Learning: From Content to Capabilities

There are two major trends that I think will shape the future of educational theory.  One is the shift to peer networks as the organizing structure of tomorrow’s learning platforms (and away from the sage / university).  The reason for the shift to networks (discussed in greater detail here) is the need for learning is distributed across a person’s lifespan and the source for learning is distribute throughout the peer population.  The second shift is from knowledge content to capability.   In this post I would like to address in detail the second shift, from knowledge to capability and ultimately linking it to performance.
The links between the knowledge gained at school and later performance have always been tenuous at best.  This is not surprising in light of what we know about performance.  Think of it this way.  If you talk with an expert, the first thing you notice is that they have a wealth of content knowledge.  That knowledge, accumulated through participation in activity, is necessary for practice.  The problem is, you can’t create an expert by teaching knowledge as simple content the way that most schooling is conducted.  Knowledge and performance are related in complex ways in expert practice.  As Sawyer puts it:
Studies of knowledge workers show that they almost always apply their expertise in complex social settings, . . . where knowledge is not just a static mental structure inside the learner’s head; instead, knowing is a process that involves the person, the tools and other people in the environment, and the activities in which that knowledge is being applied. . . .  in addition to acquiring content, what happens during learning is that patterns of participation in collaborative activity change over time (Sawyer, 2007, p. ).
My analysis is simple.  If we want to improve performance, don’t measure knowledge, measure and focus on the construct of capability.  (I am not yet making a distinction between terms like capability, capacity or skill.  All terms are used in the literature, often in interchangeable ways.)  Capabilities can be analyzed at an individual, group organizational, regional or even at the national level.  Capabilities are social to the extent that most work is completed in collaboration with others and it is often necessary to build teams around people that have diverse, but complimentary capabilities.  From an educational standpoint I will raise two concerns.
  1. Capabilities are flexible and always need to be in developed in anticipation of future opportunities.
  2. No team enters a problem space with all the capabilities they will need.  All work involves the need to learn and the need to add to the team’s and to each individual member’s capabilities portfolios.
We want to do 4 things at the organizational level as a prelude to bring capability development into the organization.
  1. Define the core capabilities that are needed.
  2. Develop appropriate measures of these capabilities
  3. Understand the educational methods to develop more or stronger capabilities
  4. Understand how capabilities are distributed across the organization
There is a possible endless list of capabilities, but we need to find the aspects of this construct that correlate with performance and performance measures.  Some competencies are harder to measure (like crafting relationships, trust and legitimacy) than others (like technical or logistical skills), but I begin with the idea of performance and work back from there.  Baser et al lists the following five as their core capabilities and I will use these as a place to begin.
  1. The capability to commit and engage  – This includes drive, confidence, ambition, self-perception and the attitude to persist in the face of opposition.  This can include hiring the right people and having the right strategy and expectations, but it must also involve development and empowerment.
  2. The capability to adapt and renew – To respond appropriately and strategically to rapid or even destabilizing change by fostering dialogue and by calling on the agility to reposition or reconfigure the organization.  Most research concerns the construct of resilience, both for individuals and for organizations.
  3. The capability to balance diversity and coherence, to have a variety of perspectives while resisting fragmentation, to encourage both stability and innovation.  Includes strong communication and relationship abilities as well as the ability to manage paradox and tension.
  4. The capability to relate and to attract – the ability to craft, manage and sustain key relationships and the ability to build trust and sustain credibility within those relationships.
  5. The capability to carry out ethnical, service delivery and logistical tasks – The emphasis is on functional, instrumental ways of meeting a set of objectives and fulfilling a mandate (i.e. business analytics, financial management, project management etc. . . .).
This is just a beginning.  I’ll need to explore methods for capability development as well as addressing measurement concerns, but that is for a later date.
Bases, H., Morgan, P., Bolger, J., Brinkerhoff, D., Land, A., Taschereau, S., Watson, D. and Zinke, J. Capacity, Change and Performance: Study Report, European Center for Development Ploicy Management. File Accessed June 2010 at http://www.ecdpm.org/Web_ECDPM/Web/Content/Download.nsf/0/5E619EA3431DE022C12575990029E824/$FILE/PMB22_e_CDapproaches-capacitystudy.pdf
R.K. Sawyer (2007). Optimising Learning: Implication of Learning Science Research, in Center for Educational Research and Innovation, Models of Learning and Innovation: Draft Report accessed 6/17/2010 at http://www.olis.oecd.org/olis/2007doc.nsf/3dce6d82b533cf6ec125685d005300b4/47769468f4f5abf5c125738d004123d8/$FILE/JT03235431.PDF

More on Mediation

I’ve previously discussed cognitive mediation here, but today I want to consider the foundation or the roots (etiology) of this concept in my thinking.

  1. Marx considered labor as a form of mediation to explain how humans interacted with their environment  (This was guided by Hegel’s version of dialectic theory, usually stated as thesis-antithesis-synthesis).  Marx did not delve much into the specifics of how mediation worked, except as he used the idea to focus on the way that labor became subservient to capital, thereby alienating laborers.(See note 1.)
  2. Vygotsky extended the psychological aspects of this view of mediation by analyze how language and concepts acted like cognitive tools that enabled humans to give meaning to perception, (He spoke of translating lower psychological functions like perception into higher psychological functions like meaning). (See note 2.)  Mediation then enabled humans to interact with and modify their environment (or to perform labor).  Vygotsky also noted that mediators are not usually developed by individuals out of thin air, but already exist in the surrounding culture and people acquire these abilities by imitation, instruction or similar means.
  3. Gal’perin noted that all cognitive mediation was not equal.  Tools could be improved to make labor more effective or efficient.
  4. Hence my idea that it is good to be aware of the mediation you’re using.  If your goal is to improve the performance of people’s labor, understand what mediators are guiding performance.  Consider developing better mediation and passing it on through learning new ways of mediating, by changing mediators in work processes or by both methods.  This approach may be able to improve performance far better than through increasing individual efforts (like boot strapping). The bottom line – If we are to fully enter into a “knowledge age”, we must understand how knowledge mediates to improve our practices and labors.
  1. Note – My own personal opinion is that Marxist analysis is frequently very enlightening.  But, considering the general failure of communism and central planning, Marxism generally fails to offer any viable alternatives ways to organize human activity.
  2. Note – Vygotsky began as an enthusiastic Marxist, hoping that it would lead to the end of Jewish persecution.  He died young from TB, but lived to see his ideas attacked because he committed the Stalinist sin of referencing western ideas, like those from William James or Jean Piaget.  His ideas, although explicitly Marxist in their original intent, have generally been taken up by social cultural educational psychology (cognitive psychology that sees cultural as the place where cognition originates and with enculturation as important to cognitive development).  He is generally ignored by Marxist theorist today.  I believe it is because he focused on the mediational side and not on the alienation side of the Marxist equation.

Why are Networks the Learning Platform of the Future

In this previous post, I imagined who might be served by a networking organization that was full of smart passionate people who seemed to be functioning together as a learning platform.  In general, networks are now being viewed as the new platform for leaning.  In this post, I want to consider possible reasons that would account for this phenomena.

The rapid pace of change, the growth of knowledge and information, the increased pressure of competition; all of this and more require us to find better ways of learning and improving performance. Knowledge and capabilities can be developed rapidly and a lack of knowledge should never be the deciding factor holding us back. My basic feeling is this.  If you can envision an opportunity, a capability to learn and a collaborative network should be ready to help you take advantage of that vision.  The way I believe this is playing out is by challenging the core models of how we learn and changing the infrastructure of learning.  As an educational psychologist, I want to understand these changing fundamentals of learning.  Why are traditional methods of education not enough?

  1. Accessing Knowledge Flows – The 1st reason is detailed by Hagel, Brown and Davison’s (2010) recent book, From Push to Pull. Competitive pressures are generally increasing because knowledge stocks, the knowledge that helps to differentiate companies from competitors, is losing value at a faster and faster pace.  This is why Hagel et al suggest that we should anticipate change and to think in terms of knowledge flows instead of knowledge stocks.  Traditional means of education created courses to pass on knowledge stocks. New forms of education will tap into networks of people to access knowledge flows to stay ahead of competitive change.
  2. From Content to Capabilities – Learning is moving from a focus on content (what you know) to capabilities (what you are able to do).  Of course, while knowing is a part of capability, it is a necessary but insufficient part.  We must set our sights on a wider perspective that shifts from knowledge to the capabilities that are also needed to get things done.  I’ll expand on this in a later theoretical post, but capabilities require a holistic performance orientation where knowledge and conceptual tools are intimately linked to tasks through contexts and purpose.
  3. From Teaching Knowledge Stocks to Enabling Mediating Conversations – The symbol of learning is changing from the degree (certifying what you know) to a personal learning network (that supports what you can do) that is acted out through multiple conversations.
    1. Example  – Envision an old style education.  A 20 year old student is listening to a lecture and accumulating “just in case knowledge”.  This is knowledge that may or may not be needed at anytime during a 40 year career.  This may have been adequate in 1800 when the Library of Congress contained all of 3000 books, but not today.
    2. Now contrast that with a technologically enabled network of capable peers, each with their own network and with access to many possible forms of knowledge.  They are learning in situ, right at the point of need, and their intention is to enable differentiated action today while working in a field that may not have even existed ten years ago.
  4. The Site of Learning is the Point of Need – It’s not that the college degree serves no purpose.  Developing intellectual maturity and understanding the basic processes and skills across a range of disciplines should help students become productive workers.  But, school is not where the majority of learning is going to occur in the future.  It will occur on demand, at one’s job, and through a network of high performing peers that together will posse an astounding diversity of capabilities ready to be drawn upon for mutual benefit.  Learning does not stop when you are 25, but continues on.  In a knowledge flow, you ,ay not even be conscious of the full extent of the learning that is taking place.
  5. Developing positive feedback loops in strong local networks.  This has been given as a reason as to  why place seems to matter even more in this “globally flat age of the internet”.  At the end of the previous point I alluded to this aspect of networks.  Because we’re focused on capabilities and a holistic way of looking at performance, tacit learning has become very important. Tacit learning refers to things like attitude, emotion, body language, and trust.  These things cannot easily be passed on without a face to face relationship, but they are very critical to performance.  Even though the internet make distance disappear for explicit communication, it takes face time to enable strong relationships and positive feedback loops that are a major benefit of high performing networks.  When exposed to high potential peers with great experience, tacit understanding and ideas that can be emulated, increased potential, motivation and performance come very naturally.  People who want their very best need  a strong network of high potential peers.

    I plan to write 3 more posts on this subject:

    1. To explain cognitive mediation as the core tools of capability and an important focus for learning.
    2. To explore what capabilities are core to business processes and will be important to the future performance and network learning.
    3. To explore potential methods for increasing these tools and capabilities and for internalizing these tools into your work practices.