SAHANA CHATTOPADHYAY – CRYSTAL BALLING WITH LEARNNOVATORS

In this exclusive interview with Learnnovators, Sahana shares her insights...

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ABOUT SAHANA CHATTOPADHYAY (Social Learning & Collaboration Strategist, Performance Consultant Exploring Emergent Learning, Blogger)

Sahana Chattopadhyay is a performance consultant and an L&D professional with 15 years of experience in the field of academia and organizational learning. Her passion is to help organizations become learning organizations through social and collaborative learning. Her work with various companies like Tata Interactive Systems, Zensar Technologies, ThoughtWorks and Future Group has given her a width of experience that spans instructional design, workplace learning strategy, knowledge management, social learning and community management, and people development. She blogs on topics related to the future of work, the shifting digital trends, and their deep impact on how we will work, learn and live in the future. This includes areas of her expertise from the effectiveness of MOOCs in corporate learning to informal learning, collaboration, community management and organizational culture.

Sahana appeared in the list of Top Ten e-Learning Movers and Shakers for the Asia Pacific region for four consecutive years from 2011 to 2014, topping the APAC list in 2014, and appeared in the top ten of the Global list. Her writings and articles have been published in papers like The Business Standard, Inside Learning Technologies Magazine, U.K., and others. She was also listed in the Top 25 Indian HR Influencers on Social Media in 2013 and 2014. She presents at international conferences and conducts workshops on “Modern Workplace Learning” at various forums.

ABOUT THIS INTERVIEW SERIES:

Crystal Balling with Learnnovators’ is a thought-provoking interview series that attempts to gaze into the future of e-learning. It comprises stimulating discussions with industry experts and product evangelists on emerging trends in the learning landscape.

Join us on this exciting journey as we engage with thought leaders and learning innovators to see what the future of our industry looks like.

THE INTERVIEW:

1. Learnnovators: As a Social Learning Strategist who is passionate about helping organizations become “learning organizations”, you have been sharing your insights on modern workplace learning and organization development strategies for more than a decade. How has the journey been so far? How successful do you think you have been in transforming your clients’ workplaces (including your present organization) to learning organizations? What are some of the interesting stories you wish to share with our readers in this regard?

Sahana: It has definitely been an exciting journey. I am lucky to be in the midst of this transformation. The learning has been tremendous; and it’s a process of continuous learning for me as I see the impact of digital transformation – ubiquitous connectivity, mobility, social and analytics – transform how we work, learn, interact and lead our lives at multiple levels. We are living through a historical time of change – the second half of the chess board where we are experiencing the impact of Moore’s Law as never before.

To answer how successful I’ve been in transforming client’s organizations is tricky. Measuring success at this point is tough. Transforming how we work and learn is a journey – for individuals as well as organizations. Each organization I have worked with or shared my perspective with are at different points in their journey of becoming a social business – where learning and working are one integrated whole. Success can only be measured in hindsight and we are still a long way from there. However, what I can say for organizations embarking on the path to becoming a collaborative and learning organization is that the tools and technology are there as facilitators. The focus must be on people, mindset and culture. Technology is merely an amplifier and enabler.

2. Learnnovators: You regularly blog about workplaces of the future. It is exciting to hear Frederick Laloux (Author, Re-inventing Organisations) say, “My take is that in the ideal workplace of the future, there will be no “workplace” or “employers”. Teams of teams will self-assemble based on need and co-create and then disassemble to form other teams of teams.” What according to you would be the revised role of learning in such a work scenario? What would be your message to L&D leaders to empower employees to take charge of their own learning (and thereby their professional development)?

Sahana: Today, the definition of the workplace has changed. It is no longer a fixed building with employees walking in at a fixed time wearing similar clothes, reporting to similar managers – basically the homogeneity has been replaced by multiplicity. “Workplaces” today are location agnostic. Anyone with an internet connection and a mobile device or a laptop can work anytime, from anywhere. The nature of employees is also undergoing a deep change – from permanent employees to freelancers, contractors, vendors, consultants, and everything in-between. Given this evolving landscape, it is not surprising that L&D will have to re-invent itself to remain relevant. In the past, L&D‘s focus had been to design training programs based on defined learning needs, skill gaps and business goals. However, by definition all training programs are past focused based on an analysis of the past, imparting best practices and documented explicit knowledge. While I am not saying training will be completely replaced because the need for initial training and quick skilling will continue to exist, the emphasis is on what should be L&D’s primary focus in distributed organizations facing complex work challenges requiring innovative solutions and creative ideas.

Majority of the organizations today are boarding the Enterprise Social Network (ESN) bandwagon with little experience in how to facilitate collaboration and conversation leading to disengaged employees, abandoned platforms and frustrated leadership. Given that in a changing, complex and connected ecosystem, learning is most likely to happen through exchange of thoughts and ideas via conversations, it seems fairly obvious that L&D has to step in and become facilitators of these Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs). I see L&D’s role as shifting to that of community builders, facilitators and community managers.

This is perhaps the most exciting time to be a part of the L&D function. With vision and tenacity, L&D can re-imagine how organizations will learn, collaborate and cooperate to directly impact business growth as well as empower individual employees. As I was mentioning earlier, L&D needs to don a different mantle – that of community managers and learning tour guides. Some of the key tasks will revolve around defining communities, connecting individuals to relevant communities, people and content. Enabling employees to build their Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) and become self-driven learners will be one of the key responsibilities of future L&D. They have to stop thinking of workers as those who need to be spoon-fed the required skills and knowledge and instead see them as individuals who are capable of accessing what they need when they need it. L&D’s role is to work in tandem with the business to ensure that silos are bridged, relevant knowledge and experience are accessible to all, and everyone has the tools and skills necessary to drive their own learning.

3. Learnnovators: You seem to be passionate about discussing organizational culture. You say, “The culture of an organization will also play a crucial role in whether employees are enabled and empowered to think and act autonomously”. In this regard, it is so inspiring to see organizational culture going “open source”! Companies such as InMobi are open-sourcing their culture to enable mutual sharing and learning. What is the significance of ’open sourcing’ culture in this age of Working Out Loud (WoL)? Would you recommend this to today’s forward thinking corporates to make their “transformation” easier?

Sahana: An “open source” environment is essentially driven by inclusivity and meritocracy. Everyone’s voice gets heard and good ideas rise to the top. A culture that promotes meritocracy is definitely key to attracting and retaining top talent and stimulates innovation. Open cultures are based on transparency, participation, trust and communities. As traditional notions of organization become archaic and lose relevance (the nine to five work, a fixed location, a homogeneous set of employees, command and control management, stringent processes and repetitive tasks, and such) to be replaced by location agnostic work, widely diverse and often global employee base, and a networked leadership running a connected organization, it becomes imperative that the culture also reflects these changes.

The culture of any organization is a collective reflection of what the organization values, how it wants its people to behave, the decisions it takes, the artefacts it showcases, and even how the workplace is architecturally designed. When leaders begin to respect, endorse and practice transparency, the foundation for a collaborative and trusting culture is laid. This in turn inspires people to share fearlessly – both successes and failures – leading to practices like “working out loud”. Just to explain, “working out loud” is the practice of narrating one’s work in a manner that makes it useful for others. Since most often our work happens behind a computer screen with little to show as evidence, it doesn’t leave a learning trail for others to follow. The practice of “working out loud” can eliminate this gap by encouraging sharing, capturing tacit knowledge and creating a collective organizational hive-mind. I do think that for any organization to progress and learn, a transformation of culture is essential.

4. Learnnovators: You have been blogging regularly about community management, and have also been performing the role of a Community Manager, successfully maintaining communities in the learning domain. We see many instances where communities wither away due to various reasons. What are the critical success factors for sustaining learning communities? What are some of the best practices you follow to sustain and grow your communities with high engagement? What would be your advice to organizations who find community management a challenging task? What would be your advice to budding learning professionals who aspire to take up ‘community management’ as a career option?

Sahana: A community manager’s task is varied. It requires a thorough understanding of who the members of the community are, what the purpose of the community is and why members should participate in the community. Just explaining this can be food for several blog posts and articles. In the interest of reader’s time, I have included a diagram below that captures the key tasks of a community manager when they initially embark on their role.

5. Learnnovators: It is exciting to look at some of the most innovative changes happening in the business world. One such change is that of Zappos which declared itself to be self-organized and self-managed, accepting “holacracy” completely, breaking the very concept of work. It looks like the future of work will not look like work. What would a completely “holacratic” learning organization look like? Do you foresee this (style) as the future of workplace learning?

Sahana: I like the notion of a “holacratic learning organization”. Since it’s a futuristic vision, I am going to take the liberty of expressing how I envision learning to happen in the future workplaces empowered by technology. I see purpose-driven organizations that go beyond just increasing shareholder values and stock prices thriving. Such organizations will attract the best of talent – individuals driven by passion and intrinsic motivation – to be a part of a cause bigger than themselves. Idealistic? Probably! Possible? I definitely think so.

Such organizations will, by their very nature, be transparent and participative, facilitating a culture of collaboration and cooperation. The leadership in such organizations will be supportive of exploration, of learning from failures and trying the untried and untested. After all, innovation doesn’t rise out of treading the beaten path. Such workplaces will encourage meritocracy and foster a growth mindset, encouraging individuals to participate in projects of their choice, enabling new skills and empowering open conversations. A connected, distributed and diverse pool of employees will have the tools at their disposal to engage with each other irrespective of rank, location and business unit. Ideas and suggestions will be judged by their merit and not based on who raised it. Work will be location agnostic driven by output rather than number of hours put in. The reward system will focus on desired behaviours like collaboration, taking of initiatives, coaching and mentoring of others, taking lead in communities and fostering knowledge sharing practices. There will be a constant loop of feedback to enable individuals and the organization to learn quickly and adapt. Internal competition will be replaced by collaboration and cooperation. Change will be viewed as learning opportunities rather than feared as disruption. Different generations will work side-by-side with perhaps the millennials making up the majority of the workforce. The latter will bring in a different set of behaviours, expectations and mindset into the workplace. Diversity and inclusivity will be the norm. An entrepreneurial mindset will permeate the culture.

In such an ecosystem, learning will be an integral part of work. L&D department per se may cease to exist while learning becomes the key driver that will ensure an organization not only survives but thrives. As explained earlier, L&D will have to shift to designing collaboration spaces and become connectors, curators and social learning evangelists. Traditional L&D skills like designing competency frameworks, conducting needs analysis, defining skills gaps and delineating learning roadmaps will be required but they will not be enough. L&D will become an essential part of how businesses will operate and should be able to advise on future skills required to empower the organization. L&D has to shift gears from an analysis of the past to a prediction of the future. Most importantly, L&D must be cognizant of the impact of the various trends and shifts in their domain. No domain today – from Retail to Manufacturing and from Telecom to Healthcare – can escape the onslaught of digital transformation. And it will be one of L&D’s key tasks to enable the organization to meet this transformation with the right skillsets.

6. Learnnovators: As we know, content curation is one of the most important skills of L&D professionals, and in the near future, the role of an L&D person will look more like that of a content curator. You have already been handling this role successfully for quite some time now as part of your work. In this context, we believe that curation goes much beyond the skilful use of curation tools, and we agree with David Kelly that curation is not just as a mechanical or automated process but rather an intelligent one that requires human intervention. What according to you are the competencies required for learning professionals to become intelligent curators?

Sahana: Curation is a specialized skill. It is a core skill related to Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) and constitutes what we also call “sense-making”. I do believe that content curation will take precedence over content creation for multiple reasons:

  • Businesses will require learning programs to be delivered as soon as possible
  • Information on any topic is available today except for exclusively domain-specific ones
  • Curated content provides scope for including a variety of content types and different perspectives
  • Curated content is often much more up-to-date than courses created years back
  • Curated content can be aggregated in various ways and in different combinations to suit the target audience

There are quite a few curation tools available that can be used to facilitate the process. It is important for L&D to hone their curation skills, understand the basics of filtering and content aggregation, and if required, take the help of SMEs in that subject area to ensure that the curated content meets the needs of the audience. The other more critical aspect is to check for the license, and take permission from appropriate sources before including the content in the program. Crediting the source of the content is a must – a critical part of ethical use of what is available to us free of cost.

7. Learnnovators: You have been involved in handling learning design for e-learning thought leaders like Tata Interactive Systems, and have been actively promoting good e-learning practices in the workplace. Where do you think we are on our e-learning practices in this age of workplace learning where workers learn the most from on-the-job experiences (informal), a little lesser from peer interactions (social), and the least from structured (formal) training programs? Would you agree that the traditional “format” of e-learning (read-only) is outdated and obsolete? How do you think existing learning models need to evolve further to support today’s workplace learning?

Sahana: The future of workplace learning will be significantly different from the past. Whether we try to use the 70:20:10 Framework or the Pervasive Learning Model to define a roadmap, it calls for reimagining the learning landscape. Everyone is a learner, teacher, mentor, or coach in turn depending on their area of expertise and context. Defined roles are breaking down; and boundaries are merging. In the past, content and course creation were the purview of the L&D team defined with the help of subject matter experts and sanctioned by the management; today, we are in the age of user-generated content, curated courseware and collaboration platforms with peer feedback and conversations taking the front seat. In this context, it is needless to say that traditional e-learning (the page-turners as we called them) is obsolete. E-learning today will have to incorporate much more engaging designs in the form of gamification, simulation, augmented reality, and 3-D animation. Devices such as Google Cardboard and Occulus Rift are making virtual reality a “reality”. All of these have to become integrated in how we design learning programs if we wish to engage the learners of today.

The learning frameworks will have to evolve accordingly. “On-the-job” learning, for example, has taken on a new meaning today with knowledge workers working from anywhere. “On-the-job” today can imply client location, collaborating with one’s peer or exchanging ideas on an online forum with experts from across the world.

8. Learnnovators: We, like many others, believe that, in today’s learning landscape we need ‘learning rebels’ and ‘learning provocateurs’, more than ‘learning conformists’. Because we are going through a time of major learning transformation, a radical thinking that will help us get started on the transformation has become quite critical. In this regard, it is inspiring to have you around as a regular columnist (on your blog as well as on our own guest blog) fueling innovative thoughts and discussions around various aspects related to today’s workplace learning. What makes you passionate about what you are doing? What role does innovation play in L&D? How can a leader (HR or L&D) drive everyday innovation? How significant is continual experimentation to innovations in learning?

Sahana: My passion stems from the fact that I get to learn an immense amount every day. L&D is a field that is undergoing deep transformation today. It is being impacted by various shifts as shown in the diagram below:Given these shifts, L&D has to be geared to meet constant change on multiple fronts. The tried and tested methods may no longer be valid in this changing context.

9. Learnnovators: We live in one of the most unique times, having five generations in the workforce. Do you think this poses a challenge for workplace learning? Where do you think L&D stands with respect to their skills in managing workplace learning for today’s workforce? What would be your advice to L&D practitioners to upskill themselves to handle the challenges posed by the varying styles of the different generations?

Sahana: Five generations are working side-by-side today. It is perhaps one of those landmark points in corporate history. L&D, HR, and Leadership have to collaboratively design organizations that can integrate this very different and diverse workforce. However, I want to emphasize that mindset is not only an outcome of one’s chronological age; I have seen many Gen X’ers who are more “millennial” in their mindset than actual millennials. What L&D has to deal with is the shift in mindset and the workplace ecosystem. Today, employees want greater autonomy, opportunities to showcase their strengths and develop mastery, and an overarching purpose they can feel aligned to. It’s hardly surprising that these are the components of intrinsic motivation as defined by Daniel Pink in Drive.

L&D thus needs to not only be aware of various learning models and frameworks but also have some understanding of behavioural sciences related to motivational theory, cognitive science and coaching principles. L&D is well-placed to work in collaboration with HR and executive leadership to instil practices like reverse mentoring, coaching, collaboration and knowledge sharing on the organization’s enterprise social network, and other similar activities. The scope for going beyond formal training programs is vast; and it is time L&D recognized some of these.

It is also important to recognize the major changes that have happened due to the larger shifts mentioned earlier. The diagram below captures the spectrum of what I believe should be some of L&D’s core tasks as we enter a new phase in how organizations operate:I am not eliminating some of the traditional roles; I believe they need to be substantiated with new skills aligned to the digital age for L&D to get a seat at the table and be of business importance.

10. Learnnovators: We couldn’t agree more with you on the point of view that for social learning to thrive, the most important thing is to have the senior management ’walking the social talk’. At the same time, insufficient buy-in from senior executives is touted as the primary reason for Enterprise Social Networks to fail in today’s organizations. Gartner says, “Through 2015, 80% of social business efforts will not achieve the intended benefits due to inadequate leadership and over emphasis on technology”. As a successful community manager, how concerned are you about this? How do you think we could tackle this issue?

Sahana: IMHO, organizations whose leaders fail to recognize the importance of collaboration is heading toward disaster. As the ecosystem becomes more complex and the rate of change accelerates, traditional training and formal, top-down learning and knowledge sharing will struggle to fulfill the needs of the organization and the individuals. Such organizations will lose their edge as well as their most capable and talented workforce. It is the right time for organizations to move toward integrating social as a part of learning and a way of working, and not as a bolt-on strategy. A truly social business is where each individual is empowered to fulfill their potential leading to a thriving and constantly learning organization.

11. Learnnovators: It is inspiring to hear Sugata Mitra say that today’s adults need to be “un-schooled” to embrace self-learning as traditional learning environments aren’t fit for today’s world, whether for education or for business. However, we still don’t see any major change in how we structure and design our learning programs for our workers (we still churn out learning programs that include tightly packed instructions). In this context, what steps would you suggest to un-school our workers in order to equip them to become self-learners?

Sahana: Each one of us today needs to take onus of our learning. While organizations will facilitate it, it is up to us to become self-driven learners. L&D can help us pick up meta-learning skills and shift to a growth mindset. However, the biggest shift each one needs to make is to stop thinking of workplace learning as a top-driven endeavour. This may require us to rethink our own learning habits and our mindset. We need to become exploratory learners willing to make mistakes and learn from failures. Organizations, in their turn, must support risk-taking and be tolerant of mistakes from which important lessons can be gleaned. As Scott Adams brilliantly puts it:

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

Once we have the freedom to make mistakes in the process of learning and admit them openly without being ridiculed or looked down upon, the entire nature of learning will change.

12. Learnnovators: Our hearty congratulations to you on being presented the following awards in recognition of your outstanding contributions to the learning community this year:

– “#1 in The Sixth Annual Top Ten eLearning Movers and Shakers (Asia Pacific Region)” by Training Press

– “#9 in The Sixth Annual Top Ten eLearning Movers and Shakers – World List” by Bob Little Press and PR, UK

– “Top 25 Indian HR Influencers on Social Media” by SHRM (Society For Human Resource Management)

How do you look at these honourable achievements? What is your vision for the learning community?

Sahana: I feel truly humbled and honoured, and grateful to the community for giving me this recognition. I have been on a learning journey and sharing what I have learned in the process. Today, thanks to ubiquitous connectivity and our mobile devices, the learning community has become a global community of diverse individuals coming together around a common area of passion – to help each other and every individual learn better, to enable workplaces to become networked communities of individuals collaborating and co-creating together. I see this learning community growing and becoming an integral part of business.

We are slowly but surely reaching a tipping point where various modern workplace learning strategies – once discussed only within closed circles of passionate L&D folks – are gaining business interest. This implies not only a change in how organizations will learn but also how L&D will be viewed as a function. Its business criticality can no longer be denied. The traditional L&D will be replaced by individuals who will help organizations embrace digital transformation and the subsequent changes equipped with the right skills and mindset.

Learnnovators: Thank you so much for sharing your valuable insights and experiences, Sahana. It was wonderful interacting with you. We wish you the very best!

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