Who in your organization is responsible for generating new knowledge? Normally it’s the white-collar professionals spread across the middle of the organization. Let me ask another question: Do these people need any help? Since the training department is usually tasked with passing on what is known to employees, I suggest that we play a role in helping employees create new knowledge.
By new knowledge I ’m not talking about coming up with a new theory of quantum physics; I’m talking about the things that are already happening around us such as improving processes, finding new ways to engage customers, gaining new insights and reducing risk. As professionals, we do these things all the time, so I suggest that we provide support for this inventiveness. Here’s how to do it.
Practical ways to create new knowledge
I can imagine two situations when the training function might want a program to create new knowledge.
- Situation #1: As an add-on to traditional training to encourage employees to expand on what they learned and adapt it to their own circumstances.
- Situation #2: When there is a genuinely novel problem that the organization wants to address and it would be useful to have a process to facilitate new knowledge creation.
The first case is easily done; it could fit nicely into any blended learning program. The latter case would involve a slightly re-framed mandate for the learning function, one where its mission genuinely is to facilitate learning, rather than facilitate course delivery. We’ll touch on the mandate later; first, we need to consider what it takes to develop new knowledge.
It’ s an unfortunate side effect of grade school education that we often believe knowledge is something that has to be passed on to us, not something we can readily create ourselves. Luckily, it’s not hard to build an environment where learners can create new knowledge. Here are some of the tools:
- Mix different knowledge sets: A chemist will see different solutions to a problem than an engineer; a marketer will propose ideas that would never occur to a finance professional; and someone from Silicon Valley will have a different perspective than a New Yorker. When you mix different knowledge sets, all of the ingredients are present to create new knowledge.
- Reflection: New knowledge often arises when people are finally given a break from the daily work and can enjoy a chance to reflect. Isaac Asimov said great scientific insights start with the phrase, “That’s funny,” followed by a chance to ponder the oddity. When people are given a chance to sit with their own thoughts or go for a walk with their own thoughts, they often generate new knowledge . They need the chance to get the feeling that something is odd or some things are connected or there is some kind of pattern and mull it over so it coalesces.
- Conversation: Conversation can sit at the heart of knowledge creation. It’s a great companion to reflection and the vessel in which to mix different knowledge sets. A tip to remember is that if you have more than three or four people around the table, it’s probably a series of monologues, not a real conversation.
- Experimentation. We often talk about the value of “learning by doing” and the same dynamics exist for creating new knowledge. If you want to learn more about what motivates employees, what appeals to customers or what would make a process faster, then the best route is often experimentation.
Bringing these techniques into a learning program
The great thing about the four techniques we’ve outlined above for generating learning is that at least three out of the four are easy to add to most learning programs. In addition to whatever new ideas the participants come up with, this approach gives employees the mission of extending what they’ve learned, rather than leaving them with the idea that absorbing the prescribed content is enough.
Tip: If asking participants to “create new learning” is daunting for a group, then position it as adapting the learning to their own circumstances or looking for parallels between the course content and other things they’ve learned.
Use these techniques to support a specific initiative
When the organization has a problem to solve, it may pull together a project team, hire a consultant or simply trust an employee to figure it out. Imagine how helpful it would be if managers could call in a facilitator from the training department who knew how to accelerate the generation of new knowledge.
A better mandate for the 21st century learning function
Perhaps once upon a time, it was safe to say, “We know what to do, we’ll teach you.” In that world, the training function’s mandate could be passing existing knowledge to employees. In today’s world, that mandate seems too narrow. We need to power up employees to generate new learning and that could be part of the mandate of the learning function.
If we think the mission of the learning function is to create a learning culture, then offering learning facilitation outside the confines of a traditional training course seems like a natural thing to do.