Knowledge Acquisition? Skill Develop? Go COP

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Routines. We all have them. It may be as simple as drinking coffee each morning, watching the news. Perhaps, it is having tea, reading the latest news on the Internet or in the newspaper. We can’t seem to break this routine. We may try to mix it up, and there are days where we can’t maintain our routine due to other commitments, but we really would prefer to follow our routine.

It’s simple, you know. It makes our day; we do not feel “alive,” if you will, without our routine. At work, whether you are 100% working from home, or about to go hybrid, or are 100% in the office, you likely follow a routine. Sure, you will have Zoom or similar types of meetings. You have work to do, but you may take lunch every day at a certain time. Back when everyone was in the office, you probably went over to the common area at a certain time. I remember my dad, years ago, telling me to have a routine before I started work. First, get a cup of coffee. Next, read the newspaper, then start the day.

It was comforting, to be all honest. Even now, I follow that same routine. I get a cup of coffee, drink a glass of water, and read the news, now through via the NY Times app or WSJ app. Then, I’m ready for the day.

I bring all of this up, because in the L&D and Training communities too many people follow a routine when it comes to learning and training. It’s a routine that we all have been through, over and over and over again. For some of us, more than 20 years. It is ingrained in us. We can’t shake it, we are told this is the way to learn, this is the way to retain, this is the way to recall, this is the way to participate.

What if though, it isn’t? What if we have been trained to think and follow a method that isn’t as effective as they have told us – in school, in research, in studies after studies? What if that method works only for this group, but not that group? What if people learn differently or retain knowledge differently?

Synchronous-based learning is what I am referring to here. We all have followed this modality since we entered first grade. For those who went on to grad school, the modality stayed the same. Sure, at grad level, you get projects or do quite a few independent studies with minimal interaction, or even a thesis, and at the doctorate level, a dissertation.

In a way it is unstructured.

Breaking free is one way to perceive it, and it also points to something that identifies whether or not you will like and succeed in e-learning. If you are truly an independent learner, you will prosper with e-learning. If you are not and thus prefer a structured approach, you will not.

This isn’t only about courses/content, but the entire process, from comprehension, retention, and synthesis, which can be applied in many ways with whatever learning system you are using or will. Actually, scratch one part of that – “whatever learning system,” because if your system follows or utilizes heavily Synchronous based learning, those two items, retention, and synthesis, won’t happen.

I’m not focused here on content/courses, solely here. I’m talking about knowledge acquisition, retention of said knowledge, synthesis of said knowledge, embracing and engaging in a whole new way with that knowledge, and then expounding it with real-life experiences and scenarios.

SBL (Synchronous-based learning) won’t’ make all this happen, it is inherently devised not to, but a COP, especially one that incorporates a Landscape approach, can.

Before diving into the newest version of COPs and how to tap them for this knowledge growth, one must understand what exactly is SBL, because I have found many vendors who use it, state it, yet actually do not know it. I’ve seen companies who some in the L&D and Training folks, embrace it as though this is the best way to learn.

What really is Synchronous Based Learning (SBL)?

When looking at SBL, you must focus on it from e-learning, online learning perspective. This is simply due to the fact, that we are talking about it from that mechanism.

The basics of SBL are as follow

  • The learner follows a structured path – think school – if you are in college, you receive a syllabus, topics, and subjects to be covered. There is no delineation. EdTech uses SBL; it is their main method of learning.
  • The content is static, in other words, dry paint. Engagement is minimal, if at all.
  • The learner is controlled. They learn at the instructor’s pace; they are often handed assignments that they must follow to a T. There are no exceptions.
  • Depending on the “class,” they may have due dates. If they need to turn in an assignment, is it a rigid process with due dates.
  • It follows the ILT methodology of being in the school/college classroom – the only difference is online.

If you are using a SBL focused system, some other items you will find include

  • Discussion board. You submit your thoughts, ideas, materials on the board. Then others read it and have to respond. Depending on the method, they may have to respond beyond “yes, this is great.” The instructor is supposed to review each discussion thread and respond. Often that isn’t the case.
  • Forum – Another way to encourage and supposedly foster knowledge and learning. Ignores true group communication dynamics. Participation is often “forced” under the guise of “encouraged.” Eventually, the same folks, the heavy users, will utilize it; others won’t. Everyone is placed in it – all the students because it is tied to that specific subject.

Re-active is in play here. Pro-active? Nope. 100% Participation – well, even forced, won’t get you long-term participation. I mean, we all are required to have PE in school, and everyone had to participate, even if they didn’t want to. Those that were not good in PE, will often be seen as ‘less than’ compared to others. I’m sure we can always recall certain kids being picked at the bottom, the last selections, for a specific reason – they were not good in that activity. If your school/college offers group activities, and students can pick teams, you will see the same mode – the smart kids are picked first, the kids who are middle of the road in the subject, second tier, the ones perceived as not knowing the subject or disliked – picked last.

That’s participation? That’s ensuring engagement? That is aspiring everyone to embrace?

SBL follows this mantra, sure it is not PE nor picking a team for a subject, but it relies on this notion that participation and retention are intertwined, and having an assigned only modality, works the best.

Adults want WIFM – What’s in it for them. They want real-life, real-world and scenarios. They want to communicate with others who are just like them. If they are working in a specific job role, they want to learn and acquire knowledge from those who truly understand what they are dealing with and are aligned. They do not want to be pushed into a one group fits all approach.

COPs – Communities of Practice

The use of COPs in the corporate space isn’t new.

Communities of practice started to appear as both standalone systems an within a system in the early 2000s.

By the mid 2000s COPs began to disappear in the industry. 

What replaced them was a different take in other words it was about having a community within itself.

The typical MO was having a community tide to the entire system or to a group say employees in this division versus employees in that division or to a piece of content slash course or a learning path.

Knowledge sharing varied based on the level of interest and engagement by the group members.

Discussion boards, forums and text chat were common.

If you look at a system today, this approach to a COP is widely used. 

Fine you might say, it works for us. 

But how well does it work for your learners? Some will be more engaged than others, some will start strong then fade, or if you make it required and moderate it, you get people involved who are more indifferent.

A Community is best when?

The current COP in the majority of systems, sees the system and all its functionalities as the core, with a COP being just one of those capabilities. It is a part of it, you go there for this or that, but nothing per se is really driven from that.

It reminds me in a way, of a group chat. You go into a chat room, communicate with one another, maybe share materials, maybe not. Then you go elsewhere.

It’s fine, but it is not a ferocious beast of knowledge acquisition, sharing, and expansion in the workplace, or even among your customers or members.

What if though?

What if the COP was the main component of the system with everything driven from within it. The learner logs in and goes right into their community. Playlists are found within that community. They still can pick content, whether it is a catalog for all or specific to that community. Learning paths, assigned to this or that group, social, gamification, everything that exists is within that community.

Vendors often espouse higher engagement around communities in a system, and I always found mixed results. Yes, as with anything, a COP is only as good as how the client, whoever is running the system – i.e., in L&D, Training, HR, etc. – is using it and supporting their own employees, customers, members, and so on.

Fuse is one such vendor that follows the above; everything is wrapped within the communities. I readily admit I had concerns on whether not this could be effective in the long run. There is no doubt that coming into a new workplace model, Hybrid or staying all remote, will be effective. Frontline workers can benefit. Blue-collar too. That is an additional plus because so many systems seem to ignore them and force them to align to how the system is built, to begin with, and capabilities.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with multiple vendors, each of whom mentioned Fuse and their community-first approach. Each of them was trying to figure out a way to utilize that with their system without having to rebuild the UI.

That is a definite change, and identifies to me, that other vendors are taking notice. When vendors start to take notice, then things really start to get going.

Let’s say you are not ready to redo your UI/UX whereas folks rumble first into their communities and then tap into everything the system has to offer.

You can still establish this level of communities, right off the main home learner page. From there, you are now offering your learners a journey of discovery.

Landscape COP

What people are not aware of even with the COP space, is that you can have different types of COPs. One such is Landscape.

Blue Volt offers a “network” for all its clients. This network is knowledge acquisition, expansion, and tapping into each other’s expertise. Every client on the Blue Volt system (not the end-users) can be within this ‘community of practice.’ It goes across all boundaries.

Data supports COPs

Multiple studies and research conducted in the last three years, specifically looking at the workplace and adults find that a COP has the potential to improve organizational performance. On top of that, COPs facilitate knowledge sharing among members in an effective manner.

COPs work when the members are similar to one another; however, there have been cases where a combination of new employees with experience employees showed a positive outcome. For example, one study found that firefighters consisting of new and experienced, using a COP, learned from each other.

Another study that appeared in the Journal of Workplace Learning found that “from an individual perspective, communities could be beneficial in developing professional skills, a stronger sense of identity, and finding of continuity even during discontinuity and change. ” (Manuti, A. et al. “Managing Social and Human Capital in Organizations: Communities of Practices as Strategic Tools for Individual and Organizational Development.” Journal of Workplace Learning 29 (2017): 217-234.)

Think about that.

What is coming in the workplace? Post-COVID? Change. Discontinuity with some workers at home, others in the office. Change definitely will take place, even more so, and while everyone will state that like change (especially when asked during an interview), reality says that isn’t the case.

With a COP, you could go in a lot of ways, from a mix of employees in the workplace, and those out of the workplace OR perhaps those who go into the office in one community to start, and those who work from home in another community to start.

COP Choices

Let’s go radical here. Content playlists are everywhere, but show me a community playlist? One that is based on the learner’s interests, job role, skills, and other variables? Over time, an algorithm could recommend other community playlists that align even further, and even within the community themselves, with AI scanning including contextual, the entire process within the community, not just the content alone, is pushed and delivered.

What if?

George works in marketing. He likes soccer and is interested in learning skills around graphics tied to a new software product. His role is marketing assistant, but he dreams one day of being a manager.

When George logs into the system he immediately goes into the general community. Everything can be done within the community, content, validations, scenarios, plus the true power of COP, tapping into the growth of professional, and job specific skills, along with personal development.

He sees a community catalog and looks at other communities he can join (or he is assigned them, plus he can join on his own). Within your system, he can join a community for soccer (after all it is other employees/customers who like soccer), he also joins a community for Photoshop with newbies and advanced, whereas within the community, learns from one another.

What you then have is a network of learning, knowledge acquistion that can tap into gamification, exploration, journeys and more. The days of “well, they never returned to my system,” starts to disappear, because they want that level of engagement. Content still exists, tied to personal and professional development for the various communities, sans the one that is of interest like soccer (in this example).

If I work frontline at a restaurant, I am in a community with folks who are just like me, at restaurants.

Now, you are thinking, is he talking about every client on the system, allowing their employees to intermingle with other employees from other clients in these types of communities?

Yes and No. You have the option (assuming your system offers it) to do this – and some vendors already offer this when it comes to content – and recommended or most popular. However, that said, this would be first and primary for your own employees, work staff, etc. – within your company, organization, etc.

It is a bit different for customers because the George scenario is the one you will follow, customers aligning to other customers, a community of advanced users of a software solution, or partners new and partners established. Communities around members and all those engaging, knowledge sharing, exploration, and empowerment are in full swing.

In all of the above, you do not have to rebuild your UI/UX from the standpoint of going immediately into a community approach, as Fuse does, rather you can adopt the above in some manner.

Bottom Line

There will be plenty who disagree about the effectiveness of a COP. There will be plenty who feel that SBL is still vastly superior or even slightly better than a COP. Then, you will have those espousing EdTech as proof that SBL works well.

And yes, you will have those who want both.

For those folks, absolutely is the choice here. After all, today, many learning systems have classroom management for ILT, vILT capabilities and feature sets, the ability to follow a linear approach with content/courses, and all the key elements and items you need for your SBL experience.

In fact, they are likely to have some type of a community or multiple communities.

But they are not fully integrated. Both are parts of the entire system.

Separate

Not Equal.

E-Learning 24/7

Bibliography

Brooks, James, et al. “Rethinking Situated Learning: Participation and Communities of Practice in the UK Fire and Rescue Service.” Work, Employment and Society, vol. 34, no. 6, Dec. 2020, pp. 1045–1061, doi:10.1177/0950017020913225.

Kasemsap, Kijpokin. (2016). Utilizing Communities of Practice to Facilitate Knowledge Sharing in the Digital Age. 10.4018/978-1-5225-0013-1.ch011.

Manuti, A. et al. “Managing Social and Human Capital in Organizations: Communities of Practices as Strategic Tools for Individual and Organizational Development.” Journal of Workplace Learning 29 (2017): 217-234.

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