In this series of posts, I explore six ways in which learning professionals can realise a transformation in the way that learning and development occurs in their organisations. It builds on the series I posted earlier in the year, in which I set out the six major elements in a vision for change, i.e. learning that is aligned, economical, scalable, flexible, engaging and powerful.
The fourth step on the route to transformation is a shift from learning and development activities that are directed from the top-down to those that originate from the bottom-up.
Top-down learning occurs because organisations want their employees to perform effectively and efficiently and they appreciate that this depends, at least in part, on them possessing the appropriate knowledge and skills. Top-down learning is designed to fulfil the employer’s objectives, not the employees’.
Whatever the attractions of a more bottom-up approach (as we shall see), some learning cannot be left to chance. Why? Because employees need basic competencies and they don’t always know what they don’t know, where to look for answers or who to turn to; because requirements change (new policies, products, plans), and because employees must be developed to fill future gaps.
However, it is unrealistic for all learning to be managed on a top-down basis, particularly in those organisations where change is constant and knowledge requirements hard to predict. As most top-down learning requires the direct intervention of subject experts and l&d professionals, resources are clearly going to be limited, so priorities have to be made. Top-down learning is likely to be most valuable for the 20% of knowledge that is needed 80% of the time, and for learning that is most critical in terms of risk to safety, budget or reputation.
Bottom-up learning occurs because employees also want to perform. The exact motivation may vary, from achieving job security to earning more money, gaining recognition or obtaining personal fulfilment, but the route to all these is performing well on the job, and employees know as well as their employers that this depends – again, at least in part – on them acquiring the appropriate knowledge and skills.
Bottom-up learning is managed by employees themselves. It addresses the 80% of knowledge that is needed 20% of the time and is particularly important in those organisations in which there is constant change and fluidity in tasks and goals.
Bottom-up learning is cheaper, more responsive, less controlling, less patronising and altogether more in tune with the times. But it is also less certain, less measurable and less suited to dependent learners who don’t know what they don’t know.
For bottom-up learning to thrive, employees need the motive, the means and the opportunity (just like the perps in the crime novels). They will only have the motive if they are rewarded for effective performance. They will only have the means if employers help them to develop the skills they need to learn independently and provide, where appropriate, the right collaborative software tools (a rich and searchable intranet, forums, wikis, blogs, communities of practice, etc.). They will only have the opportunity if employers are able to foster a culture which encourages self-initiative and does not penalise mistakes.
L&d professionals could do worse in future than to regard bottom-up learning as the default solution, the one on which they rely except when it is obviously unsuitable. For too long, employees have been spoon-fed their education and their training, and have failed to develop as independent learners to the extent that perhaps they should have done. Those now entering the workforce have, in many cases, overcome these barriers and have higher expectations. Provide them with the motive, the means and the opportunities and their capabilities are likely to astound you.
So what effect does pushing the slider from top-down to bottom-up have on the six elements of our transformation vision?
Aligned: This particular change should not have a major impact on alignment.
Economical: Some investment might need t0 be made in collaborative tools, but otherwise bottom-up learning requires little or no additional expense.
Scalable: Bottom-up learning is highly scalable because it draws upon the expertise of every employee. In a bottom-up learning culture, everyone is a teacher and everyone a learner; no-one knows everything and everyone knows something.
Flexible: Here is the greatest advantage. Bottom-up learning occurs as and when it is needed; it responds organically to changes in requirements.
Engaging: There’s not likely to be much impact here, except perhaps to the extent that bottom-up learning is likely to be more relevant to current needs.
Powerful: It could be argued that bottom-up learning will be less powerful because it is not so professionally conceived and delivered, but this factor could easily be over-weighed by greater relevance and increased responsiveness.