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Learning at the Speed of Links and Conversations

By Jon Husband / October 2012

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We all learn… every day. It's an essential capability, which has brought us rapid advancement as a species over the past several thousand years. Learning is even more important in today's hyper-linked, inter-connected world wherein pertinent flows of information are accelerating.

In this context and set of conditions it's critical that we learn continuously and effectively in order to adapt, and become more flexible and develop resiliency for a world of perpetual turbulence. As an analogy, think of a fast-flowing river with a lot of whitewater 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 and matured in an education-and-work system that offered us structured learning in the form of primary, secondary, and post-secondary education. This experience is/was followed by entry and integration into a highly structured hierarchical setting—our workplace(s). In both settings usually we had time to absorb, reflect, and be guided by more knowledgeable and/or more experienced people—teachers, supervisors, bosses, and occasionally mentors.

These conditions, which allowed us time to reflect, integrate and put to use what we learn, are now very rapidly changing in the era of the interconnected web. The use of search engines, databases, platforms, and spaces for collaborative exploration and exchange has exploded into our personal and collective world. Both real-time and asynchronous connection combined with effective technologies for compressing the bits that drive/carry audio and video have enabled inexpensive and effective telepresence. We're transitioning into an era of "conversations" from which we extract useful information and knowledge, whilst time and space are being altered in front of our faces.

Arguably 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. However, 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?

In the context offered by the digitally enabled workplace, as in the past, we are often hired for what we have already learned. Today this is still a major factor, but increasingly just as important is being able to demonstrate that we have learned how to learn. In the interconnected workplace full of continuous information flows, of course we bring what we have learned (bodies of knowledge, specific skills, familiarity with a discipline, a market or an industry, etc.). But we often 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.

Even without hyperlinks and screens clearly some kinds of learning still take time, reflection, and discipline. An example: I just spent a couple of hours with a friend who had a stroke 18 months ago. He has had to re-learn how to speak, which has taken, time, discipline and support from others. Other examples could include learning how to work on an engine, master a craft, and so on.

So, how do we do both? Learn rapidly in near real time, and take the time, reflection, and practice to learn something useful that is unlearnable in real time?

In order to be able to do this effectively, 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 need 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's 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.

In the information-and-hyperlink saturated workplace social networks we now inhabit, clarification, confirmation, and collaboration are but a click or two away. It's 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—permanent whitewater—is our only remaining constant.

About the Author

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 two books: 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.

Copyright is held by the author. ACM 1535-394X/12/10 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2380716.2388836


  • Thu, 17 Jan 2013
    Post by Pat Fischer

    I enjoyed your article and I respect everything you said, and this is what I think, As the analog river becomes the new digital path, learning still has the same objective. To memorize, retain and recall information whatever that may be. Everybody is different and has different objectives as to what is memorized for recall on demand.

    For the person in school who gets straight A's it is the content being tested that is memorized. For the awesome musician it is repetition of the music which is memorized. For the person in a sports who is the best, it is dedication at improving that skill which is memorized. What do all these people at the top of their disciplines have in common? They have dedication and attitude to memorize the content/skills, which leads to recall with no effort. Or perhaps we say they programmed there subconscious mind, so it happened automatically. Like brushing our teeth, we never use conscious thoughts to do the job. Learning leads to programming our subconscious mind, which increases our confidence and attitude and expands our desire to learn more. Learning is memorizing, in order to retain and recall as needed. The smartest student, the best musician, the best athlete all have done this.

    With 10,000 people turning 60 every day, and the communication moving to one of GUIs on touch screens which require processing of screens, I feel we need a GUI EZ, and keep it simply simple. Learning is proportional to the complexity of what is being memorized, and how much fun it is.

    I am all for short answers to the complex questions, and those answers need to be laid down in video so all people can have a clear choice to education, and press rewind until it sticks. For the quickest answer, I ask my friend as there are always more than one answer to choose from. At the transistor level all computers are created equal.