In part 1 of this series, I wrote how the field of Learning and Development* (L&D) hasn’t really changed much over the last decade, despite substantial changes in the workplace. Part 2 addressed how even more changes are coming to the workplace, with or without L&D as a partner, as organizations move to cloud-based infrastructures. When an organization’s data, information, platforms, and services are housed in the cloud and outside the corporate firewall, employees have more facile access to their information and will be more free to work at times and places of their choosing.

In this final installment of this Learning and the Changing Workplace series, I address what I see as the most compelling reason for L&D needs to change the way we work, augmenting or even replacing traditional methods with more responsive and effective approaches in the evolved work environment.

The nature of how workers interact and network will change with adoption of collaborative cloud-based applications

Organizations aren’t just migrating infrastructures and legacy platforms to the cloud. Many are also abandoning workstation-based software suites in favor of cloud-based collaboration platforms such as Google Docs, Microsoft Office 365, and IBM SmartCloud. With these platforms, documents aren’t only sharable, they’re surrounded by a variety of social tools that enable both real-time and asynchronous collaboration. As was the case with email, workers will increasingly use these social tools because they’re an integral part of work and in the flow of work. It stands to reason that these tools, new to many workplaces, will also be used for the social and cooperative aspects of work, and they will begin to connect workers in ways traditional workplace social tools like email couldn’t.

Illustration of both the hierarchical workplace network and the public network from the perspective of a single connected worker, who is effectively a node on both networks.

Illustration of both the hierarchical workplace network and the public network from the perspective of a single connected worker, who is effectively a node on both networks.

This can have a profound effect on the nature of the workplace network. I wrote before how the connected worker brings tremendous knowledge into the organization, acting as a gateway between workplace networks and public knowledge networks. Unlike hierarchical relationships at work, public networks don’t preexist. The platform and it’s millions of users exist, but network connections are made by individuals, relationship by relationship. Where the workplace network is based on authority, the public network is characterized by influence. This network is social, cooperative, and increasingly mobile (See Harold Jarche’s “Social, Cooperative, Mobile” here). Where the workplace network is clearly finite (a glance at the workplace network diagram, known as the organization chart, confirms this), the public network “feels” infinite from the perspective of the individual. He or she can reach virtually any other person on the global network through a series of connections with others.

In stark contrast, traditional workplace networks are hierarchical, shaped by organizational roles and responsibilities, and characterized by authority and delegation (solid lines in the diagram above). Managers set work assignments and establish relationships with subordinates. Those relationships may vary from individual to individual, but the hierarchy preexists the relationship; it’s established a priori to manage the work of the organization. Individuals have roles within their sub-organization, which in turn have roles within the larger organization. Social and cooperative network connections (dotted lines in the diagram above) also exist in the workplace, established by individuals who network with others, both inside and outside of hierarchical boundaries.

With increased use of internal social tools, social connections become stronger and networks grow, simply because the tools make staying connected easier. Wirearchies will result, even if unplanned.

Workplace Network Evolved

Strong social ties, supported by social tools in the flow of work, stimulate the evolution of the workplace network so it more closely mirrors the public network.

If we look at the workplace network along its social connections, the structure looks very much like the public network. If we then consider how we develop and sustain relationships with social tools, it stands to reason that workplace social connections will grow stronger as they’e supported by social tools in the flow of work. More work will flow along the non-hierarchical lines, and the workplace will begin to mirror the public network, effectively a wirearchy as espoused by Jon Husband. It will become social, cooperative, and–with workplace connections in the cloud–increasingly mobile.

This evolution will also lead to new paths for informal learning, today enjoyed by those who engage in external knowledge networks. The traditional role of learning and development will need to fundamentally change to embrace and support it. Failing to recognize these changes, and doing something about it, will only lead to further marginalization of the traditional learning and development function.

So the question remains, what are we in our industry doing about this? How can we evolve to become more of a business partner, more in the flow of work? Each individual and organization needs to answer these questions themselves, but Jane Hart seems to have a good pulse on guidance and actions to take. I’d recommend these as a starting point:

*Learning and Development, Learning and Performance, Training and Development, etc.

Thanks for reading!


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