The end of experience?

Posted on October 30, 2009


That someone can honestly be quoted as saying “Staff don’t need to retain information any more, they just need to go somewhere where they can reference it” is perhaps one of the most horrifying sentences I have yet come across in the world of employment and education. 

Staff don’t need to retain information any more, they just need to go somewhere where they can reference it

The culprit?  Nick Shackleton-Jones, the BBC’s “online and informal learning manager”.

His point is that staff respond better when learning is informal and peer to peer than they do by attending top-down training courses.  In that notion itself, I have my doubts.

Formalizing anything lends it a certain cachet and value.  Naturally, boring, poorly executed courses and a focus on training rather than development will quickly erode that for attendees, but well-constructed, involving and relevant courses will not, as Shackleton-Jones suggests, die out in place of an all company YouTube-type learning experience.

There are several major issues in developing a learning system merely based on reference which come up time and again when accessing large websites, designed to deliver any kind of advice and guidance.

  1. The first is how do I know what is relevant and useful to me?  Without guidance from a manager/trainer it’s often difficult for self-learners to know what to concentrate on and attention can easily wander (wikipedia, anyone?)
  2. If all the BBC is interested in is people knowing where to go to find information, those people will never themselves be of any more use on a project than a librarian.  Using information effectively requires people to understand what they have come across previously and build on it.  To suggest that staff don’t need to retain it is suggesting the end of experience…
  3. Moreover, the void will be created, and then filled by those capable of learning, retaining and, by extrapolation, teaching and sharing.  The power will be with those capable of generating materials based on their store of knowledge.

I agree that businesses will not be able to share knowledge effectively through an over-reliance on formal training (especially external) and would wholeheartedly applaud the move to the informal learning environment.  But I would argue strongly that the benefits in this approach lie firmly in encouraging the creation of content and teaching of colleagues, not merely in the ubiquitous dissemination and passive consumption of it.