The need for “lifelong learning” in the context of a world in which the only constant is ambiguous change cannot be understated. The term itself has many interpretations and most of them refer to the need for individuals to constantly seek to keep themselves abreast of the changes and pick up new skills either through formal or informal means. Needless to say, this is a major focus area for thought leaders and policy makers in all economies and in many ways an “industry” by itself.
When looking at the business of training as a high growth industry, it is worth reflecting on some of the learnings from other industries to ensure that we get it right when it comes to the industry of lifelong learning. Specifically, I would argue for the need to consider the principles of “Lean” in the context of Learning - and especially adult learners.
What is Lean?
The basic principle of “Lean” is to focus on “Value Addition” by eliminating all kinds of “Waste” and making “Continual Improvement” along the way and all this by ensuring "Respect to People". There are of course, several supporting tools and approaches to make this happen and each of them can be independent topics of interest by themselves.
“Waste” in learning?
Traditionalists will dismiss as blasphemous the thought of looking at any form of learning as a waste. However, if we objectively look at the way training happens today, there are many “hidden” wastes that we conveniently choose to ignore. A few that I can think of in the context of formal training / education.
What would a Lean Transformation in Lifelong Learning look like?
Lean Enterprises Institute Inc. the non-profit institution founded by Jim Womack to promote Lean Thinking has done pioneering work on the subject of Lean Transformation.
As shown in the image below, there are a series of questions one would need to ask while pursuing a lean transformation journey.
In the context of “Lifelong Learning” here is my overarching take on how a Lean Transformation could play out:
Learning with a Purpose:
With the advent of connectivity and smartphones there is really no dearth of content – whether it be MOOC’s or Formal classroom training or e-Learning. The avenues to learn however result in a situation where lifelong learning ends up being a rush for addition of more credentials and not always followed up with “practice” that can eventually lead to “mastery”.
In other words, it is just lifelong learning – and no doing!
When seen with a Lean lens, this represents one of the wastes “Non-Utilized Talent”. Over time, the talent also fades because of lack of practice.A Lean approach towards this would be to follow a more nuanced approach towards learning and one that allows for the learner to be in a position to deploy that knowledge in practice.
A blended approach towards theory and practice adopted by skill development initiatives such as Germany’s famed apprentice program provides evidence that learning with a purpose results in more meaningful outcomes. This aligns perfectly with the lean concept of “Learning by Doing”.
From Push Learning to Pull Learning:
Conventional training makes an assumption that the trainer / organization knows best what the learners need and therefore “Push” learning to the learners. It is therefore no surprise that typically a “Learning Management System” (LMS) forms the centrepiece of an organization’s Learning and Development initiative. An LMS may just be the perfect solution for situations where organizations need to demonstrate compliance to a specific requirement and tick off a box to evidence this. It is questionable though if the learners have any real interest in the materials that are pushed down their way.
A transformed approach would be one where it is learners who “Pull” knowledge when required, from wherever they find it most appropriate and in the right quantum. The knowledge source could be anything that makes sense to the person needing the knowledge and can range from formal training to internet search to peer group interaction to mentors or a combination of some of these. “Pull” knowledge is typically needed at a workplace and is therefore used for the purpose of doing rather than just learning and is thus stickier than a theoretical training approach.
Lean practitioners would associate this with the waste “Overproduction” where processing takes place because the capacity and resources exist – and not because there is a demand or “pull” from the customer.
While the Purpose may be obvious and the right Process is in place, it becomes important to ensure that People in the value chain are clear about the expectation from the process and its ability to meet the customer (in this case the learner’s) need.
Is that really happening?
Traditional learning is centered around training content and the ensuring that the same content is consistently rolled out to all learners. Lean Transformation would result in a shift towards a learner centric approach where the learner preferences decide how the content is consumed.
Practically this would mean:
Rather than measuring the effectiveness of the training program xAPI can help in measuring the effectiveness of the learning in real life. Such an outcome-based measurement approach leading to changes in the process would find place in any good Lean deployment.
As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution with the advent of Robots and Artificial Intelligence, one thing humans rightfully worry about is their ability to be gainfully employed and survive in the midst of such changes. Undoubtedly “Lifelong Learning” is going to be an absolute necessity for survival.
Lifelong Learning, however, does not mean the pursuit of purposeless training or paper qualifications. Lifelong Learning is about the purposeful acquisition of knowledge and gradually building upon it; be it through self-study, application within the workplace, interaction with other learners, experts and co-workers- leading to gradual and eventual mastery. It’s not just about Lifelong Learning. It is about Lifelong Learning and Doing.
The application of Lean principles in other industries provides us an opportunity to reflect on some of the practices currently underway in the Learning Industry that have arguably been sub-optimal. “Lean Learning” has potential to change the way we look at learning and put humanity on the path towards increased prosperity and thrive in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
My team and I at AcuiZen are constantly in pursuit of our mission to “enable people with intelligence” and are firm believers in the need for a Lean approach towards Learning & Development. We would truly appreciate and encourage your feedback and thoughts on this subject.
Special thanks to John Hamalian, Southeast Asia Representative of Lean Global Network for his review of this blog and suggested edits.