New and Improved

Photo Credit: djwtwo via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: djwtwo via Compfight cc

One of the benefits of touring the country with Steve Wheeler and Denise Hudson Lawson was the opportunity to think about learning and innovation in a range of different environments and contexts.  They both come from different backgrounds to mine and have workplaces which are also as unique. They both, however, face a range of similar challenges with innovation in their workplace.

In Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen, he identifies 4 interdependencies in schooling which, to innovate, are expensive and limiting. I would suggest these interdependencies can also be represented as limiting workplace learning and development.


With temporal factors we place pre-learning and hurdles in people’s way. We create courses by our design which drive people down a route of our prescribed direction and pace. This temporal factor infers that we decide at which points in this route the person will learn information of our choosing. We dress this up in the form of learning paths which, in many cases, are nothing more than selection from a limited range of options. These learning paths tend to be designed based on accepted practice and ‘what worked’ in the past.


Christensen suggests that you can’t teach modern foreign languages in a different way because this would mean teaching English in a different way. We have done the same in L&D by identifying, at some point in the past, that face to face, classroom based learning was a form of best practice. By using this best practice across the range of needs that our organisations require, we dilute it down to ‘accepted practice’ – the way things are done around here. This accepted practice then becomes the norm that we work too; any approach outside this norm is, through assumption, unacceptable practice.


Graham Brown-Martin has, for a while now, been asking if you designed a classroom would it be a room? The same question applies to workplace L&D learning spaces. Many organisations have fully functioning training suites with fixed technology and, as a result, fixed costs which will need to be recouped. Technology is developing exponentially and digital divides in the workplace are breaking down with the surge of the BYOD movement. However, the justification of the cost of the training facility and its physical attributes override this technology leading to people being pushed into a room where we discourage the use of technology outside of our terms. Similarly, have we developed spaces where people can learn outside of a classroom? When was the last time that learning was considered in the architecture of a workplace and it didn’t mean a training room?


The model of education has a direct impact on the way we design workplace learning – almost all the readers of this blog will have sat in a classroom in school and we intrinsically link learning to a classroom space. Higher Education exerts influence over the way we design learning; how many learning academies do you come across in the workplace? By aping Further Education, we maintain the pre-existing education model and, by default, make it harder for the education sector to change. We see hierarchical pressure from professional bodies. They drive to make continuing professional development a measure of attendance at an event or a count of time spent in a lecture or classroom. Rather than a measure of the value of the learning activity, this forces workplace learning professionals to bow to business pressure to deliver internal events which reflect their professional bodies’ offer.

Looking at the 4 factors above is it any wonder that we find it difficult to innovate? Are there more than the 4 factors above?  What are your thoughts as to how we can overcome them?

Please leave your comments below – conversation is much more fun if there’s more than one voice.

6 thoughts on “New and Improved

  1. Nice piece to provoke thought Andrew!

    I’m starting to see the word “innovate” as a potential barrier in itself. It seems that it’s often used when we mean do things differently or even do things better… That’s cool and I think there needs to be space for innovation. But… if we mean we need to do things differently or better (because what we’re doing isn’t cutting it) then we need to say that. To call anything “innovation” when we’re coming from a place that’s not adding the value we could or even should be adding just feels wrong.

    The 4 interdependencies are interesting and I think recognisable. Can’t fault them and all I can think of to add to them is something around “Human-ness”. We are curious in many ways and there are limitations in all of us which may manifest in similar or different ways. This probably serves us well (or has served us well historically) but these can still limit us and take an investment of effort & awareness to work around. At some level we need help in recognising our own unique limitations and what it will take to move past them.

    Perhaps key to working beyond / through these factors is awareness itself?


    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree; the word innovate is used too often when it simply means improving something that existed before. Too often we dress up something old as new, call it innovative and expect wholesale change.
      I wouldn’t disagree about the human factor in the 4 above; I think the 4 exist because of the human-ness, not in spite of them. Humans are stubborn, opinionated, intense and controlling – the list above suits those traits. Like you say, if we raise awareness of the 4 factors above, would that be enough to counter their inclusion in a design process?


      1. The more I think about it, the more I sense that awareness is the right path. If we can be more conscious about what we can’t help but bring to the party maybe we can mitigate or embrace different designs. Maybe we include and value them too!


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