Step 1: Define the population

The new learning architect

Over the past year we have been publishing extracts from The New Learning Architect. We continue with the second part of chapter 11:

It’s possible to apply the model very generally across a large population, say an organisation’s entire workforce, and this may help in making very general policy decisions; but the model will be most useful when applied to a relatively heterogeneous group, whether that’s a vertical slice of the organisation (by department, by division, by region) or horizontal (by management level, by level of experience and so on).

You’ll know if you’ve defined the population appropriately if you are then able to make some generalisations about its characteristics. If every characterisation can be summed up as “some are like this, some are like that”, then you will have difficulty in coming up with a coherent architecture and would do better to sub-divide the population further.

The following questions will help you to characterise the population. Hopefully, most or all of these questions will be relevant in your case. However, you may need to extend the list to capture the important subtleties of your particular situation:

How much knowledge do the employees concerned already have about the field in which they operate and their particular job responsibilities? The more knowledge they already have, the easier they will find it to add to or modify this in response to changing circumstances. This is because memories do not exist in isolation; they are formed as connections to existing memories. Those with plenty of experience in a particular occupational area will have a solid base on which to build and are likely to have a good idea of what gaps there are in their knowledge. Conversely, novices in a field will have little prior knowledge on which to build and little idea about what gaps there are in this knowledge. They require, and will be grateful for, more structured approaches to learning.

How widely is expertise distributed among the population? When expertise in a particular domain is concentrated in a relatively small group of people, then you will be constrained in your choice of approaches to learning on the basis of simple capacity. You can’t expect the same few people to be instructors, coaches, reference sources and champions of good practice when you are also relying on them to use their expertise to fulfil their own, critical job responsibilities. In these circumstances you are more likely to try and capture their expertise in some way that allows for more scalable forms of dissemination.

How fast does this population turn over? In some occupations, the employee population turns over very rapidly, making it even more important than usual to minimise the time it takes to bring new entrants to competence. To make this possible, formal training should ideally concentrate on key skills and core knowledge, leaving less essential information to be delivered on-demand. Another implication of high turnover could be that less emphasis is placed on experiential and developmental learning, although it could be argued that this would make employees less inclined to move on.

How independent are the individuals as learners? Those with good metacognitive skills are better equipped to learn independently. They have a good feel for what they already know, what’s missing and how to go about filling the gap. They will benefit from top-down learning but they don’t depend on it. For this reason, where resources are tight, efforts are more sensibly directed at those who most need the assistance, i.e. the dependent learners.

How motivated are the employees concerned to learn and develop? Motivated employees are more likely to undertake independent learning activities and to contribute to the learning of those around them. Conversely, those lacking in motivation, perhaps because of poor management or because the job is, for them, no more than a means to an end, will do the minimum required to fulfil their basic job responsibilities and no more.

How much discretion does this population have over the allocation of their time? There are many jobs in which the employees involved have very little choice over the way in which their time is allocated – they are needed to carry out their tasks at specific times if the organisation is to function successfully. These jobs range from the un-skilled to the highly professional, from assembly line workers to soldiers and airline pilots. When an employee’s time is rostered, it is unrealistic to expect them to make time for less formal learning activities in the same way as, say, an office-based professional who is working to longer-term objectives. This is not to say that those whose time is rostered cannot engage in a wide range of learning activities, just that these will typically need to be formally added to their list of responsibilities and time specifically allocated for them.

What channels of communication are open to this population? Many learning interventions depend on the availability of particular communication channels. Some, such as on-job instruction or classroom training, rely on face-to-face contact. Many others need to be mediated in some way, through the telephone or through devices, such as smart phones, PCs and laptops, which connect to an organisation’s intranet or the internet. Communication channels are an important enabler for learning, so you’ll need to know exactly what channels are available to the population in question and what functionality they are capable of supporting. What devices are provided? What bandwidth can these devices access? What communication tools (web conferencing or social networking for example) are available on the networks in question?

What commonality is there within the population in terms of the tasks performed? It is important to get a feel for the numbers within the population who carry out the same tasks and are therefore likely to share many of the same learning and development needs. It is much easier to justify top-down approaches when the target audience is sizable, particularly when this involves the creation of content.

How important is it to individuals that their learning achievements are formally recognised? In some situations it will be important to employees that their learning be recognised through some formal certification or qualification, particularly when this will have a major influence on their future job prospects either within or beyond the organisation. In these cases, there will undoubtedly be a pressure for more formally-structured interventions.

Coming next: Step 2: Identify needs

Return to Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10

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About Clive Shepherd

Clive Shepherd has written 244 post in this blog.

Clive is a consultant specialising in the application of technology to learning and business communications. He was previously Director of Training and Creative Services for a multinational corporation and co-founder of a major multimedia development company. For four years he was chair of the eLearning Network.

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