It is conceivable that an organisation could manage without any top-down learning interventions at all, relying on employees who were independent learners, good communicators, willing to share their expertise and keen to support each other. More realistically, an organisation will need to make a judgement about how much will be top-down and how much bottom-up, based on a wide range of factors that will differ enormously both between organisations and within them. Here are some guidelines for identifying the situations in which bottom-up learning will be most appropriate:
Where there is constant change and fluidity in tasks and goals: Some organisations are lucky enough to enjoy relatively stable policies, procedures and systems; for many others, particularly those which employ a large number of knowledge workers, the opposite is true – everything seems in a constant state of flux. In this situation, it is almost impossible to create top-down interventions fast enough to satisfy the need; you simply must depend on bottom-up processes to fill the gap.
For knowledge and skills that are used infrequently: If we apply the Pareto principle, then it is realistic to assume that 20% of all the knowledge related to a particular job will be adequate to cover 80% of the tasks. The remaining 80% of knowledge is used only occasionally and can probably therefore be handled using more informal, bottom-up methods, including the use of forums, wikis and similar tools. Some care needs to be taken that, within the less-commonly used knowledge and skills, there are none which are nevertheless critical. A good example would be emergency procedures – these should certainly not be left to chance and should therefore be tackled through a formal, top-down intervention.
When expertise is widely distributed: It is hard to place too much emphasis on bottom-up processes when expertise is centred around a small number of key individuals – these people would be simply overwhelmed by the never-ending requests for help that they would inevitably receive. In these situations, it makes more sense to capture this expertise using more structured, top-down methods. On the other hand, there are many situations in which it is true to say that ‘nobody knows everything and everybody knows something’. Where expertise is widely distributed, bottom-up methods are much more likely to thrive.
Where there are fewer people who need the learning: With scarce resources, l&d departments must focus on those needs which are highly critical or which impact on large numbers of people. There are simply not enough hours in the day to create top-down programmes for every small group that has a shared need. Here again, bottom-up methods fill the gap and ensure that needs don’t go unmet.
Where the employees are more experienced: Experienced employees have the advantage of generalised knowledge about situations and events stored in long-term memory, which make it very much easier for them to absorb new information. Whereas novices benefit from more structured learning experiences, in which they are led step-by-step through new information with the aid of an expert facilitator, more experienced employees can be given much more latitude to help themselves.
Coming next in chapter 6: Training’s long tail
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