Friday, 25 September 2009

Where is lifelong learning?

I've come to the conclusion recently that we're in the perfect age to implement lifelong learning yet it's unlikely to happen for many years if it happens at all.

The reason?

Mainly it's because we all, or most of us, have to work. In my professional experience I've found that learning. R&D and personal development are completely ignored in terms of getting the job doing. They are viewed as costs to the company providing few if any benefits.

That's how managers seem to see things. Yet managers are rarely doers. They rarely have to get the job done and deliver the goods on time, on spec and all that. Thy normally get someone else to do it.

I'm a doer. The one who actually has to deliver something to the customer given a spec, timescale and budget generally agreed by someone else. Yep. As funny as it is it's rarely the person doing the work who get's to determine its cost. The result is often, not enoguh time to deliver the product. Mainly because too many aspects and features that you've never delivered before. Or at least never delivered with the current toolset.

When you already know the answers it's easier to figure out the cost. When you don't you can't and you're likely to take longer than expected and deliver products with little usability.

My experience, given this situation, is that everything that I develop comes first from my self directed study. That time where I just follow my passions and intreigue. Search out the experts, learn from their work and apply it to personal projects and better myself. It's the application of this knowledge in my own works that teaches me the most. It's where I get my experience. It's where I get my answers for work based problems. Very rarely is the other way around.

So in essence I can deliver against crazy deadlines and keep customers happy all because ii do a lot of development in my personal time. Or atleast I did. I don't anymore. Don't get me wrong. I'm still learning a lot but I'm not programming. When I go home I want. Areal separation from work so I do other things now.

So how does this relate to lifelong learning?

Well the point is that I learn most of my useful skills and experience through self directed study and projects. Where I set my own targets, and deadlines and figure out my own resources. Yet my company benefits a great deal from this. It's how we maintain our competitive advantage.

I think there's already plenty of evidence of the benefit of this typwe of learning to companies. It'll never get anything more than lipservice though because there are virtually no examples of it in place in real companies. Thus managers etc have no practical idea of how to implement it. That's where those involved in education should be addressing things.

I don't mean big campaigns forcing facts down peoples throats, or sets of guidelines or best practice. That's all well and good but useless with practical examples. What the system needs to do is implement lifelong learning in its workforce. Experiment with it and develop various options to suit the varying needs and situations that arise.

Do this at first as individual institutions and then as a coordinated drive. Show clearly how this greater access to and uptake of learning and R&D drives greater innovation and leads competitive advantage within the organisation. make employees in the private sector push for lifelong learning because they keep hearing about people achieving their goals through it.

Make companies determined to provide and support it because they're convinced they'll have more motivated, skilled and loyal workers because they invest in them.

The education sector needs to lead fromk the front on this. Right now I work for a university. So I get access to market leading courses. Fantastic. The problem is that I have to do the studying in my own time. I can only pick from the courses they provide and only study during the dates the course is provided. Thus I have to schedule my learning around very rigid points. I can't fit it aroiund me at all.

So I'm lucky to have access to these courses but in truth i'd rather direct my own development so I just use the web as my classroom.

So what do I do with this self directed study?
I'm a developer of web applications who has a personal passion for human performance. I have spent 20 years learning how best to develop myself and others. I've learnt so much theory and practice. What's missing for me a virtual simulations of these very concepts. Educators and sports scientists aren't typically technies and so they express themselves throguh lectures, research papers and theories. I want to turn this into games, simulations and digital learning objects.

A quick example. Being that glut 4 is a sugar treansport chain across a cell wall. I think it has a fundamental role in helping with diseases such as obesity and type II diabetes. I don't have time to find or develop proof of this because my day job takes my time and energy. What would help is for someone to build a virtual cell wall among other things, built according to our current knowledge, which I could experiment with to demonstrate what I believe.

If thee cell wall is built and tested accordsing to what we know through experiement and experience and my experiments then show the effects glu4 has on key factors in diabetes and obesity then I will have a repeatable, testsable example of my beliefs. It doesn't prove I'm right but demonstrates I have something worth investigating.

If I could use these tools like this i'd want other people to. I'd want them to learn like I do throguh experience, simultion and real time feedback. I'd want them to learn through experimentation and then implementation and 'd want them to hav all the tools they need to do it.

That's what I want to build, or be built. Something that helps me learn and gain experience faster and with better quality. I've got plans to build better learning tools because I have a huge passion for human performance. I only find sporadic opportunities toreally progress this. What would really help is time at work to do some of it. It's possible because there is a symbiosis between my dreams and my job. Not everyone has that.

What i'd recommend is a small experiment where I agree with my manager a set of deliverables interms of learning goals and software to deliver. Something general like investigating one of the new development approaches that's gaining ground and seeing what it can deliver.

My plan is to use googles new development suite to deliver applications faster because so much of the plumbing and thought has already been done. It makes a lot of claims, if just a few are true then it will revolutionise what we can deliver, but I need to confirm these claims are true and that it's actually the tool for the job. That's the first step. There are many more.

I'm already looking into this so I just need a little more time to allocate. That's part of the experiment. How much to allow 4 hours, a day?, when at the end of the week, when I choose? Frequency? Get priorities done first then do it or do it weekly. How much support do I get? And what type? Can I redefine my goals and deadlines if I need to?

All these aspects need to be figurted out but that's the point of an initial small trial. You figure out something that works on a tiny scale and then just grow it organically. You don't need a perfect example before taking it market. Early adopting companies could implement it just as we do. On a tiny basis at first. Building slowly on successs.

What my employer gains is understanding within the team od other tools and approaches and working examples made with these tools. The cost to my employer was a few hours of company time. The real cost was many hours, possibly a bit of equipment but I happily pay for that myself anway. So it's a win win. My employer gets quality relevant information and deliverables and I get to follow my dreams. Each week I'm a step closer to a goal.

Done regularly this, to me, is lifelong learning. It's something I can do regularly my whole working life and guarantees that I've devloped myself throughtout. In the process I've delivered for my employer too. -lve learnt wider aspects related to my role and been able to lend a hand more often than not because I've got greater experience.

Why do it?
Currently most learning and self development happens outside work. In school or uni before you go out to work. Outside work as distance and further education. Outside work as training. Think of it. How often have you learnt at your desk during a normal working day. Self development is always marked as time away fronm 'doing your real job' and that's the perception and approach that must change.

Where I work there are lots of jobs to be done and lots of people actually want to learn how to do these jobs better. I would just match up the people to the tasks and encourage them to learn whilst they earn. Deliver the goods whilst gaining the knowledge. I can think of many people in my team who want to learn more about the things they're doing. As a learner and a customer I know that they'd deliver much better applications as a team if they could pursue these dreams.

So by using this approach the education sector could almost triple the size of the market simply increasing the 10-15 years we typically spend in formal education and adding some or all of the 40 or so years we spend working. That's a potential 55 years and a huge market. That's why I think the whole education sector should be doing this. With a coordinated effort to pool best practice.

Right now though I only have 1 example, but it is a very good one. Google have a well known 20% program where employees get to spend 20% of their time on personal projects. The goals and support are agreed with google and used to develop and motivate employees. The benefit to all is huge. Many of these initially small projects are now flagship products for google such as wave, voice, docs and more. Each is innovative and as a collection is set to ensure googles continued dominance in all sectors it participates for years to come.

It's abig shame I don't have more examples. But that's the point. The focus on short term goals predominates. Meaning lifelong development, attracting the top talent throguh a reputation for nurturing skills and experience is possible but most are too focused on profit and money to worry about this kind of investment.

I feel it's like growing vegetables in your garden. With poor soil you can give all the rain and sun you like but only meagre plants will grow. Quality will be low. You can force growth by fertilisers and chemicals much like you can throw money into overtime and fashionable tools. All you get are bigger low quality plants. When growth is rushed properly cell structures aren't created and quality is lacking.

Get the soil right and the veg will grow even with less rain and sun. You'l have trouble stopping it. At work this means nurturing the seeds of motivation and skills. Develop the people. They're the foundation of your organisation and the soil from which all produce grows. Find out what they need and what they want to do and let them do it through working for you.

It's a dream but the idea of being able to work towards my fdreams whilst helping people achieve theirs is very satisfying. It's all I really want to do. Getting paid for it is also a bonus.
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