The Psychology and Skills of Personal Learning Environments

For the past few months, I've been doing a lot of thinking about and exploring of personal learning environments (PLEs). I've written about my own personal learning environment here and here and I've been bookmarking a ton of articles on the concept here.

I'm interested in the notion of a personal learning environment because I think that the concept offers a lot of promise for personal and staff development. I know that for myself, having access to so many tools of personal learning (blogs, wikis, RSS, etc.) has turned me from a more passive recipient of knowledge into an active learner and creator. In the process, I've developed greater confidence and developed some entirely new skills. This, in turn, has improved my professional practice immeasurably. 

What I've noticed in the conversation about PLEs is that there's a lot going on around trying to get a handle on the tools for personal learning and how we use them. There's a great deal of discussion about whether or not a PLE should be a single tool or a collection of tools loosely joined.  But this morning I felt a need to go back to Stephen Downes' point that unless people see themselves as learners, then personal learning environments as a concept will be dead in the water.

What actually sparked this line of thought is a recent presentation from Stephen, that I've posted above. (I strongly encourage you to go through it--some great insights and ideas).  Here he talks about the skills that we should be learning for success in this new world in which we live:

  • Predicting consequences
  • Reading for deep understanding
  • Distinguishing truth from fiction
  • Empathy
  • Creativity
  • Communicating clearly
  • Learning how to learn
  • Healthy Living (which isn't fear and anxiety-based)
  • Valuing Yourself
  • Living meaningfully--as in having a purpose in life.

These feel to me like really powerful skills that we should all be developing. These are skills that aren't taught in school or in any training program I've seen. Yet to my mind, without these skills, we will struggle in a global, networked economy. These are also the skills that are necessary for personal learning. These are the skills that equip people to continue learning for a lifetime.

As I thought about these skills, I went back to personal learning environments and why it is that some people embrace the idea of personal learning while others don't. It started me thinking that certain people seem to have a psychological make-up that makes them more predisposed to exploring personal learning. Some of their characteristics, I think, are:

  • An innate curiosity about how the world works and why it works that way.
  • A strong desire to make sense of the world. These are people who seem to more naturally see patterns, look for connections, want to evaluate and pull together the different strands of meaning and understanding in their lives.
  • A "question authority" approach to life. They don't seem to automatically accept "expert opinion" or "conventional wisdom." This may be related to their innate curiosity and/or to their need to make sense of things. Often conventional wisdom doesn't really make sense.
  • Most importantly--these are people who feel a sense of agency in their lives. They don't see themselves as hapless victims of external forces or as passive recipients of knowledge and information. Instead, they seem to believe that they are the creators and actors in their own stories and that outside forces and information are simply grist for their personal sense-making mill. (An aside--this idea of personal agency vs. victimhood is something that I'm also thinking about, based on what Tom Haskins has been exploring regarding empowerment. This is an area that I think deserves further exploration as I think that people caught in the victim mentality will have great difficulty taking charge of their own learning)

Now in some ways, these characteristics are really related to the skills that Stephen's talking about--questioning authority, for example, is part of being able to distinguish truth from fiction. So in some ways maybe what I'm seeing as personal characteristics are really skills to be learned.  At the same time, I can't get away from the feeling that there are still people who are more naturally predisposed to developing a personal learning environment because they possess the mental attitudes and beliefs that make them want to develop the skills.

Where is all this going? I think that part of what I'm wanting to do is pull together two strands of conversation on personal learning environments. I think there's great value in looking at the tools and processes we use to construct our own learning. But I worry that in looking at personal learning primarily in terms of tools, we are missing another major area of an environment--the human piece, the skills and attitudes necessary to use the tools in a meaningful way. While I'm very curious about how people are using Netvibes or Google Notebooks to keep track of learning, I also think that there's much to be learned from having dialogue about the people involved and what makes them tick. I'd be very curious, for example, to hear from the same people who have been writing about their tools and processes about the skills and personal characteristics they have that support this process (I know--I should start with my own post on this topic. I'll do that in a day or two.)

My personal motivation in all this is the desire to figure out how I can empower others to explore creating their own personal learning environments. But like any good teacher, to do this I need a better understanding of the psychology/motivations of my learners, as well as the skills they'll need to develop in order to really make use of a PLE. I'd like to see us engaging in conversation about these elements, as much as discussing the tools and processes of personal learning.

More Support for a Results Oriented Work Environment

Some more support for the Results Oriented Work Environment I've been spouting off about lately. . .

Today's New York Times has an interesting article--Time Wasted? Perhaps It's Well Spent. It notes:

American workers, on average, spend 45 hours a week at work, but describe 16 of those hours as “unproductive,” according to a study by Microsoft. America Online and, in turn, determined that workers actually work a total of three days a week, wasting the other two. And Steve Pavlina, whose Web site ( describes him as a “personal development expert” and who keeps incremental logs of how he spends each working day, urging others to do the same, finds that we actually work only about 1.5 hours a day. “The average full-time worker doesn’t even start doing real work until 11:00 a.m.,” he writes, “and begins to wind down around 3:30 p.m.”

So how are we wasting all that time? Some say surfing the Net, but others point to the 5.6 hours per week we spend in worthless meetings, or the 1.5 hours per week we spend rifling through our desks looking for that report we KNOW is there somewhere. I'd argue that a fair amount of time is also spent fending off co-worker chit chat that is neither building team spirit nor leading to anything productive being accomplished.

Regardless, the article suggests that productivity is being measured by an old paradigm that is no longer workable in a knowledge worker economy:

Mr. Kustka assures me that the problem is not the three to four hours of concentrated work I do each day, but rather the outmoded paradigm against which I measure that work. Productivity was directly related to time back when Mr. Gilbreth was measuring things, he said, but the connection is less direct today.

“We are in a knowledge-worker world,” he says. “If you were building me a building, I could measure the number of bricks. If you were loading a truck, I could measure the number of boxes. But I can’t simply count your words. That doesn’t measure quality.” . . .

The old thinking says ‘the longer it takes, the harder you’re working,” says Lynne Lancaster, a founder of BridgeWorks, a business consulting firm. “The new thinking is ‘if I know the job inside and out and I’m done faster than everyone else then why can’t I go home early?’

Which leads back to ROWE . . .

On a related note, go visit Shannon Turlington, who is running her own personal experiment in managing using ROWE. And via email, I found out that Rosetta Thurman's organization is also considering the concept as a way to deal with space issues in their organization. I'm curious to see how things go for them.

Is Your Nonprofit Ready to Stop Watching the Clock?

My husband, like many Americans, is unhappy with his job. It is a job that combines impossibly high expectations with little personal control. There is a strong emphasis on "face-time" and productivity is measured by your slavish adherence to poorly thought-out metrics that emphasize process over outcomes. So it was interesting to find, as often happens to me when a problem is on my mind, this post from Ryan Healey at Penelope Trunk's Brazen Careerist. It's about Best Buy and its current experiment with ROWE--or Results-Oriented Work Environment.

In a nutshell, Best Buy has decided that measuring employees based on the amount of time they spend at work is a useless endeavor. So they have banished all schedules, mandatory meetings, and even the requirement that they show up to the office. Employees know what work needs to be done and their managers assume that because these employees are competent and responsible, they will get it done. If it's work that can be done over a cell phone or on a laptop in your bedroom, so be it. Feel free to do it that way.  You're a grown-up and we trust you to do the work. If you can't handle that, then we'll deal with it at that point. Otherwise, we're all happy.

According to an article in Business Week, since Best Buy adopted this approach, the results have been pretty amazing:

Since the program's implementation, average voluntary turnover has fallen drastically, CultureRx says. Meanwhile, Best Buy notes that productivity is up an average 35% in departments that have switched to ROWE. Employee engagement, which measures employee satisfaction and is often a barometer for retention, is way up too, according to the Gallup Organization, which audits corporate cultures.

ROWE may also help the company pay for the customer centricity campaign. The endeavor is hugely expensive because it involves tailoring stores to local markets and training employees to turn customer feedback into new business ideas. By letting people work off-campus, Best Buy figures it can reduce the need for corporate office space, perhaps rent out the empty cubicles to other companies, and plow the millions of dollars in savings into its services initiative.

So let's see, higher employee morale, reduced turnover, greater productivity, a re-allocation of resources from offices that serve little function to services that actually help customers. . . does this sound like something for nonprofits to consider?

This story really opens up several lines of inquiry for me:

  • What would ROWE look like in different nonprofit environments? Is it just an advanced version of flexible scheduling or does it become something more? Is it possible for nonprofits to untether their staff from their desks? This article in Money magazine says that managers have no say in employee scheduling and can only measure employees on the work they get done--could command and control organizations live with this? 
  • What are the practical/logistical implications of using ROWE in a nonprofit? There are a lot of things that would need to happen differently. There are huge implications for staff selection and assignment, management and supervision, employee evaluations and training, expectations, etc.
  • What would need to be done with technology to really make this happen?
  • What organizational culture changes would need to take place? In addition to all the practical considerations, what cultural changes would need to occur to support a move to ROWE?
  • What are the pros and cons? Does it make sense to go this route? What are the benefits for a nonprofit and do they outweigh any costs?
  • What are the barriers to implementation? The Business Week article, as well as the resources below, indicate that there was a lot of push-back on the concept from old-style managers who'd grown up in a workaholic culture. The experience has also revealed some ugly attitudes--most notably that some managers have a profound mistrust of and disrespect for their employees. It's also made visible an unspoken "rule" of many workplaces--that flexibilty should only apply to certain "types" of staff, i.e., the "professional" or exempt staff. Many managers felt that this couldn't work with hourly employees that they "needed" more guidance and structure to get their jobs done.

More on ROWE and Best Buy from:

  • Time Magazine--Good stuff on results and on the challenges Best Buy faced, particularly from "old style" managers.

And a related article from the NYT on "When Work Time Isn't Face Time."

This is something that I think bears further investigation. I'm also curious about people's reactions to this idea. Do you think it could work? Are there organizations where you think it isn't possible?

Empowering the Change Agents--Consciousness & The 10% Solution

It's interesting the difference a day makes.

Yesterday I expressed my frustration over my inability to change people who are meant to be change agents. Writing it down got most of the negative energy I was feeling out of my system. It also left me some space to think a little more about the problem. And another reason to be grateful for blogging--writing about it brought me some good advice from Tom Haskins and encouraging words from Brent MacKinnon, which also helped. So here's where I'm at now.

First, I think that Tom's right when he says that helping people to become conscious of how they've become disempowered is an important step:

Most disempowered professionals I've coached don't consciously realize how they lost their sense of "can-do" and "can-make-a-difference". They are doing the best they can in their own minds. Once they are aware of how they are getting disempowered in their relationships, they can make the necessary changes for themselves. Meanwhile they are caught up in a spiral, going nowhere quickly and becoming more convinced that no change is possible.

One way I make disempowerment conscious is to prescribe it. People realize what they are caught up inside of when I make it clear how to keep it going intentionally.

Tom goes on to list a series of beliefs that disempowered people tend to hold and suggests that to explore our disempowerment, we should consciously try reinforce those beliefs in ourselves to see how they act in our lives. Good stuff.

As I read Tom's post, I realized that I also had some answers to my problem in my own toolkit. Apparently I got so caught up in being negative, I lost sight of my personal resources. Something I think has been going on with my clients, too.

A few years ago I was working with some people to implement a major organizational change. In that process, we examined the issue of the victim mentality, a belief system that many of us have without really knowing it. 

To explore that concept, I asked what kinds of stories people told about themselves--active stories or passive ones?  With active stories, we say things like "I am in charge" or "I am responsible." When we tell ourselves passive stories, we focus on outside forces and external circumstances. Active stories start with "I" and passive stories start with "They." Active stories make us feel empowered. Passive ones suck away our personal sense of control.

Then, stolen from Richard Bolles, author of What Color is Your Parachute, I asked two questions:

  • Do you believe that with respect to this situation, no matter how much power seems to lie in other’s hands, you still have at least 10% that is in your control or power?
  • Can you work on that 10%?
Not everyone got it. Not everyone agreed. But a number of them did and it started to move them forward a little. So it's an exercise I need to try again, along with Tom's suggestion.

In thinking about this problem, I'm realizing something really important that I know, but seem to forget. Sometimes I'm being dragged down into this disempowered thinking too. It's hard to resist, especially if I'm in a room full of people who have already given up. It doesn't help that my natural temperament is to focus on problems, always looking for what needs to be fixed.

But getting dragged down into the negative isn't helping anyone and in a lot of ways, I can't afford to take that role. Someone has to be the dream keeper. Someone has to keep believing that if we all do our 10%, then it will add up and create change. It's like what they tell you in the safety talk on planes--put on your oxygen mask first and then help those around you. I'm the one who has to keep finding ways to get to the mask first. I'm the one who has to keep working on her own 10%. Without that, we'll all be crying into our beers.

I'm hoping that if I can keep doing that, others will join me eventually. Maybe not tomorrow or next week, but at some point. In my heart I believe this will happen. But if I'm honest, I have to say that some days it's easier to believe that than others.

New Report from Pew Says that Half of Americans Are Only Occasional Users of Modern ICT

Via Neville Hobson, highlights from a new report from the Pew Charitable Trust, "A Typology of Information and Communication Technology Users":

  • 8% of Americans are deep users of the participatory Web and mobile applications
  • Another 23% are heavy, pragmatic tech adopters – they use gadgets to keep up with social networks or be productive at work.
  • 10% rely on mobile devices for voice, texting, or entertainment
  • 10% use information gadgets, but find it a hassle
  • 49% of Americans only occasionally use modern gadgetry and many others bristle at electronic connectivity

The report lays out 10 major groups of users divided into "elite" users, "middle of the road" users and those with "few technology assets":

10groups   I haven't had a chance to dig more deeply into this yet, but it looks like there could be some interesting implications in this that I plan to tease out later.

More info at TechCrunch.

The Psychology of Email--Two Studies

A couple of interesting studies re: email use and our responses to it, via Jeremy Dean of PsyBlog.

The Impact of Capitalization and Emoticons on Perceptions of Email
Apparently, depending on your personality type, proper use of capitalization and the use of the smiley emoticon can make you seem more likable. According to one study cited by Dean (Byron and Baldridge, 2007):

They found that, sure enough, using correct capitalisation and emoticons tended to make a better impression on readers. The reader's personality also influenced how emoticons and capitalisation were perceived. Readers high in both extroversion and emotional stability were likely to rate sender's emails as more likeable if they had correct capitalisation. As for emoticons, readers higher in emotional stability were likely to rate sender's emails more likeable if they used emoticons.

The opposite was also true. This meant that for the introverted and emotionally unstable, correct capitalisation tended not to affect the sender's likeability, perhaps even lowering it. Similarly, emoticons had little effect on the emotionally unstable.

Communicating Persuasively--Email or Face-to-Face?
Another study indicates that email tends to work better in persuading men than it does women:

Persuasion research has uncovered fascinating effects: that men seem more responsive to email because it bypasses their competitive tendencies (Guadagno & Cialdini, 2002). Women, however, may respond better in face-to-face encounters because they are more 'relationship-minded'. But is this finding just a gender stereotype?

While this appears to be related to gender, there may be more value in looking at the nature of the relationship, says Dean. If you have a competitive relationship with a person, then you might be better off using email to make your case. If your relationship is more cooperative, then face-to-face may be the better way to communicate.

Culture of Training vs. Culture of Learning

A few days ago, I posted about an article in Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge. It was on an interview with Harvard professor Amy Edmondson who has found that that learning makes people less productive at work, at least during the learning process. I suggested that organizations should accept that lack of productivity is part of learning and that it shouldn't keep them from encouraging and supporting learning with their employees.  This opened up a bit of a (depressing) discussion in comments when Jason Zannon of DIA suggested that in an industry with high turnover and high burnout rates (i.e., the nonprofit industry), it may actually make sense to not worry about learning:

". . . might it be (depressingly) possible that in a low-margin, high-turnover, high-burnout field, a definition of productivity that doesn't care at all whether you learn might in fact be adaptive for some organizations?

If the actuarial table says you're probably out the door in two years and out of nonprofits altogether in five [<-numbers I just made up], I might just want to extract the surplus value and leave you to learn on your own time ... and by at least certain definitions of responsible institutional management, I might be right."

I agreed with this, but suggested that maybe the reason that there's high turnover and high burnout is because organizations do not support learning--essentially chicken or the egg syndrome. Jason came back with:

"It seems to me that the matter of getting to a learning culture where one doesn't exist at all is the hard step. For an organization with any kind of existing commitment to it, even only a nominal one -- by a conventional signifier, perhaps, something like a budget for professional development, conferences and trainings -- it's a matter of opening that box to encompass other forms of learning as well. After all, most seminars don't come with a clear straight-line ROI any more so than messing around with a new tech toy does."

I completely agree with Jason's point that it's difficult to develop a culture of learning. This line of thinking, though, led me to crystallize some thoughts I've had on what I see as a culture of training vs. a culture of learning. 

Let me preface by saying that I have yet to meet the organization that sees absolutely no value in training. Even those organizations that don't make significant investments in training still acknowledge that training is necessary. They've just decided that they can't or won't make it a priority. This is important, I think, because to me it indicates that there's agreement that learning is necessary on some level, which gives you some place to start from in building bridges from the culture of training to the culture of learning.

That said, these are some of the differences I see between a culture of training and a culture of learning:


Culture of   Training


Culture of   Learning


Organizationally-focused—training   provided based on job function, organizational needs and requirements.


Focused on developing   skills of individual staff—learning in response to individual staff skill   needs.


Event-based—learning occurs   at particular times in particular locations.


Process-based—learning is   always going on and is woven into the  fabric of the organization.


Instructor led, "formal training is the norm.


Supports a variety of formal and informal processes that center on the learner


Learning in response to   regulations/requirements and perceived staff inadequaciesoften used inappropriately to address issues related to poor management and work processes


Learning as an ongoing, natural process that is part of a quality organization—seen as a support to   other organizational quality initiatives


Often unrelated to and/or not supportive of work processes—i.e., training on “case management skills”   that are not supported by work flow


Usually related to and supportive of work processes


Little focus on   transfer of learning to work


Transfer of learning   occurs because learning is well-integrated into work processes


Little value placed on learning--seen as a "necessary evil," a "cost" and/or a way to "fix" staff


High value placed on learning--regarded as an important investment in the quality of the organization and the growth of staff.  


One side note--although this chart represents a kind of either/or thinking, in reality, I believe that organizations probably fall on some kind of continuum between the two cultures. Presenting it this way, though, helps me demonstrate the contrasts between how I view the two cultures in their extremes.

That said, I think a disturbingly high number of organizations have embraced a culture of training over the culture of learning and would find themselves on the far side of that continuum. I'm particularly bothered by the organizational view that training is a panacea for poor management, which implies that it's usually the worker's "fault" when there are problems in doing the work. In reality, poor work performance is usually NOT a result of lack of skill. Instead, it is generally because of poorly designed work processes and/or an organizational culture that says one thing and does another.

Another thing that stands out for me in this--In some ways, I think that culture of training organizations see learning as something that's done TO staff. Culture of learning organizations, on the other hand, see learning as something you do WITH staff.

In culture of training organizations, there's a belief that there's generally something "wrong" with staff that needs to be "fixed" by training. These are usually the organizations where management wouldn't be caught dead attending a training session.  In culture of learning organizations there seems to be a belief that learning is a necessary growth process for everyone, which means that everyone participates in both formal and informal learning events. They see learning as something that's happening all day, every day. 

So where might the leverage points be in moving from a culture of training to a culture of learning? I'm not sure. Part of me thinks that if you can get people to start expanding their definitions of what constitutes learning, as Jason suggests, you can potentially get people to start thinking differently about the roles and processes of learning in organizations. I also think that there need to be some attitude adjustments in terms of how staff are perceived, although this is a much harder area to address.

I'd be interested to hear from others about this. Am I totally off-base in thinking this way? If I'm not, do you have ideas about moving organizations more toward the culture of learning?

Does Learning Make You Less Productive? Probably.

Are teams that learn less productive than ones that don't? Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson says that in the short term, they probably are.

In an interview in Working Knowledge from the Harvard Business School, Edmondson argues that there are built-in tensions between learning and performance that smart organizations must learn how to address. To learn means to become less productive, at least for a while, and she points to a few reasons for this:

"When you're learning, you're often without an instruction manual to follow for guaranteed results. Also, performance gains won't show up instantaneously. In a learning mode, it's awkward. It's a transition, or we hope it is anyway, because there is no guarantee we are doing the right kind of learning. But, even if we are learning the right things, there is a transition to get through. The two-finger typist who wants to learn to touch type will suffer a performance decrement when he makes the shift. The idea was to improve performance by learning a new skill (e.g., touch typing), but in the short term, performance will be worse."

Teams that are learning can also seem less productive because learning is about focusing on and (hopefully) fixing mistakes:

".  . . learning processes by their nature involve facing failures—problems, mistakes—head on. The presence of problems or mistakes doesn't signal high performance to most people who might be watching. Some scholars go so far as to define learning as the detection and correction of error (notably Chris Argyris, now emeritus at HBS). So, clearly, if learning is about identifying error, in the short term, performance will appear to be weak (error ridden) while learning is occurring. At the very least, if learning involves trial and error, the error part does not resemble most people's idea of good performance. So, they're at odds."

Ultimately, she argues, managers who don't explicitly recognize that errors and a drop in productivity are part of the learning process will end up favoring today's performance over tomorrow's new skills. Not necessarily what we want or need in a world where an organization's success depends on the knowledge and skills of its workers.

It's interesting that I come across this article on the same day that Tony Karrer wonders if time spent learning and using Web 2.0 tools will be perceived as time spent away from "real work." I suspect that for many organizations that will be the case, especially if they don't perceive learning as part of the job. But as Edmondson indicates, this isn't the best way to look at things. 

Sometimes I think that the idea that learning isn't "real work" goes back to an organizational need to be in control. "Learning is part of your job when we SAY it's part of your job. If we tell you it's time to attend training, then learning is part of your job. If we say that it's time for you to do other things, then learning isn't in the job description right now". So many organizations talk about valuing life-long learning and how you need to develop your skills, but their behavior communicates something entirely different.

Regardless, this short-term focus on "productivity" at the expense of learning is a problem, I think, and one that will only get bigger if organizations don't recognize and address it. Edmondson suggests that part of the fix lies in having managers and workers recognize that a drop in productivity is part and parcel of the learning process. Once the skills are mastered, then productivity should improve. In the meantime, ease up and help learners through the process of trial and error and developing new knowledge and skills.

I also think we have to re-evaluate what we mean by "productivity."  Being busy all the time doesn't mean that you're productive, although I find that many organizations seem to value the appearance of busy-ness as a sign that a lot of work is getting done.

In many cases, taking the time to learn how to do things differently and to master new tools will actually make you more productive than continuing to do things as they've been done before, particularly when it comes to using technology. To borrow Edmondson's example, the two-fingered typist may not pump out a lot of work while he/she is learning how to touch type. But once that skill is mastered, then a whole lot more work will get done in the same amount of time.

Bottom line here is the need for us to see learning and exploration as investments in our organizations, rather than as costs. The more skilled and knowledgeable our people are, the more successful we will be. But we have to recognize and accept that we might take some hits on productivity in the process. And getting better at what we do means we may have to re-define what it means to be "doing your job."

Organizational Potential=Staff Potential

Via Doing Well by Doing Good comes a great video in which Seventh Generation CEO Jeffrey Hollender asks a question that all nonprofits should be asking themselves:

"How can we expect an organization to reach its full potential if we aren't ensuring that our staff are reaching their full potential?"

That's a really profound question, I think, especially for organizations that are built upon the knowledge and skills of their employees.

A few suggestions for positioning your organization so that it's more supportive of individual growth.

  • Hire people who are interested in and working on their own personal and professional development. Hollender says that when Seventh Generation is hiring, they ask people about what they're doing to support their own growth. If a person can't answer that question well, then Seventh Generation isn't interested.
  • Be more mindful in your daily work. Hollender points out that even organizations that are supposedly all about change still do their work unconsciously. He suggests that by paying attention to what you're doing and why you're doing it, you will be more likely to make changes that support growth. Hollender makes mindfulness about work practices a regular part of his staff meetings.
  • Help staff identify and play to their strengths. We're very focused on helping people uncover and "overcome" their weaknesses, but there's much to be said for helping people play to their strengths. The best managers know how to structure work and responsibilities so that they capitalize on what their people do best. Then they help staff get even better at it.
  • Encourage staff to develop and maintain portfolios of their work. Reflect on these portfolios as part of the evaluation process and use them to develop professional goals for the next evaluation period.
  • Encourage personal learning projects and and the tools and resources that support lifelong learning.  Don't automatically block websites that you think aren't directly related to your organizational mission. Many staff will be using them to learn new things that could benefit you. Consider allowing staff to set aside a certain percentage of their time to devote to personal learning projects, as many of the best companies have tried to do. Frequently it's been from these projects that companies have found their greatest innovations.

I know. All of this feels like a luxury you can't afford. But to my mind, these are really investments in your organization that you can't afford to ignore. Most cost next to nothing--it's really about making time and being intentional in developing your staff. We have nonprofits that are entirely built on the idea of small investments in people creating big change. Why don't we see that the same thing is true for ourselves?

Who's In Charge of Learning?

A few days ago, I posted about my personal learning environment and how I'm using a variety of web-based tools to manage my own learning. Since then, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the whole concept of personal learning and how that relates to "staff training and development," what I consider to be more institutionally-driven training. In addition, thanks to a mention in Stephen Downe's excellent OLDaily, a lot of new traffic has come through my site, giving me some additional fodder for thought. I'll warn right now that this is one of my "stream of consciousness posts" that I find that are periodically necessary for me to make sense of the things rushing through my brain.

I'm going to jump off of a post by Stephen on a recent presentation he did on personal learning:

I can talk about webs and networks and personal learnings and PLEs but there's a disconnect unless people see themselves as learners rather than teachers. Unless they are seeking to empower themselves and build their own lives, rather than seeing themselves as helpless before the whims of those with power and control. (my emphasis)

That, to me, is the heart of a critical issue here--most people don't see themselves as learners, with a responsibility to manage their own learning. I can't tell you how many people I work with in training classes who complain that they can't do their jobs properly because the organization for which they are working "hasn't trained us yet." They've given the responsibility for determining what they will learn and how they will learn it over to the organization, not realizing that they are turning over their greatest source of power in that process. And they model this disempowerment for their clients, too.

Here's the thing. In a knowledge economy, knowledge and information is power. The more you know, the more you can do with it, the more marketable you are. You can't AFFORD to let an organization tell you what you should be learning--too many organizations, businesses and nonprofits alike, are so busy struggling for survival that they aren't even sure what needs to be learned anyway. All of a sudden they look up one day and say "Oh no--we need people who can do X or Y." Waiting for someone else to tell you what you should learn is a sure ticket to the unemployment line.

I think we're operating from old knowledge and learning paradigms that developed in an industrial age when companies owned the means of production. As a worker, you couldn't make a living if you didn't have access to the (expensive) machinery owned by the company. So you waited for the company to tell you what you should learn--they knew best. But now, WE own the means of production--it's in our heads. It's what we know and can do. Do we really want to turn that over to the organization to decide? Or do we want to be the people who say "I'm going to take charge of my own learning. I'm going to be curious and pay attention to what's changing and where things are going and I'm going to pro-actively prepare myself for those things, regardless of whether or not the organization tells me I need to learn this."

To me, this is really why personal learning and creating a personal learning environment is so critically necessary. I don't believe that we can rely on the organizations that employ us to drive what we learn. Yes, we need to be responsive to what they need us to know--we need to attend the trainings our bosses suggest, etc. But as individual workers, I don't believe that we can afford to wait around for someone else to tell us what to learn. We shouldn't be waiting to receive permission or be empowered. We should be seizing that power and doing everything with it that we can. Our knowledge and skills are the only "job security we have." And we've seen time and time again what happens when we turn over job security to someone else.

So this takes me back to "staff training." While I believe that organizations should take responsibility for staff development, I see that as something that should be equally driven by the staff person. I think that one of the reasons people are so passive about learning is because everything in society conspires to make us believe that learning is someone else's responsibility. When we're in school, what we will learn and how we will learn it is determined by the teacher. Once we graduate, we turn that over to our employer to decide. Even if we decide on our own to learn more, we go back to school where we rely on a professor or instructor to tell us what we should know and how we should learn it.

Why don't we treat learning as something that we should do for ourselves? Diet pills and surgery aside, no one really believes that it's someone else's job to make us lose weight. Why can't we have the same attitude towards learning?

Earlier today I was pulling together some resources for a presentation I'm doing next month on globalization and the workforce. I came across this video:

Did You Know? - Funny videos are here

This is the world we're preparing ourselves for. We aren't going to be able to do that if we don't responsibility for ourselves.

I was also browsing through the TEDTalks library, where I found some phenomenal speeches by some great thinkers. One was by Charles Leadbetter on the rise of amateur professionals who are now our greatest source of innovation. His whole premise is that established companies don't innovate and grow on their own--it takes the involvement of passionate amateurs who hold themselves to very high standards and work on developing skills, knowledge, tools, etc. to create change. Again, to me this makes the case for needing to pursue your own learning.

Some Personal Learning Resources
To pursue my own learning, though, I need resources. And I need to be thinking about learning every day--a form of exercise that's as important as running or lifting weights. Some that I think are useful:

13 Rock Solid Ways to Build Knowledge for a Lifetime

7 Little Known Ways to Drastically Improve Your Learning

From Sean Fitz, Creating Your PLE

PLEase, from Jay Cross an advocate for informal learning (who also argues that "personal learning environment" doesn't quite capture his thinking on this).

Because I work in workforce development with agencies that are supposed to be preparing "tomorrow's workforce," this whole thing feels even more critical to me as something we need to be pushing with people. It's important for staff, but it's even more important for the disenfranchised, disempowered clients with whom we're working. If they don't look out for their own personal learning, then they really won't have anyone else doing it for them.

UPDATE--Oops--via Tony Karrer (who has a round-up on personal learning going), here's a quick guide to starting your own personal learning environment from Tony O'Driscoll. And here's another one--77 Ways to Learn Faster, Deeper, Better.