Enabling Self-Learning at Work

I recently had a chance to present briefly at the Haystack Connect conference with my mentor Ken Sinclair on the topic of ‘Attracting Self-Learning Assets’ or ‘How do we attract staff that will teach themselves what they need to know?’ Ken asked for my input as the learning manager of a building automation technology consulting firm, SES Consulting.  A team of twenty six, we are mostly millenials, with half having been hired over the past three years.   We also operate in a field in which the technological landscape shifts constantly. These circumstances present a set of challenges which need to be addressed for the long-term success of the company:

  1. Training accounts for a large part of overhead, presenting significant financial burden
  2. There is a lack of established mentors to teach newer staff one to one
  3. Classroom type ‘institutional’ training is unfeasible for the volume of new info entering our knowledge base.
  4. There is very little specific academic training for our industry

In addressing these challenges, I’d like to counter Ken’s idea that we need to attract self-learning individuals. This pre-supposes that there is any other type of person, and my experiences as an engineer, and as a father, is that no-one is without the innate curiosity and passion necessary to learn new things on their own.  One only has to look at Youtube, Wikipedia, Instructables, or Tindie to see that not only are we teaching ourselves new skills, but we are actively collaborating to create content that will allow others to do the same. I would like to re-phrase Ken’s question as ‘How do we switch on self-learning at work?’.  It is with this question in mind that I have approached the newly formed role of learning manager at SES.

What is a learning manager?

It is the self-designated mandate of the SES Learning team to ‘Create a culture of continuous and collaborative learning for all employees.’  Intentionally loose, this mandate has allowed for experimentation in techniques and tools and has led to the idea that it is the role of the learning manager to align learning opportunities with the specific interests and learning styles of team members. Learning Opportunities (1) While this may seem straightforward, it is something of a departure from the  one-size-fits-all institutional approach to learning.  Traditionally, if a company wanted its team members to know something, we would get a trainer, set up a session, and administer the training. Sometimes we would point them towards a written resource in a library, digitial or otherwise. With the breadth of information that we need to know as consultants, this approach becomes cumbersome both from a time and finance perspective.  These constraints have led to the idea that learning at SES had begun to move from institutional to collaborative in nature. If you’ve got some time, I’d suggest watching to Clay Shirky’s talk on this type of shift.

To poorly paraphrase Shirky, web-based technology has allowed for fundamental shift in the way content is aggregated and consumed.  Low-cost, participatory, platforms make it possible to create collaborative resources of much larger scope than was previously possible. The nature of these resources has also fundamentally changed the way that we interact with them.  Our collective prowess at Googling is converging with sophisticated algorithms to enable us to access and action information in real-time. What’s often missing from these resources is the knowledge that the information has been vetted by a trusted professional and is appropriate for the conditions at hand.  This is the challenge on which the SES Learning Team has focused the majority of its time to date, the creation of a resource base that emulates and interacts with the internet at large, that is curated for the highly specialized applications of the company.

Curate learning opportunities

The low barrier to entry for content creation has led to a glut of information on any topic imaginable.  The challenge of drawing useful information out of the cloud and into an internal resource base is far from solved, but at SES we are experimenting with a variety of tools to work through it.

Internal Wiki

The advent of wikipedia marked a fundamental shift in the creation and management of factual content.  An example of Shirky’s collaborative organization, users can generate content which is vetted by other users for accuracy.  At the time of writing there are 35 million wikipedia pages in 277 languages.  All of this content is hosted for free, and managed by an organization with only 250 paid staff and over 4000 volunteer administrators. In a great piece of foresight, one of SES’ early team members, Autumn Umanetz, set up an internal wiki for SES staff using a platform called dokuwiki. Accessible to everyone at SES, all team members can create and edit wiki pages on any topic they choose.  This allows us to create content specific to technical and internal challenges at the company, and the wiki acts as a centralized location for staff to look for answers.  A common phrase at SES is ‘have you checked the wiki?’ Managing a wiki also presents some challenges.  Wikis are messy.  Without content control and validation the trustworthiness and thus the usefulness of the resource is diminished.  While wikipedia manages this through its teams of volunteer administrators, SES must rely on the the accountability of staff to one another to make the resource work.  And it works.  The platform is far from perfect, but its useful, and when developing collaborative resources rough edges are inevitable. As the core resources are used, they are refined through the experience of the users, allowing for continuous and collaborative improvements.  The wiki occasionally benefits from pruning, where under-used resources are either removed, or slated for improvement. Ultimately, it is the intention of the Learning team to use the wiki as the central platform to converge the combined knowledge and experience of staff members.

File repository

As is common for most companies, SES also has a repository of digital files containing resource information.  This familiar interface allows users to easily compile pdfs, photos, excel models, word documents, and other useful resources. In the past, this information has often become messy and presents a challenge to users to find the information that they need.  In order to manage this, the Learning Team and SES IT department are working on a method to mirror all of the resource repository content on the wiki so that it is indexed and searchable alongside all of the user generated wiki content.

Project Information Database

SES deals in energy efficiency projects, many of them repeated frequently.   One of our resident IT gurus, Rob Baxter, has created a searchable database of information from previous projects.  The Learning Team intends to explore ways to also link this information to the wiki.

Google Groups

Google apps allows the creation of internal email groups for discussing specific topics.  One example of this is tech-chat, where members can ask one another technical questions related to the projects they are working on.

Youtube

SES’ youtube channel is a convenient place to compile useful video resources for future reference, as well as upload content recorded at the company.  All team members are able to upload and curate content on the site.

RSS Feeds

A recent experiment for SES, the Learning Team has set up a number of Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds to automatically bring information to the wiki.  Content includes news and journal articles, new training courses, internal research and development opportunities, and Youtube channel updates.  Team members are also able to sign up to receive this information directly to their inbox, via MailChimp.

#Slack

Another experiment in progress, team members at SES have been playing around with #Slack as a means to discuss internal happenings at SES.  The free service allows us to create specific channels to post useful information and host discussions.  If successful, the learning team will also work on automatically compiling important discussions as content on the wiki.

A common search box

A common theme across all of these resources is searchability.  When information becomes separated from the main body of knowledge, it quickly becomes stale and may not be accessible on-demand.  The SES learning team is working to automatically consolidate all incoming resources on the wiki, such that any piece of background information is only a search box away.

Adapt to the learner’s style

In our industry, we tend to present most information in text format, without much regard for the preferred style of the learner.  One effort of the Learning Team has been to incorporate video resources into our knowledge base to accompany text information.  Youtube is a fantastic resource for learning material, and can often provide more concise information than text.  We also try to encourage 1:1 learning as often as possible for those who learn best through interaction.

One way to determine what learning staff may prefer is to use a VARK questionnaire.

Align opportunity with interest

In order to get the most out of training budgets, it’s also important that SES align the many learning opportunities with the interest of the learner.  In the case of seminars or conferences, employees are encouraged to peruse the incoming feed of events and put in an application with the learning team to have their time and expenses covered in exchange for clearly defined deliverables.  This is built to ensure that learners are motivated to seek out events that they are most interested in.

For company directed training, it may also be useful to build a skills and interest database in order to target training to the area of greatest effect.  Skills Base is an example of low cost software for determining where employees skills and interests lie.

Have a fantastic team

None of this would be possible without the fantastic, enthusiastic, and engaged group at SES. I’d like to thank them all for their contributions and support.

For more, check out this video made at the event

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