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Fluid & Focused Learning

Fluid & Focused Learning

A Discipline for a New Era

We are learning all the time, whether we are conscious of it or not.

The dynamics of learning have changed and are changing us, now that the Internet and the Web are a daily presence in our lives. Hyperlinks, platforms, screens and mobile devices mediate a great deal of our social and cultural experience because they are the means by which we acquire information.

In today’s and tomorrow’s new conditions it’s critical that we learn how to learn effectively again, given our personal context, circumstances, cognitive capabilities and objectives. It is necessary and no longer to be ignored. We must adapt, become more flexible, and develop resiliency for a world of perpetual turbulence. Think of a fast-flowing river with a lot of rapids. We now inhabit a world of permanent whitewater (for more on this, see Peter Vaill’s Learning As A Way of Being: Strategies For Survival in a World of Permanent Whitewater).

Most of us over the age of 20 have grown up in an education-and-work system that offered us structured learning in the form of primary, secondary, and postsecondary education. This experience was followed by entry and integration into a highly structured hierarchical workplace. In both settings usually we were provided with what we needed to learn and were generally expected to achieve in terms of using the learning. Because it was text-based, relatively structured and generally stable in terms of a framework for several generations, we had time to absorb, reflect, and be guided by more knowledgeable and/or more experienced people—teachers, supervisors, bosses, and occasionally mentors.

That’s not so much the case anymore. The new interconnected environment is now evolving very rapidly in the era of platforms, feeds, alerts and mobile devices. The use of search engines, databases, and spaces for collaborative exploration and exchange has exploded into our personal and collective world.

We’re transitioning into an era of “conversations” whilst time and space are being altered right in front of us.

Both real-time and asynchronous connection combined with effective technologies for compressing the bits that carry audio and video have enabled inexpensive and effective telepresence. We’re transitioning into an era of “conversations” whilst time and space are being altered right in front of us. It’s during these conversation that we gather and extract useful information and knowledge that lead to insights or understanding or action.

I recently had an interesting collaborative experience. Over lunch in Paris, a fellow and I were bouncing concepts off each other, clicking in rhythm and taking turns drawing animatedly on an electronic screen, a virtual back-of-the-napkin if you will. We were both learning and doing in the moment. Our respective 30-year backgrounds and trust “underneath” our conversation aided in this process, of course. Following the conversation, we agreed to carry on using Google Drive and scheduled telepresence meetings. We are writing an article together concerning our learnings about emergent organizational structure, using social media tools and the electronic and interconnected capabilities the Web offers for both synchronous and asynchronous collaboration.

Clearly the capabilities offered by these new tools and the conditions they generate are having deep impact upon how, why, where, and when we learn. I think it’s “how” we learn that is the most important focus or issue for these early days of a new set of conditions rapidly becoming ubiquitous. The flows of information enabled by interconnected technology and people typically involve exchanges of interest and pertinence to the activity at hand. But they must be understood and tamed by us in order to learn in useful and practical ways. This requires discipline.

In contrast to yesteryear, quite often the time available to learn has been affected in important ways. Does this help or hinder how we learn? Is it an obstacle, or just a condition to which we must systematically adapt through awareness and a shift in our frame of reference about learning?

We are often hired for what we have already learned. However it is increasingly just as important to be able to demonstrate that we have learned how to learn. In an environment full of continuous information flows coming from a range of connected colleagues and stakeholders, more and more often we face a need to learn quickly. We need to be able to assess the context and issue(s) in near real time, instantly tap into what we already know or connect with someone whom we know knows what to do, and then interact and exchange with others also focused on the issue. Some kinds of learning still take time, reflection, and discipline, of course; learning a language, a musical instrument, how to work on an engine, master a craft, and so on.

We are often hired for what we have already learned. However it is increasingly just as important to be able to demonstrate that we have learned how to learn.

Reflecting on the conditions and examples offered, how do we carry out these different forms and rhythms of learning? How can we learn from relationships that build over time, learn rapidly in near real-time when the pressure is on, and take the time, reflection, and practice to learn something useful that is unlearnable otherwise?

Answering the question “how” implies we must become more adept at making clear and conscious distinctions about when and how to engage in:

  • Responding quickly by tapping into known and existing pertinent knowledge we can call up with a click or two (databases, other people or other points of reference).
  • Identifying and signalling (to others) that some time is needed to stop, think, and figure things out.
  • Clarifying that something underway or in discussion needs to be “moved to the side” for further discussion and deeper learning before being pulled into the discussion or resolution of an issue.

Over and above these decisions any individual must make, a core skill is the ability to ask good questions in non-intimidating ways, listen effectively, and always seek to be helpful and of use. It is also critically important to know and understand how one learns and how to employ filters to help decide when and how to learn. The emerging field of digital literacy combined with PKM (Personal Knowledge Management) are very useful enablers of more effective personal learning strategies and tactics.

A core skill is the ability to ask good questions in non-intimidating ways, listen effectively, and always seek to be helpful and of use.

In the social networks and hyperlink-saturated workplaces we now inhabit, clarification, confirmation, and collaboration are but a click or two away. It is mission-critical for individuals, groups, and organizations to be able to discern what kind(s) of personal learning strategies are necessary to survive and thrive in our new world of permanent information whitewater.

There just isn’t any choice other than continuous learning because ongoing change is our only remaining constant.



A version of this article was published in Inside Learning Technologies & Skills.

Jon Husband

Jon Husband is a researcher, consultant, author and speaker and for 2013, techno-anthropologist in residence at Montreal’s Society for Arts & Technology (SAT). He spent 20-plus years as an organizational effectiveness consultant for a global HR consulting firm, and since then has freelanced mainly as an organizational development (OD) and change strategist and facilitator. Husband created the concept of wirearchy, an emergent organizing principle for the networked era, and is the co-author of three books: Wirearchy – Sketches for the Future of Work; Making Knowledge Work -The Arrival of Web 2.0 (2007) and La Société Émergente du XXIe Siècle (2010). He is recognized globally as a knowledgeable and provocative voice on the issues facing the connected workplace and society of the near future.