobile devices of their choice, we can remove multiple barriers and enable them to pull what they need to traverse their learning journey. We can take a leaf our of platforms like Udemy or Coursera that offers a gamut of courses – all accessible via an app. Today’s workers expect a similar integrated experience – the freedom to pick and choose what they want to learn, where and when.
  2. Build communities – We are in the midst of the sharing economy which is all about open data, user-generated content, crowd-sourcing, shared value co-creation, collaboration, and more. It is no longer possible or feasible – in the face of unforeseen change – for L&D to formally design and develop all that will be needed to keep an organization at the cutting edge. It’s time to acknowledge that the learners are active participants in the system, and not just consumers of courses. L&D must move to becoming facilitators and enablers in a sharing economy and provide the right technology, tools and support necessary to allow users to collaboratively co-create value. This will not only enable organizations to tap into the collective wisdom of the crowd but will also move the organization towards becoming a truly learning org. People are at the heart of a sharing economy, and people are at the heart of a community. Organizations can no longer hope to thrive in a VUCA world without enabling the coming together of their people. I have written extensively about building communities in organizations in earlier posts here and here and here, and will continue to explore this theme further this year. The more I reflect, the more I strongly feel that the sustainability of an organization depends on giving up control and letting the network do the work. This fundamental principle lies at the heart of the success of Uber as well. L&D and the organization’s role will be to provide a highly-efficient sharing system and encourage participation. This calls for a radically different kind of thinking where the managers, leaders, L&D and HR – the gatekeepers of organizational resources including knowledge – collectively move over to the role of facilitators who inspire and empower open sharing, conversations, co-creation, and cooperation.
  3. Curate from existing sources – Tap into MOOCs, and other existing OERs. L&D needs to don the curator’s hat – a critical 21st Century skill – that requires an ability to seek, sense and share (Harold Jarche’s PKM model) relevant content for a defined target audience. Note that content creation – so far the forte of most L&D folks – is not a part of this. However, curation requires an even greater effort at creativity and an ability to connect the dots, make sense of disparate information, and pull these together to form a cohesive whole. It is not an easy skill to build and requires constant honing, deep diving into the designated area of focus, talking to and following experts in the field, using appropriate filtering mechanism to remove the chaff from the wheat, and then presenting the curated content in a format that will appeal to the end user. Moving from content creation to content curation requires Uber-like thinking – create no asset, tap into networks, connect the dots. I also liken it to developing a service-mindset over a product-mindset.
  4. Build a culture of feedback – Uber relies heavily on the ratings provided by users as well as the drivers. This mutual rating system ensures that the standard is maintained more effectively than any policing or management could do. L&D can definitely apply this to how learners/employees rate their experiences of the learning, of the engagement on the community, and encourage feedback. A culture of feedback encourages transparency, highlights inefficiencies, and make improvements an ongoing process. However, organizations with the help of L&D will have to define what constitutes feedback as opposed to baseless criticism, rants, and complaints. Genuine feedback comes with the intent to help improve, provide insight, and either reaffirms a practice or encourages change. The overarching intention is to make better. The ability to give and receive feedback is another critical skill we need to develop to thrive in a world in flux.
  5. Make it an ongoing effort – Uberization takes away the comfort of creating a one-time product (a course), launching it, and moving on to repeat the process. Uberization comes with a service-mindset. It is an ongoing effort that should eventually become the new way of doing things. It requires a constant scanning of the ecosystem – within as well as without, and gauging how external changes can impact the organization ranging from the need to re-skill existing workforce to recruiting scarce talent.


In summary, the world of L&D has dramatically changed. Just as the rules of business and leadership have changed in the networked era, so has the rules for how to enable employees to deliver with efficacy. The L&D department can no longer sit in an isolated bubble designing courses for skills that are fast becoming redundant. It is time to build an entirely new set of skills in oneself as well as in the workforce.    

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