Let’s focus on the learning (with a little help from Cynefin)

by Viv Cole on June 15, 2016

I enjoyed a day out at the Learning Technologies Summer Forum yesterday. Like many conferences,┬áthere was no shortage of vendors trying to broadcast how their offering is the panacea to organisations’ performance problems. This noise about the channels of learning (“modality”) tends to distract from a far more significant consideration: What is the nature of the learning that we want to make happen?

1. How clear are we about what we want people to learn?

It takes good questioning and listening to establish consensus amongst stakeholders on the vision for learning, or indeed whether a learning intervention is actually needed to solve a problem. This arena is well documented, especially by Cathy Moore e.g. http://blog.cathy-moore.com/2008/05/be-an-elearning-action-hero/

2. Now we have consensus, what’s the essence of the learning?

David Snowden’s Cynefin framework which Jon Husband referenced in his keynote is a helpful catalyst for your thinking as organisations and the context in which they operate becomes ever more VUCA.

If we think of this in terms of what organisations want people to learn, the Cynefin classification broadly implies the following types of learning solutions which I have added into the Learning channels column:

Classification Domain Learning channels
Obvious Best practices Formal: Job aids, self-paced e-learning, business process re-design
Complicated Good practices Formal: Simulations, face to face training
Complex Emergent solutions Informal: social learning
Chaotic Novel solutions Informal: action learning/ task forces
Disorder Move the need into a known domain


Please note that this table is designed in the spirit that there will be plenty of exceptions to the rule!

3. How much learner time is needed?

Implicit in the Cynefin framework is that as the classification moves from Obvious to Disorder it usually takes more time for a learner to learn. Google and microlearning make it easy to suppose that all learning can be consumed in tiny chunks. However, several capabilities take repeated practice, reflection and exposure to new contexts before they can be learned. A long learning pathway for a complicated learning need may have many small learning assets on it, but it still needs to be a long learning pathway in order to work.

The way that the budget and approvals process works in most organisations is that a learning designer is typically presented with a fait accompli e.g. “We’ve got 45 minutes of learner time to get our learners from A to B.” A better conversation would be: “If we need our people to get from A to B, what does the nature of this learning imply in terms of X amount of learner time and YZ approaches to learning?”


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